Thursday, June 28, 2012


I just finished reading the much-publicized memoir Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman. For those not in the know, the author of this book was raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the ultra-strict Hasidic community of Satmar. The Satmars are known for their various protests: anti-Internet (due to their belief that it corrupts the mind and allows too-easy access to forbidden texts, pictures, and ideas), anti-Israel (due to their belief that Jews should not have attempted to reclaim it themselves and should have waited for the messiah to come), and for their rejection of modernity (though the Satmars live predominantly in the English-speaking world, many are only fully conversant and literate in Yiddish).

Feldman writes that she attended a school where, true to form, most of the students barely learned to read English, that she was forbidden from visiting libraries except for specially approved "kosher" libraries with rabbinically censored books in Yiddish, entered into an arranged marriage at age 17 with someone she had only met once for 30 minutes before they became engaged, and gave birth at 19 before finally deciding to leave the community (and her marriage) at age 23. She now lives a secular life in NYC with her toddler son.

Remarkably, although this book has gotten a ton of publicity, most of the online reviews haven't been reviews per se but outraged claims that the author didn't tell the truth or at least didn't tell the whole truth. This website is entirely dedicated to exposing her apparent lies; the site Failed Messiah, which comments on issues in the Orthodox Jewish world, posted an article here about how she left out of the book the fact that she had a younger sister, and did actually know about sex a bit before the week of her wedding, and that her mother actually left the Hasidic community when she was a teenager and not a young child, and so on.

A few other Jewish blogs have also wondered out loud, or in cyberspace, why Feldman couldn't have remained religiously observant in a less restrictive, more modern style after she left the Satmar community.

All such criticisms are kind of beside the point because a) every memoir selectively leaves certain small things out for the sake of readability and narrative continuity and b) they never even try to claim that Feldman's central theme is flawed. Though Feldman never says it in so many words, every episode in the book essentially delivers the same message, namely: "I was treated like an object and I was valued only insofar as I was able to perform my function. Some people are happy in the Hasidic lifestyle, but those are the people who fit in, and if you fall a tiny bit outside the boundary of what the community considers acceptable, you will always, always suffer."

As for remaining religiously observant after leaving the community, well, why would she have done that? Would it have allowed her to maintain ties with her family? Of course not; she says in the book, quite clearly, that she has been taught since early childhood, and the Satmar community generally believes, that all other practices of Judaism are illegitimate. Feldman also says she thinks she is an atheist. So why anyone even thinks she should be bothered to keep kosher and so on, I have no idea.

Personally, I think this book is great and just flies by. I was fascinated and entertained the whole time, not least by Feldman's realization, at the end of the book once she has left the Satmar community, that she could be successful in the secular world, even enviably successful, precisely because she is different. The one question I had, to be honest, was how she learned such eloquent English... surely it couldn't be only from her mother (who was raised in a non-Hasidic family) and from secret visits to a children's library? And does she really not regret leaving the community, not even at all? Tell me more.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Little Mosque on the Prairie

I know this show actually ended this year, but I've only just started watching a few old episodes on the internet recently. Yeah I'm a behind-the-times spaz, so what else is new.

Anyway, I really wanted to like Little Mosque on the Prairie because it's a potentially great idea. I don't know of any other sitcom that depicts a Muslim community in North America, and I think North America is more than ready for it. If Little Mosque had been well-written and had offered some genuine insight into Muslim community life in Canada, that could have been a great opportunity to embrace multiculturalism, dispel stereotypes, and generally promote the hilarity that inevitably occurs when a community good-naturedly pokes fun at itself.

At the very least, this show could have had some jokes that had a real punchline and didn't pretty much just rely on some rendition of "isn't it crazy, or not really crazy but, you know, noticeable, how we're sort of different from other Canadians, in certain somewhat superficial ways that are never fully articulated or explored?"

Wikipedia tells me this thing has had a lot of viewers and gotten great critical reception. So I can only assume everyone else feels the same way I do, that they're interested in the existence of a sitcom on this subject matter, and has not somehow been deluded into thinking that this show is actually funny.

I watched an episode the other day that literally had the following bit of dialogue. OK, I didn't write it down as I was watching it, but this is pretty much what it was:

"I've been watching a lot of infomercials."
"Oh yeah, like for what?"
"Hijammies! Part-hijab, part-jammies, all comfort!"

Sorry... was that a joke? I've been in Germany for a year, so I honestly can't really tell.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Dear Abby

Abby's life must be really easy because she can make any problem into practically nothing! For example:

"Report your sister to Child Protection Services. It could be the wake-up call she needs."

"Have a discussion with your 16-year-old daughter about why she feels the need to lie about everything."

"Try volunteering for your local hospital or baking a cake for a family in need. That should help you get your mind off your problems."

"Quit smoking."

"Go to counseling."

People must know this is the kind of thing an advice columnist will tell them if they write in, even if in a real live situation, it might sort of be impossible to call Child Protection Services on your own sister. And volunteering at a local hospital? Actually, I don't even need to volunteer at a hospital because I am so easily distracted from my problems that I already forgot what they were. So thanks for that, Abs. And quit smoking? I bet whoever asked the question wasn't expecting that one! I mean, everyone knows professional advice-givers love smokers, second only to serial cheaters and insensitive atheists.

