Archive for the ‘Philosophy/Hashkafa’ Category

Too sad

Sunday, 13 March 2011

I’m trying to do a book review but it’s just not coming out. With the news of a family, including a baby the same age as my own, being slaughtered in their beds really not all that far from here over the weekend, coming on top of the many earthquakes in the last month that have killed tens of thousands around the Pacific just in the last month (e.g. Japan, New Zealand, China) I just can’t say anything that’s actually about the books.

Going over the Basics

Sunday, 24 October 2010

With all the discussion of rereading I’ve done, you know I can very much enjoy revisiting topics, ideas, and especially stories. At the same time, I’ve never been good at revising things I’ve learnt in a course. It does seem like a bit of a dichotomy. I think perhaps I don’t (and didn’t) mind reading a good book again, and I’m happy to see a new perspective on a known fact, so long as I do not have to pretend I don’t know it, but I really don’t like just going over stuff I already know without that involving going deeper (or broader) into it.

I really wish now that I’d realised this about myself explicitly all those years ago, because I’m sure my teachers, parents and local librarians would have been sympathetic and helpful to my finding (for example) alternate textbooks to read/look over as my ‘revision’, rather than always intending but rarely actually going over the notes I’d made in detail. (Thankfully my memory and original understanding tended to be pretty good, so I generally managed just fine in tests and exams anyhow. I’m sure I could have done better in many cases, however.) Since my DH was similar in many ways, we think it might be sensible to remember this as a strategy for when our own children have tests and exams to revise for! (As well as when we do again ourselves, of course, but that doesn’t come up as often any more.)

The two books I’m planning on discussing here and now fit this personal dichotomy well, as the first is a very readable book that I’m certainly coming back to for the second or third time, because as my experience of the topics discussed changes and grows, so does my perspective on them, and different parts of the book become more and less relevant, so that I can certainly get more out of it. The second, as a textbook that in absolute terms I’m beyond the level of, is one that I certainly wouldn’t reread, but since I’m intending doing a proper course in the topic in a few months, and I want to get the best possible value out of that (starting at as high a level as I can, and progressing as far as I can within the given timeframe), then absolutely solidifying my knowledge and understanding of the basics thereof is worth my while. (Particularly as we happened to have the book just sitting on the shelf… 😉 )

39. The Committed Marriage by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

The Committed Marriage by Esther Jungreis coverI reread this, in its entirety, on Yom Kippur (so about five weeks ago), when I was stuck at home (rather than being in the synagogue, where the services of the day include enough ‘extras’ that someone alone leaves out, that they take all day) and wanted something of meaning and some relevance that at the same time didn’t require too much concentration when I was fasting and trying to save my mental agility for the davening.

This is a fairly lightly written but still meaningful book, about the importance of the marriage relationship, coming from an orthodox Jewish perspective. It’s published by HarperCollins rather than a Jewish publisher, and does not assume a particular background of its readers, although all the example stories are of Jewish couples and families Rebbetzin Jungreis has been involved with or counselled, across the range of Jewish practice/religiosity, with many being secular. (I bought this book, and her previous one, The Committed Life, at a talk she gave that I attended a few years ago.)

This isn’t (in my opinion, not having read very many of them) a classic self-help book with specific solutions to specific problems, but more a philosophy of relationship building, aiming to promote, begin and strengthen strong marriages at the core of loving healthy families. (As I said, it’s written from an orthodox Jewish perspective.)

It’s probably the kind of book I have to be in the right frame of mind for, although it isn’t wishy-washy, but when I am it can be useful, if only in increasing my gratitude that the problems described just don’t apply to us, and hopefully never will! This is probably why Yom Kippur was a good time for me to reread it, to remind me to thank Hashem for the gift of a good marriage and to pray for it to always continue so, particularly as our family grows and changes.

40. Modern Hebrew by Harry Blumberg and Mordechai H. Lewittes

Modern Hebrew by Blumberg & LewittesThis is subtitled “A First-Year Course in Conversation, Reading and Grammar”, and is introductory (apart from assuming as ability to read the Hebrew script, although there is a brief reference guide to that at the back of the book). While there were several vocabulary items that were new to me, the grammatical instructions were revision, and even though this was a new text to me I didn’t bother writing out any of the exercises, just doing them all orally to myself. Since this book is intended as a classroom text, I had no means of feedback, but for review I didn’t need that to feel I was getting some benefit from reading through the book and getting some semi-formal Hebrew practice.

As a textbook it’s certainly of its time (first published 1946, with this 3rd edition apparently from 1963, and the copyright regularly renewed up to 1982) in its choice of texts and topics, as well (to a certain extent) in its stereotyping, so that I certainly wouldn’t expect to use it in a classroom today. However as a revision text for me to read it worked very well indeed.

