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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Ordering Coffee

A few months ago I read a book by Bill Bryson called "Notes from a Big Country", which is a compilation of columns he wrote for The Mail on Sunday, describing his experiences upon returning with his English wife and family to live in the US after a long stint in the UK.

In one of these columns, he laments the fact that one can no longer order a simple cup of coffee. Gone are the days that you asked for a cup of coffee, paid for it, and walked away happy. You now had to make several choices before your coffee could be prepared for you, and some of these choices were mind-boggling.

I was reminded of this when reading an op-ed column by Stanley Fish in the New York Times (reprinted here in the IHT). Read it, it's funny.

But even funnier is a riposte by Ron Rosenbaum in Slate Magazine, here. Mr. Rosenbaum asks himself whether Mr. Fish's was "the worst op-ed ever". It's all very amusing.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Harry Potter, by J. K. Rowling

Having just finished the last book in the Harry Potter series, I felt I had to write a few words about this extraordinary literary phenomenon.

My acquaintance with the Harry Potter books happened by chance. For some reason, I completely missed the success of the first book; I might have read about it somewhere, but I probably wasn't paying much attention. Later on, during one of my visits to Boston, I entered a Borders bookshop in the centre of the city just to have a look. An entire wall was covered with a book I had not heard about; so I picked it up, read the first couple of pages, and decided I liked it. Only after having finished reading it, I found out it was the first book of the series ("Sorcerer's Stone", it was the US edition). It was plastered on the bookshop walls because the second book ("Chamber of Secrets") had just come out. So it is by this coincidence I stumbled upon the magical world created by Ms. Rowling. And, like many before me, I fell under its spell.

The second and third ("Prisoner of Azkaban") books I bought in Singapore, while on a trip to Asia. The fourth ("Goblet of Fire") and fifth ("Order of the Phoenix") I took off my mother, who bought them in the US. By this time my son was immersed in the books himself and was reading them over and over again. He read the sixth ("Half-Blood Prince") before me and it actually took me months before I got around to reading it. Reason was that I found the fifth book a little too long and not as captivating as the previous ones, so I thought I was beginning to have enough of Harry Potter. After reading the sixth book I realised how wrong I was and was pleased to see Rowling was back in form.

I got the seventh book ("Deathly Hallows") in Scotland a couple of weeks ago. I gave it first to my son to read'; he finished it in 4 days (it is the summer holidays after all), and then I read it (took me a bit longer, I admit). Rowling's finishing stroke is a masterpiece of suspense and storytelling which I very much enjoyed. There were some open questions I had at the end, but I attribute these mostly to my overlooking some facts along the way...

I will not go into any review of the Harry Potter books. Oceans of ink have been poured in literaray criticisms by people far more accomplished than me. One very good review was written by Stephen King, whom I don't like as an author but I think made some very good points about Rowling and the series. But I will make the following observations:

  • Whilst I resent most of the hype around Harry Potter, I admire the marketing genius of Rowling or whomever gave her advice.

  • At the end of the day, the main ingredients of the Harry Potter series - magical creatures, fantasy worlds and bravery of the good against the bad - were all available well before Rowling. Some even wrote that she "borrowed" a little too much off other authors. for example Tolkien. But it is the mix that makes the book, and Rowling's mix is a recipe few can imitate.

  • Perhaps a little too much is made of the fact that "children are reading again" because of Harry Potter. I think children were reading well before Harry Potter and there are some excellent children series out there (Lemony Snicket is a good example). But who am I to argue against any claim that will make the young generation read more? The fact that many Israeli kids are making an effort to read the last book in English (the Hebrew version will not be available before December) is an added bonus.

  • It was reported that Rowling is working on a new series. I have mixed feelings about that. If I were in her place (as if I ever will be...) I would want to be remembered as the magical creator of the most successful book series in history, and not take the risk of not attaining the same success with a new series. But that's just me.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Re'eh - Reconciling the Two Choices

ראה אנכי נתן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה

(דברים י"א, כ"ו)

One of the basic tenets of Jewish faith is free will. God, through the Torah, has shown us the right way to live our lives, but the choice on whether to follow this way or not is in the hands of each individual. The opening word of our parasha is re'eh - watch, or behold - a word which many commentators explain as understanding. We understand that God is giving us both a blessing and a curse, and that we need to choose between the two.

However, this week's parasha also has several references to the temple in Jerusalem (implicitly referred to as the "place that God will choose") as the only place where sacrifices can be brought to. The choice of the place where to worship God is not up to man, and man is commanded to come to a specific place and is prohibited from doing God's work elsewhere. In the story in Bereshit about Avraham being commanded to sacrifice his son Yitzchak, God says to him that He will show him which mountain to go to for this purpose. Answering Yitzchak's question about why there is no animal going with them, Avraham replies that God is supposed to show them which animal to sacrifice. We see here that it is God that tells us how and when to worship Him, and that we have no free will in this matter.

But if we read the story of the akedah more closely we see that Avraham is the one that actually "sees" the mountain, their destination. Avraham is also the one that "sees" the animal to sacrifice, after the angel of God tells him not to sacrifice Yitzchak. The idea here is that a person who reaches a high level of faith (and fear) of God, is a person who is able to "see" what God has chosen for him.

