Monday, March 31, 2008

Stamping Out Hunger


The New York Times reports a record number of Americans have registered for food stamps in recent months. As the economy weakens, more and more people will take advantage of this “vital safety net.” On average, those who qualify for the Food Stamps receive about $100 a month per family for food and other essential groceries. Besides that being nearly impossible to keep one person full and healthy, $100 a month for 28 million people adds up fast and doesn't fix the problem.

In times of crisis, post-Katrina for instance, the Congressional Budget Office has seen spikes in regional sign-ups for this program. However this coming year, the CBO estimates that 28 million Americans will be registered and utilizing this program, the most since the program began in the 1960s. This isn’t good by any measure. The Times reports that one in eight Michigan residents receive Food Stamps. One in 10 New Yorkers. The number of people on the rolls in Rhode Island increased by 18% in the last two years and now 8.4% of the population is enrolled in the program.

This mirrors equally disturbing trends in the real wages earned by the bottom fifth of the United States population. As essential goods (food, water, energy) have gone up at least 5% since 1996 in real dollars and real wages have not changed or in many cases gone down, many American families are feeling this economic slow down at the kitchen table.

But here is the kicker. According to Jared Bernstein, director of the Living Standards program at the Economic Policy Institute in DC, the average family income of the folks in this group is $15,500 a year. This isn’t enough for rent in most places, let alone food to feed a family of four. And to make this even more ridiculous the Times reports: “Eligibility [for the program] is determined by a complex formula, but basically recipients must have few assets and incomes below 130 percent of the poverty line, or less than $27,560 for a family of four.”

And $100 bucks a month is going to fix that? I know I live in New York and it cost a fortune to do so, but $27,560 for a family of two is tight in New York, but four? Wow.

We need to take a quick step back and figure out what is going wrong here. We have an economic system that broke. Too much money invested in things that were worthless, too many people with homes they couldn’t afford, too little oversight protecting the American economic supremacy in the world. And now, the former richest country in the world has nearly 10% of its citizens in need of food purchasing assistance.

And the worst part about this situation is that this 10% should really be about 15%. The fact that you must be making less than $27,560 for four people to get help from your government to feed ones family is in direct opposition to Jewish tradition.

The Jewish community really needs to jump on this in the coming budget cycle.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Freedom

As I have mentioned before I am privileged to take the class “Exodus and Revolutions” sponsored mainly by AJWS and Avodah and few other cool organizations. We talk about oppression and the Exodus and other such Jewish-lefty-entitled things.

Tonight we focused on the actual freedom that was achieved in act of leaving Egypt. Isaiah Berlin writes that we either have positive liberty (self-realization) or negative liberty (non-interference) - or more simplistically freedom to or freedom from. Are the Israelites free from the oppression of slavery or are they free to take on the commandments? The rabbis (clearly) believe that the positive liberty was what should have come from the liberation from Egypt. Fine. I will give you that.

It may come as no surprise that I talk a lot in classes, especially Jewish studies classes. However I have long tried to wait at least 10 seconds (a lesson I learned from a great teacher) before I talk. Odds are within 10 seconds of silence someone will say something. Yet it is a very rare occasion that I don’t talk at all.

When class ended a man in the back called our attention to the fact that a vast majority of the class is women while a vast majority of the air time (his words) has been dominated by men. I was pissed at first, reviewed the folks who were talking second, realized he was right about the domination of the conversation third and finally was able to come up with the thesis of this post and say his issue comes down to a question of freedoms.

Are women in our class free to engage in the class or are they free from historic sexism to be equal members in class? In that a majority of folks in this class are women, it is pretty clear they are free from the sexism that would have kept them out twenty-five years ago. However they may not yet be free to engage, explained this person in the back of class.

I personally don’t buy it. In any other place I might agree, however the AJWS/Avodah and Co. social justice class is not the place were women are being put down and forced not to speak due to male dominance. Not to mention that an equal number of men and women spoke and there were many times during the class where the room was silent. As the female teacher asked us for comments, no one spoke. Granted there are more women in the class, but there were men who said nothing at all.

