Thursday, September 24, 2009

Snapshot Book Review: The Republic of Love

The Republic of Love The Republic of Love by Carol Shields

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of very few books I have read that I feel realistically addresses the quirky, elusive, shocking, and sometimes painful subject of love. Perhaps it was the way Shields manipulated viewpoint by allowing the story to be told alternately by both Tom and Fay. Perhaps I loved the fact that the entire first half of the book led up to the meeting of these two protagonists, and that the background knowledge gained about the characters this way allowed their "love at first site" encounter to seem more the result of life circumstances (and an aversion to loneliness) than some sort of romantic ideal. Perhaps I loved the way Shields illustrated other couples' relationship through both Fay's and Tom's eyes. Or perhaps I simply loved Shields' refusal to make the ignorant bliss of courtship as ignorant or blissful as lovers wish it were.

This book was full of realism, and because I believed in its characters, because I understood and related to their their doubts and disappointments, I stayed with them through the slow, lumbering building of the story--which, in the end, was rewarding.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Case Against Organized Religion

Argument One: Catholicism

In Catholicism, Communion is not communal. First, there is a special Catholic name for it: the Eucharist. Second, only Catholics are permitted to participate. If you practice any other religion, from Methodism to Buddhism, regardless of how faithful you may be, you are not permitted to share in the sacrament of Communion with Catholics. Their reasoning is as follows:

"Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Cor. 10:17). For this reason, it is normally impossible for non-Catholic Christians to receive Holy Communion, for to do so would be to proclaim a unity to exist that, regrettably, does not.
While Catholics are Christians, then, Christians are not Catholics and, therefore, are subject to exclusion in spite of shared faith. Jesus might have said “do this in memory of me,” but Catholics seem to have taken his words to mean do this to demonstrate your higher status of Christianity.

The issue of Communion is especially irksome to me because, growing up, I spent five years attending two different Catholic grade schools. As a Presbyterian girl with a Jewish last name, I was treated the same at both schools: attending mass with all of my fellow students was obligatory, but when it came time for the most revered part of the service, I had to scrunch up my knees and let all of my classmates file past while I sat in the pew, enduring their questioning, sometimes accusatory looks. Whenever I asked my religion teachers why I couldn’t take Communion, too—after all, I had been taking it in my church since first grade—I was always told it was because I wasn’t Catholic. For some reason, this always sounded like, “Because you’re not good enough.”

(Finally, my fourth grade religion teacher told me that it was because Catholics believed the priest actually turned bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ; everyone else—i.e. Protestants like me—believed it was only symbolic. When she told me that, I nearly laughed. There was no way my friends actually thought they were eating flesh and blood every week—they’d be vomiting all over the church!)

Argument Two: Judaism

My last name is Jewish, so every time I am introduced to someone, the very first thing they ask—and always in a presumptive-sounding tone—is, “Oh so you’re Jewish then, right?” I’m never quite sure what to say to that question, because the answer I give really depends upon whom I am talking to.

Some people define Jewish-ness by a person’s practiced religion. Do I go to synagogue? No. Do I celebrate Rosh Hashanah or Purim or Pesach? Well, I celebrated all of these growing up, and Pesach (Passover) is one of my favorite holidays, but unless I am invited by a friend, I do not celebrate any of these holidays on my own. Therefore, by this definition, no, I am not Jewish.

Some people define Jewish-ness history and heritage. My last name is Jewish because father is Jewish, and therefore I have Jewish blood and Jewish relatives. I grew up celebrating the major Jewish holidays with him and still try to celebrate Pesach every year. So, by this definition, I could be considered half-Jewish (but only half, since my mother is Presbyterian, and we still celebrate all of the Christian holidays with her).

However, the official Orthodox definition of a Jew is someone whose mother is Jewish. By this definition, I am not at all Jewish. No matter what name I have; who my father or grandfather or great-grandfather were; what I believe or how I live, I will never be Jewish.

I find this kind of exclusion unacceptable. Yes, Jews were/are God’s chosen people.