Rambam approaches the age-old theological question of free will against the will of God and asks a question on the verse from Tehillim 115: "whatever pleases [God] He has done". How can man have free will if God does whatever pleases him? Rambam answers that God gave us the right to make mistakes and choose the wrong way, in order to preserve free will. The value of man's free will is higher in God's eyes, so to speak, than the value of man following God's ways. This is true in a time when we are not close to God. But when we succeed in approaching God and understanding his ways, like Avraham did, we are able to make our choices freely and our choices match the will of God.

The famous story in the Talmud about the discussion among the sages that ended in a voice from heaven saying what is right and R. Yehoshua exclaiming: "it is not in heaven" - meaning man is free to interpret the law - is an illustration of this free will. At the end of this story, we are told God says "my sons have beaten me" and accepts the interpretation of the majority of the sages against the voice from heaven. In an interesting reversal of the order of things, the choice of God has become the choice of man!

So how do we reconcile the edict that we can worship God only in the temple in Jerusalem with our free will? How do we worship God the way we want and where we want, and make our choice also the choice of God? The answer is in the verse from Shemot 20, 20: "in every place where I cause my name to be mentioned, I will come unto you and bless you". The Talmud in Berachot says that even if one person sits down and learns Torah, God's presence is with him. If we follow God's edict and come to the place he mentioned His name, then He will come to us and bless us, He will come to the place we choose. This is the reconciliation between the two choices: God's choice and our choice.

This idea for this week's thought is from R. David Dov Levanon.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Scotland, UK

Last week, my wife and I went for a short holiday in Scotland. She was in England the previous week for her studies, and I was scheduled to be in Boston the following week, so stopping for a few days in Scotland fitted in well with our plans.

We stayed in Edinburgh, arriving at our guesthouse there with an hour to spare before shabbat. We picked this guesthouse for its proximity to the synagogue and it turned out to be a lovely place to stay at. The Jewish community in Edinburgh is very small but they have an educated, well-meaning rabbi who does wonders with the his small flock. We had our shabbat meals at his place and the conversation around the table (there were other guests from the US) helped pass this LONG shabbat (ended after 10:30pm!).

We did wander around the centre of the city on shabbat, but actually we saw very little of Edinburgh during our stay. We picked up our rental car on Sunday morning and for three days ventured out of the city into the lovely countryside. All in all, we drove about 1,000 kilometres, through some of the most beautiful scenery we ever saw (bar New Zealand). Here below are the routes we took:

On the first day (yellow) we drove west, all the way to Oban, a small village on the Atlantic Ocean. Our first stop was Stirling Castle, one of the largest and most well-preserved castles in Scotland (there are hundreds if not thousands of castles in this country). Here is the view from one of the ramparts:

Oban itself is a quaint little village, full with tourists this time of year. We arrived quite late in the day so did not take the ferry out to any of the islands. The walk along the seafront was very nice, especially as it just stopped raining and the sun was coming out.

On the way back east towards Edinburgh we saw the most perfect rainbow I have ever seen in my life. It was huge, so big in fact that I couldn't take a picture of it in one frame.

On the second day (red), we started by climbing the hills in Holyrood Park in Edinburgh. These hillsl dominate the city skyline (and helped us navigate back to our hotel on several occasions). The highest point is called Arthur's Seat; legend has it King Arthur was here, but apparently the name is a corruption of some other name. The hill does not look very steep, but the latter part of the climb is quite difficult (if short). It's worth the efforts though, as the 360-degree views of Edinburgh from the top are simply gorgeous, including a view of the old city with Edinburgh Castle perched on top of the hill.

Driving out of Edinburgh we went north this time, all the way past the city of Perth and to a town called Pitlochry. There is a huge dam there with special pools that were built for salmon to make their way past the dam on their journey upstream, the so-called "salmon ladder". The town hosts the Scottish Plant Hunters Garden, a charming green reservoir with winding paths through some truly exotic plants.

In the evening we searched for a vegetarian restaurant and found an Indian one not far from our hotel - Anna Purna. We went in and I asked the owner whether it was strictly vegetarian. He said "yes". Then I asked whether also the oils used were vegetarin. He looked at me and asked "are you Jewish?". Turns out this specific restaurant has been checked by the local rabbi, "who is also a regular customer" as the owner proudly said with a beaming smile.

On the third day (blue) we drove east to the coast and then down south through what is called the Border Abbeys region. This area of Scotland, just north of the border with England, has - you guessed it - lots of abbeys. We first drove along the coast, stopping in several small towns along the way. In one of them (the name escapes me) I went into a public toilet and was hugely impressed with how clean and well-kept it was. On the way out, I noticed this toilet has indeed been awarded with 5 stars in the "Loo of the Year Awards 2004". Impressive.

We stopped to see Melrose Abbey, a truly remarkable building founded in the 7th century by Cistercian monks.

All in all, it was way too short for us to really experience Scotland. But two things made this trip a very pleasurable one. First, the weather was on our side; it rained only for a few hours during our entire stay, and on the third day we could actually walk around without a second layer of clothing! Second, we saw not one Israeli tourist during out entire stay on Scottish soil! Many Spanish, some Chinese, but no Israelis...