Freedom isn’t easy; it is complicated in the Exodus story and remains this way today. The opposite of slavery, explained our teacher, is responsibility. I suppose the ultimate question of this commentary from the man in the back of the room would be who is responsible for the female involvement in the class?

A comment that was made before this male domination observation that our texts, such as Leviticus 19:33-34 (welcome and love the stranger because you a stranger in the Land of Egypt) are condescending and assume we as Jews know how to best welcome and love the stranger. A woman made this comment. Who am I to decide the best way to be involved for others? Or do my values dictate what my response should be?

Perhaps I don’t see this dominance as an issue because my mom was such a strong and willing teacher in my life. She is a driving force behind my view of feminism and social justice. This is not to say that my dad didn’t have an impact my world view, but my mom taught me about responsibilities and that people (not men or women) deserve respect. We are to learn from smart people and respect hard work – regardless of if a man or a woman delivers the education or sets the example to follow.

Tonight’s best, most insightful and most useful comment came from a haveruta of women, one a rabbinical student and one a layperson. Now do I have the obligation and freedom to learn more from the best comment or should I make the extra effort to learn from a woman? Luckily tonight I didn’t have to make that choice.

God-o-Meter

Thanks to Time magazine and beliefnet we have the God-o-Meter. This state of the art machine gives you the skinny on what is going on in regards to all the presidental candidates and their feelings on God and religion.

It is pretty neat. Click a candidate's head and learn more!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Pull a Godfather

Mark Helprin, a fellow at the Claremont Institute, writes in the New York Times that we need to threaten with Sudan an "offer it can't refuse" - stop the genocide or face major military action to stop the rapping, razing and killing in Darfur.

I agree. Military action should be an option in all situations of international conflict. Just like everyone of the real Democratic candidates for president said that the military option will be on the table for Iran, we in the activist community, must be willing to say air strikes, tactical assaults and violence are useful to end this humanitarian disaster.

If we are willing to fight Iran over the words uttered about Israel, isn't it time to fight Sudan - with what Helprin suggests would be about three days of ammunition - to end an actual genocide?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Life Gap

The Times reported today that there is a growing gap in life expectancy between rich and poor, black and white. Not surprising but utterly sad.

The most telling aspect of the report is that from 1966 until 1980 the gap shrank only to start growing again in the 1980s... Wonder what happened?

Rightwing selfishness and anti-religious behavior of the Regan era has lead to more poor people dying. Thank God we have lower taxes, higher incarcerations rates and more guns. Sure helps all those people in need of boot straps with which to themselves up.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Shabbat Ideas - March 21, 2008

It is Shabbat so here are my Shabbat Thoughts for March 21, 2008:
Super (Jew) Delegates
An American administration that huffs and puffs about protecting Israel and standing up to its enemies, but undercuts its own freedom of action by mortgaging itself to foreign governments, is no friend at all.
Something VERY wrong for Purim
DK on Obama

Five years and two days ago, I was sitting in my Northern California home helping a friend study for a Micro Econ final and was glued to the soothing tones of Wolf Blitzer and the continuous loop of the smart bomb attack on what was thought to be Saddam Hussein.

I was on the phone with this friend last night shooting the breeze and he brought this up... I suppose that moment will be with me forever, just like my mom knows what she was wearing and where she was when Kennedy was shot or that I know I was eating Honey Nut Cheerios when the Challenger exploded.

We remember trauma in strange ways. Experts call it different things but anyway you look at it, trauma like war or murder scars you regardless of if you are physically injured. These past five years, some of the most important in my young life, have scared me, my peers and my country.