Taking the principle of going over the absolute basics, but this time in a context where I can get feedback, and even push myself a bit, for the last week I’ve been doing the basic (free) Hebrew courses on What’s available as lessons is very basic indeed, but I have picked up on some vocabulary (I’d never done the colours systematically before, for example), and even better, the writing prompts can be elaborated on much beyond what has been taught, with many/most of the Hebrew speaking site users happy to give good feedback based on what you’re actually producing, rather than the lesson level.

I actually realised the potential for this when correcting an English exercise for someone who’d made a story out of the (fairly boring) prompt. (The way the site works is that you tell it which languages you’re native and fluent in – for me English and French respectively – and which languages you want to learn, and then each person corrects what they are fluent in and is corrected by native/fluent users of what they’re learning. It seems to me so far a very good system.

So I now try to make stories from my written exercises too, as it pushes me to use vocabulary and grammar beyond that of the given lesson (obviously using that too) and gets me feedback that is actually useful to me. Personally I actually find it more interesting to help those trying to go beyond the course limits, and my impression is that I’m not the only one to feel this way. (I do still give appropriate feedback to those not going beyond, of course, but there’s often less of interest to say.)

While the speaking exercises I’ve done have all involved reading a given (short) text aloud, (the paid courses have more interactive speaking exercises) I’ve also had good feedback on my intonation, as well as the pronunciation of words I’d only seen in writing (without vowels) and had misinterpreted.

It seems like a very good site for both beginners (so long as you can read the script/alphabet for the given language – so I’m leaving aside Ukrainian, which would require better Cyrillic skills than I currently have, for now) and improvers. I’m not sure how advanced the paid courses get (the free ones are all pretty basic) and those are available in all languages at the moment, but the site certainly seems to me to have a lot to offer for those who do want to work on their language learning.

In the Nine Days

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

I haven’t been thinking enough about the significance of the Nine Days, but so far I seem to have been unconsciously avoiding the questionable stuff anyway. We’re vegetarians anyhow, and we finally seemed to catch up on the laundry on Sunday, and to be honest I haven’t actually been crafting this week either (not that I’ve asked our Rav about the last, and from what I’ve seen online and heard in person there is a lot of variation in what people are told is good/bad to do in this regard). Still, though, avoiding such things should be for a reason, rather than just by default, so perhaps this afternoon I’ll pull out (at very least) The Book of Our Heritage by Eliyahu Kitov and reread the appropriate sections.

One of the places I took my mother to see was the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, which covers the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount and the southern end of the Western Wall (officially I believe it’s larger, but that’s what’s on this site), and that’s definitely an appropriate place to visit/see before and during this period. I have more pictures (see bottom of this post) from when I went in February with a friend however, although none of them are specifically of the Second Temple era remains. It’s a fascinating place to visit even if you aren’t especially interested in the religious aspects. The Byzantine, Ottoman, Crusader and other buildings being all practically on top of each other really gives a sense of the history. The information centre has some good displays too, as well as a couple of rather cheesy videos that nevertheless give a sense of what went on in and around the Temple, and the archaeology undertaken on the site. (The latter is still going on, by the way, and in February my friend and I got a few minutes chatting with one of the women working on it.)

Here’s the thing: being Orthodox Jewish in Jerusalem (especially living in a religious area in Jerusalem) is very easy in very many ways, but sometimes that makes it too easy to forget what we’re missing, all the aspects of Judaism that we just can’t do, that in so many ways we’re still in exile. This is far more philosophical than I generally get on the blog (or often enough IRL either), but if not now, when?
looking at western end of Southern Wall of Temple Mount from the outer city wall

Reconstruction of Roman catapult

Southern Wall, looking towards Hulda Gates

steps and buildings in front of the Southern Wall

Water cistern

The best kind of mountain

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Room filled with boxes of books
This is a picture of eight of the boxes of my books we moved to the flat last night. (Um no, that isn’t all the books. It’s probably about half the ones I own. In this country.) (See, eight boxes doesn’t sound very much to me, but I’ve been given a maximum of one month (by my flatmate) to sort them out, take several to the charity shop, and get shelves for the rest. And then get those shelves into my room, which isn’t big.)

We didn’t just move the books, and bookcases, however. We also brought up a massive (and I mean massively heavy – it has a solid metal mechanism) sofa bed. Or rather, we (my flatmate and I) helped the delivery guy get it half way up the stairs, and then we all got stuck, with us above the sofa, it completely blocking the stairs, and the delivery guy at the bottom.