In light of this, I find myself wondering: what is it that makes people write to advice columnists? Are they hoping, in some small, secret, highly irrational way, that the columnist will somehow do the dirty work for them, and they won't have to actually go and quit smoking themselves?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

"Frustrated" a year later

I got a new comment the other day on this post from over a year ago, and I thought it might be fun to revisit the ol' assclown topic. To refresh all your memories, and for those who have arrived here since then, recall that an emotionally unavailable assclown is someone who messes with your head by dipping into and out of your life without ever stepping up and committing to a real relationship. Just when you think you might be rid of such a clown, he has a pesky little habit of dropping into your life and blowing hot: texting, sexting, wanting to meet up, wanting to spend the night, pretending you used to be in a real relationship until something inexplicably went wrong that was probably your fault, and so on. and then as soon as you respond to these overtures, he's GONE. And so on and so forth.

The new comment I got was this:

Any advice for an assclown who wants to reform???

That's a very interesting question, because you'd think if you a) knew you were an assclown, and b) wanted to stop being an assclown, then how hard would it be to stop pretending you may potentially want a relationship you don't actually want and just get on with it? However, as I said in the old post on this topic, an assclown is deeply insecure and he does this to anybody he can. It's not just a question of doing it to one person whom he happens not to like all that much. It's about doing it as a way of life, because he is bored and/or unhappy and needs to keep himself entertained and his ego massaged.

If assclownery is your way of life and you really want to change, well, rather than tell you what you can do that will make you want to change, which I really don't know what that would be, why don't you try forcing yourself to just stop? It doesn't matter what you want to do. No more texting, no more sexting, no more faking that you have a future with someone when you know you don't, no more pretending what happened between you and someone else didn't really happen the way it did, no more surrounding yourself with ego strokers. If you already know you're acting like a clown, presumably you're self-aware enough that you can stop without extensively pretending what you're doing is ok. Just stop.

If you stop, maybe you'll be able to figure out whay your self-esteem is so low that you felt like you had to seek attention from people whose self-esteem was as low as yours. Or maybe you won't. But if you really, truly quit the assclownery, you probably will.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Diamond Jubilee

I read with interest this op-ed about the Diamond Jubilee, particularly this bit:

"Consider the lot of a heredity monarch. You aren’t elected or appointed or selected in any way. Indeed, you did nothing to earn it. But neither did you seek it. You just are. It is not a job or a position or even a calling. It is you: from the day you are born until the day you die. You may think the Queen’s life a privileged one, but I can’t imagine most of us would trade places with her. It is a life sentence, and yet one she accepts uncomplainingly."

Andrew Coyne, who wrote the op-ed, also says a few other things, like how purely because she is not selected through any means other than heredity, the Queen represents loyalty rather than popularity, and in that way she somehow represents all her subjects.

I find myself fundamentally at odds with this point of view as I have always wondered how ordinary people can feel that the Queen represents them. She knows nothing of our lives, while we likewise know nothing of hers. Regardless of whether we are raised rich or poor, at a certain point, we are generally expected to support ourselves and our families through some sort of income-producing effort, while she is considered to be earning the keep she really doesn't have to earn when she so much as waves her hand. Ordinary people pay taxes off of which she not only lives but flies around the world. You hear every so often that she's so wonderfully humble because she lives a lean life with few luxuries, but compared with what/whom? She lives in a palace - more than one palace, actually. She has all her meals prepared for her. She has a staff of people at her disposal whom she does not have to personally pay. And as royal life is deeply mysterious to any outsider (necessarily, perhaps, to preserve the impression that it may be more important than it is), she surely spends on many more things of which the public has no knowledge.

I agree with Mr. Coyne on one point - I would not trade places with the Queen. She must be very austere all the time, and must have no real friends, and must always remain detached from any issue, never expressing what she may really think about it.

And yet, is she not the ultimate symbol of a class system we all wish to put behind us, as well as the ultimate symbol of an institution that, in an increasingly mixed society, does not belong to everyone? Why should the longevity or continuity of an institution like that make anyone proud?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Quebec students

I'll be the first to admit I'm usually far too obsessed with myself to ever talk about anything as relevant as current events. However, I'm going to be talking about current events today. Let's hope to goodness this is a sign of my impending maturity.

Right so. There is this editorial in yesterday's Globe & Mail which talks about the Quebec students who are protesting a $325-per-year-for-five-years tuition increase, the final result of which will be a $3793 per year price tag by 2016-17. And what does the Globe say about this in its editorial? Essentially the educational equivalent of "eat your veggies 'cause kids are starving in the third world."

No really! They're like, "dudes, do you even know how little you pay for your dang university education compared to what those poor souls pay in Chile?! Those guys really have something to complain about! They're hard done by! They have it bad! You don't pay 98% of your entire family's income for education like they do, nor do you have to walk uphill to school both ways! Stop whining! Stop protesting! If you don't like your moderately-priced education, they should get it, not you!"