Trying to make sense out of the war effort in Iraq is impossible. Ending this war is also going to be impossible, for the time being. You break it, you buy it seems to apply to this horrible situation. When thinking about the way our world could have been if we had finished the job in Afghanistan and stayed out of Iraq, forcing Hussein into a corner similarly to the situation of Kaddafi. Would there be a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians? Would oil be less than $100 a barrel? Would the market stabilized? Would the deficit be smaller?

We could be optimistic and say we have no idea…but we do have an idea. While it isn’t for sure, many of the major issues we are dealing with as a society are due to the fact that too many people are being killed and too much money is wasted in the war in Iraq.

Trite as it may be, I get physically upset when I see stories about the war. I get mad when some story about an injured vet comes up on the nightly news and the problems she is having getting a job in she Red State home town. I am furious every time I hear the Dem Presidential candidates dance around the truth regarding this war. I am disgusted when John McCain talks about the 100 more years of war we must endure.

This war is unjust. But now we are in and we must fix it. And that is the scar that will be left on all of us lucky enough not to serve in the military in Iraq. Our pain will be the loss of hundreds of thousands young American service members, the waste of billions of dollars and the establishment of a horrific international profile. This isn’t to say that the trauma of the last five years won’t end. But just as we all remember trauma differently, we will also try to fix it differently. It is time for a different approach to our problems.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Jewno: Generational Divide

First watch this:


I thought this was laugh out loud funny. My mother thought it was funny but it made her "squirm." Humor is an important aspect of Jewish tradition and helped save us from some of the worst aspects of our history. However, where do we draw the line between "insider baseball" and what we share with the public?

Looking back on history, the majority of our humorists (like a majority of all of Jewish art) was enjoyed by Jews. Dating back to pre-modern Europe and as recently as Summering in Catskills, most of our jokes were delivered to our people. However as the Jewish community has been invited into the mainstream in the United States, the beacon of pop for the entire world, Jewish humor and entertainment has taken a more central and public role in modern culture.

Jews created Hollywood and the business side of Show Biz for no other reason than they were permitted into the industry. In the beginning, movies were looked down upon as low level and dirty entertainment. So a group of guys took the opportunity to make a few dollars and a lot of very pro-establishment, pro-American (pro-White Anglo Saxon Protestant) movies. Not until the 1970s did we start to see movies, TV shows or anything else for that matter with very much diversity on the screen.

The change came about due to the change in the concept of the American dream. We once saw the United States as the "Great Melting Pot." Yet with the rise of cultural-nationalism, minority pride and the other social movements of the 1960s and 1970s this all changed; we became more of a mixed salad: all parts important and bringing a distinctive taste to the bowl.

I grew up in a time (and in places) where it was fine to be Jewish and to express one's Jewish-ness. While there still is anti-Semitism, it isn't a daily problem for the vast majority of the American Jewish community. We are the second best educated, wealthiest minority group in the United States, and have been for my entire life. While it isn't perfect for Jews here in the USofA, it is pretty darn close.

So it only makes sense that due to our success, we would share our culture with others. However for thousands of years, our culture - including our food, literature, music and humor - has been for US, not THEM.

Now the Luftmenchen say let THEM figure it out; art is art and we should let it speak for itself. Others, like those in my parents' generation, will say we should be careful how we present ourselves to the rest of the world; THEY still hate us you know. As with most issues facing the Jewish community, there isn't a black and white answer to this problem.

Borat came out in theaters more than a year ago and cause a HUGE ruckus. I got the DVD (because it was on mega clearance - how can you pass up such a deal?) and started watching it. I found it to be boring. I had heard the jokes, didn't think they were all that funny, but not for their offensive nature (which they are) but because that is an old bit. The Ali G Show was funny, Borat, Ali G and Bruno are all funny characters. The Ali G movie was not funny and so I wasn't surprised when I found Borat to be similarly lackluster.

However, people like my mother rejected the movie out right because it did nothing good. "It puts nothing positive into the universe," she said. I would happen to agree, but that is because the movie was bad. This generational divide, as my mom coined in our conversation about Jewno, is at the core of this conversation.