Panic struck, while we tried to think of local, strong, healthy males we could call upon. (This needed people bigger, heavier and stronger than us or any of our female friends, much as any underlying feminist principles might object. There are plenty of women who could have done this – we just don’t know any of them. We tried ourselves, and physically just couldn’t.)

So I wouldn’t blame the people we phoned (or their spouses) for not answering our calls for awhile (although we have no intention of requesting anything in the foreseeable future) but they were wonderful, dropped everything and really came to the rescue. (And were lovely about it in every way.)

The lessons learned:

  • We have wonderful friends and relations.
  • Always always always check on the size and weight of something that needs to go upstairs, even if it’s free!

Pensive on Purim

Friday, 21 March 2008

Purim is a time for fun, for dressing up and giving gifts (food to friends and charity/tzedaka to those in need), but it’s also a good time to reflect, to turn things over in one’s head, rather than just upside-down.

Reading the Book of Esther so soon after Parshas Zachor, and when I’ve been reading so much about the Holocaust (and other wars), and considering the ongoing and renewed conflicts across the world makes me think of how our lives can be overturned in an instant, and about how Yom Kippur is often glossed as Yom Ke-Purim, a day like Purim.

82. Trench Art by Nicholas J. Saunders

Simple evidence that whenever they can people will try to personalise, beautify the objects they use, perhaps more than ever in the the dehumanising atmosphere of front line war. (I actually read this yesterday, but didn’t get to blog it.)

83. Animal Groups: Life in a School: Dolphins by Richard & Louise Spilsbury

If even dolphins can regularly make the effort to help lift the weaker members of their school to the surface to breathe, what possible excuse do we as humans have for not caring for each other?

84. Hitler’s Forgotten Victims: The Holocaust and the Disabled by Suzanne E. Evans

And this is the book that has been overshadowing my mind for the last few days. I don’t even know what the most horrific part of this ‘programme’ was. I don’t even want to list the options, as it makes me feel sick to describe these disgusting ‘doctors’ who lost any vestige of humanity in their disregard for non-‘useful’ people and their leadership of the kind of ‘mercy’ killings such as starvation, gassing, botched sterilisations, experimentation and far more.

It’s not as if I didn’t know that anyone outside Aryan ideals was in severe danger in Nazi Germany/occupied Europe, but I hadn’t realised the extent of the systematic murder of hundreds of thousands of disabled people. Nor had I realised that the infamous experimenting and eugenic-obsessed ‘doctors’ like Mengele weren’t (apparently) rare aberrations, but a very significant proportion of influential medical leaders of the time and place.

So I’m sickened, and overnight I need to get back my joy in Purim and remember its message, that those who persecute will be overthrown, and in the end those of us considered lesser and worthy of extermination will survive and outlast our persecutors and their cultures. The Divine orchestration may be incomprehensible to us, but it will be worked out.

Great Visions

Monday, 3 March 2008

60. The Shul Without a Clock by Emanuel Feldman

This collection of essays covers a huge range of Jewish and topical issues by a skilled and well educated writer and community Rabbi. R’ Feldman does not shy away from controversial issues, and unashamedly gives an Orthodox Jewish opinion to social issues in the wider world, and a personal one to potential controversies within the Orthodox world. He argues well, and writes entertainingly, and I enjoyed the whole book, where I agreed and where I didn’t. (I’ll admit my favourite essay is “Tefillin in a Brown Paper Bag”, about the importance on books being well written and edited.)

61. Through the Lens : National Geographic Greatest Photographs

This is an absolutely beautiful book, which I would definitely have read (or perused) at the earliest possible opportunity if work hadn’t got it. The editors have chosen a selection of the best of a magnificent collection from the archives of the National Geographic magazine over the past century or so, and then ordered it by continent (the oceans and islands of the world, as well as outer space also get their own chapters), each with an introductory few pages. The reproductions are fantastic, as one would expect, and certainly justify the considerable weight of the book.

62. International Organizations: European Union by Petra Press

This is part of a series for American schools about the major international organisations, and that American background does come through occasionally in the comparisons made, but it is a good introduction to the history and work of the EU up to 2004, when this book was published. That isn’t so very long ago, but enough new countries have joined since that a new edition might be worth having already!

Seeing the abundant good, downplaying the small annoyances

Friday, 22 February 2008

How could one or two people behaving ridiculously completely wind me up, when I was literally surrounded by several other people choosing to give up their time to help me out with some serious work? I just mustn’t let them, that’s all.

In that vein, my housemate has offered to lend me her camera for crochet progress pics, which I’ve just taken, to get me through until I get mine fixed (if I’m organised I’ll get that begun tomorrow). I took all the pictures quite quickly, so the projects are a bit rucked up, I’m afraid, but you’ll get the idea.