"For you are a holy people to YHWH your God, and God has chosen you to be his treasured people from all the nations that are on the face of the earth." (Deuteronomy 14:2,)
However, I don’t think this gives them the right to exclude others from God’s community, especially just because of birthright. Yes, many denominations of Judaism accept converts, but this still doesn’t discount the manner of thinking that a “pure” Jew is born of a Jewish mother and that only Jewish men and Jewish women should be married—not just for spiritual compatibility, but to ensure that the “tribe” remains pure and not sullied by outsiders.

I realize that I have used a lot of provocative language here, but I would like to justify it with one early experience that made me feel the very “dirty outsider-ness” I am describing. My family had gone to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with another Jewish family (my father was friends with the mother), and before we arrived, I was warned that the son of that family, J___, who was my age, had become extremely religious over the last few years. At the time, I think I was in seventh or eighth grade, and we only usually saw their family every two or three years, so I didn't know much about J___ to begin with. I guessed that “very religious” meant looking especially pious during prayer time or murmuring blessings before every bite of food. I was completely unprepared for what actually occurred.

When we arrived, we were heartily greeted by the mother, father, and daughter of the family. Other relatives were there, too—two uncles, an aunt, and a grandfather—and we had hugs and kisses all around. Then J___, their son, came out of the kitchen. He was somberly dressed and stayed hovering in the doorway, well behind his mother, who had snatched up her camera and was trying to get our family to pose together for, “Just a quick photo—you all look so nice!” After eyeing us and nodding his greeting, he disappeared back into the kitchen. His mother got her picture and then bustled after him to finish up the food.

Soon after, we sat down to eat. I don’t know if the adults seated us by age because they assumed we would have more to talk about or just because they all wanted to sit together, but J___, his siter, my sister, and I all sat clustered at one end of the table—ironically enough, with their grandfather seated at the head. We passed the food clockwise, and I was sitting to J’s left, so I had to hand things to him, but every time I tried, he either ignored me or busied himself with something else. Soon I realized that he was doing this intentionally, because as soon as I the dish down on the table, he would pick it up. It became even more obvious once we had started eating, when he explicitly asked his grandfather to pass the butter--which was significantly closer to me than to his grandfather--to him.

Finally, I decided to force him to stop playing the game: I asked him to pass me the salt. Reluctantly, he picked it up and brought it toward me. At the last minute, he lowered his hand to set it on the table by my plate. I darted in and grabbed the shaker. At the moment my hand closed around the glass, he snatched his hand away like I had burned him. The look in his eyes was something between terror, disgust, and . . . tiredness? I wasn’t sure what I saw there. All I knew was that he was going to all this trouble just to avoid touching me, and that made me feel . . . well, untouchable.

Later that night, I saw him hug his mom and shake hands with my father. So what was wrong with me? On the way home my mother explained that because he was living the Orthodox lifestyle, he was prohibited from touching any female he was not closely related to—and that meant me. I suppose, I thought, I should feel special. This probably has to do with temptation and purity. But all I really felt was dirty and female and not Jewish.

So this is my case against organized religion. The arguments are quite personal, so I am sure there are many other logical, spiritual, and personal arguments for organized religion. However, the exclusion religions foster—which I have directly experienced—turns them into something I cannot, at least at this point in my life, support. For now, I’ll just work on what I personally believe and live as morally as I am able. And if that ends up condemning me to hell, then I’m not sure I wanted to spend eternity with that sort of God in the first place.

Monday, September 14, 2009

A vegetarian, a vegan, and a Jew

I’ve been asked many times, but no, I’m not vegetarian; I just happen to like vegetarian food. I would happily eat fish more often if I could afford it, but I can’t, and since I don’t feel especially strongly about chicken, I simply don’t happen to eat much meat.

I have considered going full-on vegetarian several times, because I already don’t like red meat, eggs, or cheese; however, I have never been able to justify making the commitment. Basically, I cannot find a compelling enough reason. I’m not sympathetic enough toward farm animals (yes, I think their living conditions are despicable, but only when I read books and articles about the issue; it doesn’t bother me enough to warrant a lifestyle change). I am not lactose intolerant or possess any other unusual food allergies. I like ice cream, I love fish, and I see no reason to deprive myself of these things. Plus, I don’t consider the inconvenience to other people—particularly when it comes to eating in their homes—worth the payoff. Therefore, I have remained a vegetable lover who is not opposed to a bit of fish or chicken and eats a lot of ice cream.

