Archive for August, 2006


Days until departure: 8
Why is it that we use the same word “dreams” to refer both to our aspirations and the crazy-go-nuts ramblings of our brains during sleep? From the little I know (and correct me if I’m wrong, all you polyglots out there), this oddity holds across different languages, and it doesn’t make too much sense at first blush.
I mean, do we truly conflate a person’s dream to, say, be head of a major corporation with his dream that he was swimming in a vat of pudding with his grandmother’s poodle and his first grade teacher?

Maybe it’s because we treat our aspirations as something as unreal as untouchable as our subconscious freestyling. Or maybe we aspire to do things like swim in pudding. Your call.

Geography, Jewish or Otherwise

Days until departure: 9
I’m not sure if it’s a solely Jewish phenomenon, but many people, upon meeting each other for the first time, try to make a connection between themselves and the other person, in an n-degrees-of-separation game. I’ve been guilty of playing this little game on many an occasion. I was thinking, and trying to figure out why people do this. I think partly it’s to break the ice, and partly to make conversation. But we all know it’s not particularly effective at either task.
Maybe I’m seeing meaning where there is none (a crime I’ve been known to commit), but I think it’s because we, as human beings, are very social creatures. We want to be connected to other people, to be able to point out where we stand in this huge, terrifically tangled web of relationships. “Where do I fit into your life? Well, my family friends the Finkelsteins have a cousin who went to school with your brother. See, we’re connected.”

On Smell

Days until departure: 10

So one thing that tends to interest me is when pieces of information from two generally unrelated areas of knowledge intersect. I feel like it validates the idea itself, and gives us a brief glimps of how interconnected everything really is.

So here’s one example. The sense of smell occupies an interesting place in the realm of human experience. It has been shown that while smells are not better at evoking memories than other senses, they evoke memories more intensely. For instance, if you smelled your grandmother’s perfume, you might be able to imagine she’s in the room with you. Not so by looking at a picture of her, or hearing a recording. In fact, and I cannot give more details than I can remember from the brief talk I heard, physiologically, the olfactory nerve (the one that conveys smell) has a more direct connection to the brain than the other senses do.

When I learned all this (in a guest lecture by Jofish Kaye), I was reminded of my first visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. For those of you who have never been there, there is a cattle car that was used to transport Jews to the camps, set up so that you have to walk through it in order to progress through the museum. I was walking, and a teacher nearby leaned down to smell the cattle car. Perplexed, I asked him why he did so. He explained that four of the five senses were used in the first sin of Adam and Eve, tainting all of them, but leaving smell untainted. In Jewish tradition, smell is therefore considered the most “spiritual” or “pure” sense. (For instance, according to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 93b), the Messiah will be able to judge people by smelling them.)

So both scientists and rabbis have declared smell to be a peculiarly powerful sense, more pure in its effect and more evocative in its scope. Interesting collision of information, no?

Investigating Disruption

Days until departure: 11
Months ago, I went to an academic talk about electronic communication, and how it is affected by a long-distance move. That is, do people tend to talk more on the phone and write more emails when their friends and relatives move further away, and vice-versa? A friend pointed out that one of the aims of this sort of study is getting an understanding of how we use electronic communication these days. She said that by studying how these systems act when disrupted (as they are by a big move), we can better understand how they function normally.
I considered this, and realized that this is actually a standard method in many (hard and soft) scientific disciplines. To understand how a “healthy” or “normal” version of a system functions, we study such a system in disruption, and see how it differs from the usual. For instance, if I’m not mistaken, our first insights to the function of the different areas of the brain came from studying brain damage victims, and how their specific injuries corresponded to their altered behavior.

On Mourning

Days until departure: 12
At times, when I’m thinking about some topic, especially when I intend to write something on it, I take notes on my thoughts. Last Tisha B’av, I wrote a bunch of notes on the ideas behind the initial part of the day, before noon. Here’s a brief set of thoughts emerging from those notes, before I have to go back to synagogue to finish up the prayers of the day.

According to the Rav, Tisha B’Av is one of the rare times that we express grief to such a degree, that we actually accuse God of creating our tragedy. It’s generally an unthinkable concept, more brazen than we usually are. Indeed, the first set of kinot (the “wailing” prayers we say on this day) often juxtapose what God did with what it seems he ought to have done. How dare we? The Rav points out that in the beginning of Tisha B’Av, we are like recently bereaved mourners – not even up to the shiva period that starts after burial, but onenim. An onen is one who has recently lost someone, before the deceased is buried. “His deceased is suspended before him,” the saying goes. When it’s that recent, that intense, that visceral, well then the normal rules don’t apply. An onen is exempt from many of the positive commandments, and also it is acceptable for such a person to be downright angry with God. Healing of the mourner’s heart, and of his relationship to an often inscrutable God may take place later, but for now, we let him off the hook.
So in trying to create a feeling of mourning, our sages patterned our customs and liturgy such that we would be like onenim for part of the day. We move on later in the day, but the specter of intense grief haunts us through the rest of the day.

An interesting thought occurred to me a while back. I was reading a book by the renowned psychologist Paul Ekman, called Emotions Revealed. In it, he talks about the concept of an “emotional refractory period.” I don’t have the book handy to quote from, but if my memory serves, the refractory period is when you experience an emotion so intensely that you are temporarily blinded to any information that would contradict that emotion. It is usually a very brief period, varying with intensity of emotion, but it’s qualitatively different from your normal mode of being. Your mind shuts down all access to anything that would lessen the feeling, though I believe it’s usually too brief to have any practical ramifications. It’s a scary thought, but Ekman really knows his stuff. In any case, I can’t help but wonder whether the onen’s permit to indict God comes from an acknowledgement that an onen is in the refractory period of his grief, and therefore cannot be held as entirely responsible for his actions. Thus, he is even permitted an action which would otherwise be blasphemy.