Here’s the Seraphina:

The FrouFrou. (I amn’t staying exactly in the order the pattern suggested; instead of counting out where to start the fronts from, and risk making a fatal error, I’ve sewn up the sleeves already and begun from there. It looks a bit lop-sided because I’ve begun one front and not the other.):

The finished Sea Swirls Tablecloth. (You aren’t going to believe me that I ironed it flat now, are you? Obviously my blocking technique needs some work!):

The books are easy, as they don’t require my taking photos.

55. Living Kaddish by Rabbi Gedalia Zweig

As it says on the cover, the stories in this anthology are inspiring, both as to the importance of saying and facilitating Kaddish, and also more generally as to the taking on of commitments. It ends with some resources (explanations, suggestions, translation & transliterations) to help those for whom Kaddish is a new concept or experience. (It is not and does not claim to be a complete study of the subject.)

I am most thankful I wasn’t reading this book in a case of personal need (more because it was around, in fact).

56. Destination Detectives: United Kingdom by Rob Bowden

This was actually a pair of books, from Raintree’s Freestyle and Freestyle Express collections. Each one has the same photographs and basic information on the same page number, however the Express edition is written for those who find reading more difficult, with shorter, less complex sentences, less detail and a bigger font. They would work well in a group setting, where everyone can go to the same page number, and discuss the same pictures and information. This particular pair gives an overview of the United Kingdom, its countries and some of its weird and wonderful customs.

57. Usborne Famous Lives: Captain Cook by Rebecca Levene

Another in this series, and this is probably the person covered that I knew least about beforehand. I did think I’d heard of some controversy over Captain Cook, but this book doesn’t mention it. I could be wrong, quite easily.


Sunday, 17 February 2008

Shabbos was nice, although I didn’t make of it what I know I should. Then last night and this morning I heard Rabbi Shurin speak, and I really want to take much more out of that. This morning he elaborated on something I’ve heard him mention before, namely the difference, perhaps even chasm, between thrill-seeking fun, and contented or satisfied happiness. (What follows is my thought-process after hearing the shiur – my thoughts should not be ascribed to him.)

It really is true: no instance of simply having fun can make me happy. It certainly has its place, but the past excitements that still bring a smile to my face are those that had something much more meaningful involved. I enjoy going on fairground rides, yes, but do I actually remember those few minutes or seconds afterwards? The times I do, what I’m really remembering is the connection with the friends or family members who accompanied me, or overcoming the trepidation of a particular ride, or feeling really sick (and no, that last is not such a good memory).

Thrills certainly have their place in our lives and in that so American ideal The Pursuit of Happiness, but for what we can build from them, rather than as an end in themselves. If they are the end, rather than the means, then only the next, bigger, thrill is of any interest, and that way can lead disaster.

So that said, a little introspection seems in order: which of my hobbies or other free-time activities actually bring me contentment or satisfaction, and thus happiness, and which bring cheap thrills?

Crochet certainly brings contentment in being productive in giving others the fruits of my hands. It brings satisfaction whenever I complete a useful object, or teach someone the skill. On the other hand, stash and tool acquisition for their own sake are thrills only to be upgraded when there is a project involved (or at least strongly in mind). Which means that while I truly appreciate the beauty of these hooks, and would love to be able to support such skilled craftspeople/artists, right now what I can justify is one or maybe two hooks in each of the sizes I use. I’ll say yes to spending a bit on extra comfortable hooks in the sizes I use regularly, or want to make a large project in. I’ll buy extra (yes, cheaper, but perfectly serviceable) hooks to give away to learners. However, I won’t build up a hook collection for its own sake. (Certainly not unless and until I have the space to display and thus really enjoy it!)

Don’t get me wrong – I’m decrying MY OWN tendency to collect things that don’t have inherent value to me, and trying to challenge that. I own one or two pieces of art (nothing monetarily valuable) and wouldn’t mind acquiring one or two more, but these must be items that will give me pleasure, make me smile, maybe even make me think, well into the future.
Smiling bowl
(This bowl always makes me smile, and that does help me to be happy.) (Sorry, I’ll try to take another pic with better focus to replace this with later.)

Reading is actually a harder issue to address, because much of it does have work or learning value. I’m hardly going to say many novels don’t have value either, to provoke thought, to share with and connect to others, to provide an easy learning experience or even just as a quick way to see a different perspective on something. The fact remains that while I do get much of that from most of what I read, some of it also involves images and thoughts, thrills that aren’t currently … helpful … in my life. If nothing else, I’d like to rebalance how much of that there is.

Again, this is (public) introspection. I amn’t passing judgement on other people. That isn’t my way.