This being said, when I am asked “Are you vegetarian?” I always feel complimented because I interpret the question as a way of saying, “You seem like someone who has the willpower and dedication to become a vegetarian.” And that association—with qualities of loyalty, self-control, and commitment—appeals to me. However, committing to vegetarianism is nothing compared to committing to veganism. Or Judaism.

After a night of rock'n roll in the rain, firecrackers on the roof, and Jameson's, I ended up at the Jersey Shore with my friend D___, his girlfriend Karen, and two of his other friends, Larry and Joe. Before we even left, I already knew that Karen was vegan (because D__ sometimes brings me leftovers from his vegan dinner experiments), and I found out the night we drove to the shore that Joe was Jewish and, consequently, kept kosher. (Although I realize that one eating practice is linked to a religin and one is not, I still find it odd that we say Jews keep kosher but that people who don't eat animal products are vegans.) When we arrived at the beach and convened to eat lunch the next day, I discovered that even Larry was vegetarian. Oddly enough, that made me and D__ the "odd men out." However, even D__ was being vegan for the weekend (he does this to support Karen), so it seemed that I was the only one without who wasn't making a moral/political statement with my mealtime choices.

With three such differently inspired eaters dining together, meals generated the kind of conversation I like best: debates. Joe had just returned from a few months in Isreal, and was filled with awe and respect for the lifestyle and culture he experienced there. I never did find out his personal reason for keeping kosher, but I am positive he had one, because he interrogated D___ and Karen about their food choices the way I only wish I had the courage to do.

One evening, Joe and I went to the local Wawa (a 7-Eleven-type grocery mart that, when mentioned, never fails to make me think of Hellen Keller) to pick up ice cream for dessert. Thinking of Karen, I suggested we get sorbet, too. I scrupulously examined the list of ingredients on the container, wondering aloud over "pectin" until Joe assured me that that ingredient was fine. We ended up getting 2 pints of Edy's ice cream and a pint of Hagaan Daas rasberry sorbet and walked back to the beach house, satisfied with our purchase, only to have Karen take one look at the sorbet container and inform us that she couldn't eat it. Why? It "contained traces of milk product."

"You can eat it," Joe told her, "You're just choosing not to."

Karen looked shocked that this man, Dan's friend, had the nerve to talk to her this way. And a man who kept kosher, no less! The same thing that flashed through my mind must have run through hers: If it weren't kosher, would you eat it?

As if reading our minds, Joe replied, "Even Judaism has a degree of allowances. They say, 'You tried? Okay, that's what matters.'"

I wanted to hug this man. As silly and outdated as I think keeping kosher is (from what I know of it), this response to veganism is exactly how I feel about it. The militance, to me, seems oppressive, not liberating. You can fight your battles, but why nitpick the tiniest details of one battle when there are larger issues at hand?

My second moment of appreciation for Joe's brilliance came on the beach, when he told D___ he would be grilling steaks for dinner. D__ told him he wasn't going to have any, and Joe demanded to know why.

"Because I decided that when I'm with Karen, I'm going to respect her choices," D___ told him.

"So respect them," Joe said. "She doesn't have to eat the steak."

"I'll eat meat when I'm with the boys," D__ replied, ,"but when I'm with her, I don't want her to be the only vegan in the room."

Joe looked disguested. "Oh come on. Stand up, be your own man and make your own decisions. You don't see her eating meat just to make you feel better do you?"

Finally, D__ acquiesced. At this point, I couldn't keep quiet; I pointed at Joe and exclained, "I like you!" D___ wasn't very happy with me after that. I think I was supposed to be his ally.

At the risk of sounding as though I idolize Joe, however, I understand keeping kosher even less, I think, than I understand "keeping vegan". Vegans at least have their animal-loving argument. At the risk of seeming anti-semitic (which would be ridiculous, because my father is Jewish), keeping kosher seems like one more way for Jews to be “special.” Yes, Jews have been discriminated against in the past and almost certainly still are today, but the more things people do to separate themselves from society and the mainstream (e.g. needing their own exclusive restaurants and own specially prepared food), the more they force others to see--and treat--them as separate. It is like a form of self-discrimination: wanting to be be viewed as a separate, privileged group to which only a select few have access and deserve to be members. What better way to do this than to make what should be a communal event, such as a meal, into an idealogical battleground?