Days until departure: 13
On the application for Nefesh B’Nefesh (the organization helping me move to Israel), it asks you to write a brief essay telling them anything else you want them to know. I didn’t really know exactly what to put in that section. I had already written in an earlier section about why I wanted to move to Israel, so writing an essay about that seemed redundant. So I wrote an essay explaining why I thought I deserved to make aliyah. It was a bit of an odd question, and I crammed a lot of really nice ideas into the one page I wrote. But they weren’t really well-connected; the whole thing kind of jumped from idea to idea. It wasn’t great, but it was good enough. Nevertheless, months later, NBN contacted me to let me know that they want to make a book of essays, and they want to use mine. I was flattered, to say the least, but I reread the original essay, and I thought I could do better. So after putting it off for a week and a half, I finally sat down two nights ago and in less than an hour, I produced something I was proud of, encompassing a lot of ideas from the original, along with stuff that had been percolating for a while. I don’t think it’s prize-winning writing, but I liked writing it, so I hope you enjoy reading it:

Last September, I was talking to a friend, an oleh who had moved temporarily from Israel to America. We were discussing the recent disengagement from Gaza, and how painful it was. Regardless of whether it should or shouldn’t have happened, no matter how I looked at it, it all just made me sad. My reasons for making Aliyah felt, well, insufficient.

Yes, I had reasons. I knew them well, and I believed in them, and I believed hard. They’re classic reasons – fulfillment of a national identity, aspirations of personal and religious growth, and a feeling of attachment to a homeland – but they all fell short. They all felt far too idealistic to talk about in the same breath as the messy, complicated reality. I couldn’t bring up these reasons to my friend. So I just asked, “Remind me again why I’m moving to this country?”
“I don’t know. I look at the news and I’m reminded of why I left,” he replied. I was dumbstruck. I was expecting something uplifting, perhaps a tired sigh as he recalled his first love affair with Israel years ago, or a swell of pride for his time served in the IDF. Not this. I didn’t expect this. I mean, he moved to Israel, didn’t he? But he just felt that it was too painful, too difficult to deal with.

Time went on, and in January, I visited Israel. I was reminded of all of my lofty reasons for my upcoming move, but something still gnawed at the corners of my mind. Several people—taxi drivers and potential employers included—asked me why I was moving, especially now, during such a troubled time. I didn’t answer them. I couldn’t answer them. The words felt wrong coming out of my mouth, because I knew I would sound naïve or childish, listing ideals and high-minded morals. Our generation has been trained to be instinctively skeptical, to look at the world with a cynical eye. Telling these Israelis that I was coming “to be in the Jewish Homeland” or “to fulfill my national destiny” would be almost laughable. So I left Israel, still seeking a clear, rational reason for my upcoming Aliyah, one that I could feel smart and sophisticated explaining at a job interview.

I didn’t find one. Because in the view of the cynic, they’re right to question me. What I’m doing makes no sense. I would, in all likelihood, make more money, be relatively safer, and would still have a viable Jewish community in the United States. But then again, modern-day Israel is a country that simply makes no sense. Despite all the cynicism all around us, deep down, Israel is still swimming against the current and trying to make this crazy experiment called the Jewish State a success. So perhaps it’s a good fit – an irrational decision for an unlikely country.

You see, I finally realized that my original reasons were good enough. Maybe we need to tell the modern skeptics that it can be done. We can dream with both feet on the ground, messy reality and all. And what about the pain, the hurt that drove my friend away? I disagree with his view. Making Aliyah is about embracing Israel as a complicated reality, not just as an ideal. If I am to make Israel my home, it isn’t just for the happy times. Situations can be too painful to deal with, but not this one. If your family is rejoicing, you rejoice with it, and if your family is crying, then—especially then—you cry with them. You comfort them. During good times and bad, you always go home, and find an embrace. Sometimes they’re mourning at home, and sometimes they’re dancing, but you always, always go home. That’s reason enough.

must I write?

Days until departure: 14
I’ve been thinking a lot. Probably far too much. And I’ve been reading a bunch.
In the process, I rediscovered the jewel that is Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. As the title of the book suggests, it’s just about ordinary, mundane life. As the cover declares:

I have not survived against all odds.
I have not lived to tell.
I have not witnessed the extraordinary.
This is my story.

The style is nice and quirky and it left me with a sense of wonderment that when properly appreciated, ordinary life can be, well, extraordinary.
When I first discovered her book, I actually emailed her to tell her how much I liked it, and to share a random thought that occurred to me. She even wrote back, with a full response, addressing what I wrote. It was whatever you call the opposite of a form letter. (A freeform letter?) It made me happy.

In any case, not too long after finishing that book, I was talking with my friend Josh, and, via an unneccesarily long quote from Rilke, I decided I ought to start writing again. I realized that one of my problems has been that I try to make long, fully polished posts – things that take forever, and which I therefore never start. I think what I said then sums it up:

Anyway, so I decided I have to write more. I have to write stupid things. I have to write incomplete thoughts. I just have to write.

Well, as self-referential (self-fulfilling?) as it is, let’s call this a start. If everything goes as planned, I’ll have one post a day until I leave for Israel.