Now I'm not saying they don't have it a lot worse than Canada does in Chile, but you know what? Nobody ever said it was awesome in Chile. Nobody ever said Chile has the absolute best quality of life in the world. Nobody ever said that if you want your children to have all the great things that you didn't, you should take them to live in Chile.

But people do say those things about Canada, and I agree with those people. So let's try to keep Canada awesome, shall we? Also, everyone over the age of five knows that it won't help the starving people for you to force yourself to eat when you're full. Similarly, it won't reduce the price of tuition in Chile for you to pay more tuition in Canada. So I don't really know what point the Globe was trying to make, besides put up and shut up, you stupid, stupid Quebeckers. Which I believe is a POV shared by much of English Canada, but we all pay way too much in tuition too, don'tcha know. It's a lot more than an average graduate could easily make back in a few years, even if he's doing something "better" than delivering pizzas and has some kind of a quasi-professional gig which involves meetings and a desk and a pension and everything. Which means it's too much.

As long as I'm a really mature current events expert now, I'd like to make a completely unrelated point. I've been noticing that all the highly knowledgable Globe reader comments, on both this editorial and others like it, have been saying things like "Europe is so great! They subsidize education there because people only study really really ridiculously useful things, and nobody ever studies history or sociology!"

To which I say, contrary to what you may have read/thought/seen on TV, people in Europe actually are just as fat-assed as us, and they actually do like to eat at McDonald's, and they don't speak four or five languages fluently, and they're by and large not chicer than us, and really, every positive stereotypical thing you've ever heard about them is not even remotely accurate. Also, if they're not actually from Paris, there is literally no greater chance of them having visited than someone from the Yukon. It's true. I'm not lying.

I would also not be lying if I said everyone should study both history and sociology, including people in Europe. A society that started two world wars only needs so many engineers, really.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

So I guess "the Yemen" is what they say in "the England" then, is it?

Anyway, I'll tell you what I think about this movie. I think it has no artistic merit whatsoever. I think it pretty much sucks. In fact, I would go so far as to say it's the sort of bullshit that promotes the dangeously false idea, very prevalent in our culture, that it is possible to choose a life path that will provide a constant emotional high.

The plot goes something like this (spoiler alert): Guy has some kind of a government science job he seems to like, more or less. He has a wife he seems to like too, more or less. Then there's this girl who also has a job that seems like it's ok, and she has a soldier boyfriend who gets sent to Afghanistan (read: gets sent conveniently out of the picture). The two characters, guy and girl, get put together to work on some sort of weird project in which salmon get transported to the Yemen so that the Yemeni locals get to experience the unequivocally awesome experience of salmon fishing (?) and wouldn't you know it, being alone together with salmon in the Yemen is way more fun than being boring and having some kind of a regular job and wife and absentee boyfriend and stuff back home! So the guy breaks with his wife and they decide to stay there and work on the salmon project FOREVER!

Here's the thing. While being somewhere different and doing something different may be fun and, well, different for a given period of time, pretty much anything becomes boring if you do it forever. Or rather, it becomes just like your old life was, except that instead of sitting at a desk in London or wherever they were, now you're in a frigging river in Yemen. But even though being in a river in Yemen may be kind of a different thing for you, if you do it all the time, day in day out, it will at some point become normal. And then you'll be like, "I know! Fly fishing in Saudi Arabia! That would make me feel fulfilled!" and so on, if you see what I'm saying.

These kinds of movies kind of piss me off because they seem to contribute to the profoundly incorrect assumption many of us seem to have that we can vastly change our level of happiness by changing something superficial about our circumstances, like where we are or what we're doing. I'm not saying we can or should do something or live somewhere we really hate, but the thing about people who are happy, I've noticed, is that their happiness level does not significantly change with their situation, at least not for the long term. Even a good relationship, which we like to think of as the be all and end all of what we're all striving for, has limited power to make us happy if we're not happy in the first place. Yeah you might be sad if you lose your job or your relationship or whatever, but a happy person won't be sad for that long. At a certain point, they'll get on with the business of being happy because that's their way of living. So if you think happiness can come from anything besides yourself, you're in for a tough ride, that's what I think.

There's this one scene in this movie where the guy's wife, upon finding out about the guy's desire to be with someone else, gets really upset and says "I give you six months and you're back." I sort of had to laugh because I think the audience was supposed to think "no way, this guy's desire for love and a change in his life are real!" when actually, I thought that if the movie were real life she would probably be right - because that thing I said before about fly fishing in Saudi Arabia isn't always true. Sometimes, when you make a huge change and then the change reaches the point of normalcy, you might be like "wait a sec, boring job and wife and house and stuff were actually kind of better than salmon in Yemen, considering that I have no friends here, don't speak any Arabic, and can't find a decent bagel." And then you may want your old life back.

Yet despite all this, I have to admit I kind of enjoyed watching Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Probably because like everyone, I too like to fantasize that a change in circumstances will transform my life into a constant emotional high, even though I know that's not true.