Does art and humor educate people or does it simply enforce stereotypes? In its purest form, art elevates our human existence and according to Walter Benjamin it all started as a way to give praise in religious life. Is our art pure in our time? I do not think so. However Jewish humor has influenced thousands of comedians and has made THEM laugh for a very long time - and not always at US.

This is something that will change over time. Just like the trends change with the season and are influenced by the ones that came before, our humor - and understanding of it appropriate display - will change. And a little squirming (for everyone) can be a good thing.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Shabbat Ideas - March 14, 2008

I have been out for a while, lots has happened that I have opinions on (shocking) and it is Friday so here are my Shabbat Thoughts for March 14, 2008:

The AJWS, Avodah and others class on Exodus and Revolutions is great! Glad I am taking it. I will also report on it from time to time.
Hey HUC Students: It is time to step up! Our country needs you. (CCAR that means you too)
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is in Jail (he used to be the executive of Hillel where I went to school)

This past week we have seen a leading Democratic Governor fall into a nasty sex shunda, the presidental race go back to the race issue and glimmers of hope in the economy. But all of this is lost on me.

I was on vacation for an entire week. My third day off was during the shootings in Jerusalem and really that was the only news I really watched. I didn't watch Wolf Blitzer screaming in the situation room about Texas or Ohio. I didn't read the Times editorials on something they believe to be important. I stayed away from my Google Reader (sorry fellow bloggers.) I really unplugged.

For more than a year now I have taken to this digital soap box to rant and rave about some topic each week. On Fridays, as a way to bring in the Shabbat and perhaps give my readers (all three of you) something to think about over the sabbath day, I wrote these long opinionated and sometimes well thought-out pieces. I would think about the news of the week and then sit down and type it out. But this week, I will not do that at all.

This week I am going to talk about Shabbat as a concept. People need a break. God's rules say we should take one once a week. But we often forget to actually complete stop. The last week, when I was on vacation, I did stop. I feel better, I act better and I can work better. This is a no brainer. The NY Times had some guy write about his "Secular Shabbat" a few weeks ago and how it really helped him move forward and be more productive. However the mere fact that he wrote (and made money, hence worked) with something regarding his day of rest takes away from the power and sanctity of restfulness.

I like the idea of a Shabbat; a time to stop and think that we have something for which to be thankful is a useful tool in our world. This is partly because of our information overload. Should we stop and thank God for the creation of Coca Cola? Perhaps if that is a way to make yourself feel connected...this is a way to slow down and be thankful.

Millions of Americans crack open a Coke each day, drink it down and move on. But for this Shabbat follower, he stops and makes a statement saying thanks for his frosty beverage. I don't think that makes much sense, but hey it works for him.

(I for one will not stop to pray over my corn-syrup and brown water.)

Yet as Shabbas come to us later in these sunnier months, and we have longer Saturdays to relax, I hope I can take a vacation a little more effectively. Even if it is only 24 hours long. But it is once a week.

Shabbat Shalom

Monday, March 3, 2008

Told You So



Hat Tip (yeah I am ashamed) TMZ

Saturday, March 1, 2008

New York Times, Jews and Barack Obama

As I am about to spend my weekend cold, wet and the less than glamorous primary state of Rhode Island for Mr. Obama, I was up early reading the Times and was surprised to see the top story on the website to be about me. You know about Jews and Obama

Now we all know what is going on in the Jewish community, but JJ Goldberg, editorial something or other at the Forward NAILED it:
Some Jewish leaders [like Goldberg] said the anxiety over Mr. Obama might reveal more about Jews than about the candidate. By their analysis, those who heed the e-mail are generally older and have closer ties to Israel. The break is between “those who are motivated by traditional Jewish liberalism and those motivated by traditional Jewish anxiety over Israel."

Time saved to borrow from my friends at Jspot, but actually read the article if not only to see how 1.7% of the population can be so important.