Ironically enough, the person whose eating habits I least understood but most appreciated were Larry's. He has been a vegeterian for 20 years, and although I never asked what promted him to give up meat, I found his approach to food the most sensible of the group. He didn't fuss over whether or not steak had touched the grill when he went to grill his vegetable burgers, and he did not scrutinize the ingredient list on the package of Oreos when one was offered to him. Ultimately, were I to become a vegetarian (or as I would prefer to say, to "keep vegetarian," since I wouldn't really become anything I'm not already!), I would most likely follow these sort of self-guided dietary "morals."

For now, though, I am satisfied to eat what tastes good, avoid what doesn't, try to limit my intake of things I know are unhealthy, and marvel at the impressive dedication of vegetarians, vegans, and Jews.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Snapshot Book Review: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Harry Potter, #4) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So far, the series has not blown me away. It's cute, enjoyable, easy reading. It's creative. But it's not particularly mind-blowing, and I simply cannot condone all the hype it has received. In spite of the many plot twists and turns, I find much of what is written predictable and trite, and this is very disappointing. That Harry should feel as I expect him to feel is one thing, because if I empathized with him, then it would be a good thing he is feeling the way I expected--otherwise he would seem to be an inconstant character. However, I don't feel empathy for him at all and sometimes even wish he would fail just because he is so terribly predictable. Even his "bad" moments, his jealousies and moments of anger are predictable and boxy-seeming, and for this reason I cannot view him as anything more than a character. I am never swept away in the story, in the "other realm" of fiction. If anything, I treat these novels no better than I treat pulp fiction, the kind that has lots of blood and gore and detectives uttering expletives every other word in terribly trite dialogue: I read them as quickly as possible to find out whodunnit.

This being said, I will keep my promise to my fellow author/schoolmate/friend M___ and will finish the series and judge the thing as a whole when I have completed all seven books. Nevertheless, as I proceed, I do not find the characters (or the writing style, although I did not expect this to change) to be improving, and as this was my sorest point from the beginning, I remain disappointed.

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Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Secret of Jollibee

This past spring, a certain fast-food franchise called Jollibee opened up about five blocks from my apartment in Woodside. In spite of its seemingly misfit status amidst mom-and-pop convenience stores and privately owned bakeries, this restaurant became instantly and wildly popular: for its first month, the line extended out the door and wrapped around the block almost daily. Family members took turns snapping each other's pictures with a giant bee statue that stood in front of the store as though it were a Disneyland mascot. And all this for a place that looked like nothing more than a KFC knockoff.

As it turns out, Jollibee is the McDonalds of the Philippines. Visually, Jollibee looks like a combination of Chuck-E-Cheese, McDonalds, and KFC. There are pictures of plump, olive-skinned children eating fried chicken legs on the walls inside, and the whole place is decorated in a red-white-and-yellow theme. Its menu is an odd conglomeration of fried chicken, French fries, hamburgers, spaghetti, and soft drinks. So, like America’s beloved McDonalds, the appeal of the franchise is not the its aesthetic or its menu. Branding has somehow trumped all else. Because with all of the other delicious, authentic, ethnic restaurants around—Indian, Thai, Mexican, Japanese, Irish, you name it!—all of these people were still spending their money on assembly-line fried chicken and overdone spaghetti.

However, the mystery has been solved. People are not as crazy—or stupid (because wanting to have your picture taken with a shiny oversized bee statue in front of a fast food restaurant just strikes me as stupid) —as they seem, and while I personally will never step foot in that place, I can at least now look upon those who do with less contempt. After all, if I went to live in Ghana or some other remote, foreign place and happened upon a Pinkberry store there, I would without-a-doubt drag my friends to it. Why? Because it’s Pinkberry! So what if it has horribly cheesy, overly modern-bordering-on-anime Japanese aesthetics and if the yogurt is overpriced? This is popular in America and I like it and my Ghanaian friends are going to like it too, darn it. And I might even take my picture with those nifty pig-shaped salt and pepper shakers—the neon orange ones.