Monthly Archives: September 2010

on being Jewish – not that i would know

so, this is a post that i had written only in my mind for nearly a month now. it is a topic where i, the fool, fears to tread. but, i’ve had one experience after another that seems to be the universe calling for this post. so, here we go.

context: i come from a small town, <13,000 people, that was 97% white when i grew up. wiki indicates it has become more diverse. it is now 96.8% white. until leaving home, and even a few yrs after that, i lived in one  kind of culture where words and phrases were thrown around that would be considered offensive. my grandfather, who i spent much time with and had a great influence on me, used terms for other people that are not appropriate today and were not really appropriate towards the end of his life. but, i honestly believe he used these terms like we use American, Canadian, Russian, etc.

so, i stereotype. there, i admitted it. i generalize groups of people, though not an individual person. i hope i am Chapelleian in this way. you know, like white people can’t dance, Clayton Bigsby and I Know Black People – see pts 1 & 2.

therefore, i am clearly naive and have no idea of what it is like to be Jewish. however, being brought into an Israeli-Jewish family, being exposed to bouts of Hebrew and visiting Israel certainly opens one’s world, unless they are a zombie. for example, i was sitting in an internet cafe the other day and ‘happened’ to overhear two Israelis calling home. my ears were pulled in and i definitely knew more words in their conversation than what i would have expected. strands of Israeli’ness have seeped into my soul.

last night i was listening to a podcast of my favorite radio show. it was recorded on Sukkot, which i just learned a little about the other day. they were discussing how they would celebrate it and that there would be no Jews listening to the show after 6:37 pm. Sukkot and cheating Jews, listening to the show past 6:37 pm, ended up being a running gag for the entire show. [i will not link to that episode as the main topic is really over the line, even for them; i did laugh and laugh].

at one point, the funnyman sidekick said he wasn’t going to celebrate Sukkot with his young children because he hasn’t told them they were Jewish. when prompted, he said he was going to sit them down and tell them when they were at the appropriate age. somewhat related: he also said he tells his children that they do not celebrate “Lunch” in their house.

of course not telling your children that they are Jewish is a joke. of course. except when it is not.

in fact, this summer i learned that the family of one of my friends only learned a decade or so ago that they were Jewish. it seems that Grandma fled Europe just as Hitler was rising to power [40 other family members perish]. she told NO ONE that she was Jewish.

call me wickedly naive, but this is, um, un-American to me. this is something, when i was younger i guess, that i discussed often with people, especially when i left my home region and met people of all kinds of races. i was fascinated. but, this is a fairly common topic of discussion in America – heritage. so, i was stunned  to hear of this lack of disclosure. but, more and more these days, i understand it.

the first event that helped me understand this was the Forest of Martyrs:

of course i can identify with that. it is less abstract. and when you allow yourself to think about it, it is overwhelming.

next, while in Mongolia, i was reading “Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World”. when the Mongolian army first wreaked havoc in eastern Europe, Europeans were so ignorant of who these people were that they concluded this was the lost black tribe of Jews. they had left Europe (for good reason perhaps?), became evil and returned with a vengeance, as a good action movie voice-over would say. the Euros blamed the Jews.

later in that same book it was noted  that the Mongolians introduced, accidently?, black plague to Europe. it seems to have derived in marmot burrows; marmots are the favorite wild food of Mongolians and they were pretty tied to this animal. of course, as the plague started to sweep Europe, you know who they blamed, correct? they went to their homes and villages and started burning them. it was how to keep the plague at bay, according to their hypothesis.

we all know what Hitler did. we all generally know that the Jews have been persecuted for 2000 yrs or so. given these new details, my in-laws did not know of these specific events, it puts Hitler in a greater perspective. he did nothing new, really. he just did it on a larger scale and recorded it. i mean, recorded it for the mass media for all to see. to be preserved outside of the Jewish culture forever.

wow, i’m really starting to get it. if i were Jewish, i would be careful about being in Europe. i do not want to be a scapegoat for anything.


coming back to stereotypes: they are dangerous and offensive. but, they also contain a certain grain of truth for larger cultures. more and more evidence is suggesting that natural selection plays a role in the development of culture. if this holds true, then we might think of culture as something like blondes in Scandinavia or coarse-haired Italians – it is partly shaped by our DNA and there is a common pattern among people within a culture.


World’s largest squash?

Not much to say, just wanted to share with you all this picture I took of what I think must be the largest squash in the world, viewed at the open air market yesterday morning.  I am sure that they would win a prize at some State Fair, but here nobody even blinked an eye when walking past.  Except me 🙂

These are prize winners, don't you think? Seen at the Carmel Market...

Fieldwork woes, and Sukkot around the world…

Dear readers,

Yesterday was a bit of a crazy day.  For those of you who don’t know, I have been in discussions with the Israeli Ministry of Education here – apparently, one of the organizations I am researching works under the purview of the Ministry (MoE), so [as I discovered in August when I arrive here] I need their permission in order to conduct observations of group activities – part of what my research plan includes.

Anyway, I got an email yesterday from the MoE that required some telephone follow-up, and during the telephone call, the MoE official I spoke with suggested that I have been working in a problematic manner and may have to destroy all of the data that I have thus far collected.  Well. My heart stopped for a second – I mean, it’s not that I have collected that much data, but the whole premise of this conversation was basically to tell me that I actually needed MoE approval for all of my fieldwork, not just for my observations, and that any data I may have collected thus far, since it was done without MoE permission, is not usable and must be destroyed.

After a few deep breaths I tried to calmly explain my perspective to the MoE official – which may or may not have succeeded.  This morning I sent off a whole new set of paperwork to the MoE Chief Scientist’s office in an attempt to rectify the situation.  We’ll see if it works.  In the meantime, here’s what I have to say: pice mille felicabron.  You know what I’m talkin’ about.

Yesterday was also an opportunity for me to see my roommate, who has been gone day and night during the last week during the holiday of Sukkot, which is the focus of her own dissertation project.  She had a rare morning off, and the two of us decided to head to Tel Aviv University, which was hosting a festival exhibit of Sukkot from around the world.  I brought my camera with me so that I could show the Sukkot to you as well – each was accompanied by a short description of the Jewish community in the country (or of what has happened to what was once a Jewish community there).  Here is a sampling of what we saw:

Representing Brazilian Jewry, the 2nd largest Jewish community in South America

A Sukkah representing Uzbekistani Jewry, titled "The Sukkah of Peace"

This Sukkah is built in the image of Sukkot that were built in the southern villages of Morocco before the Moroccan Jewish community largely immigrated to Israel after 1948

A Sukkah built in the tradition of the Jewish community of India. Note the many colors.

Decorated in the tradition of Ethiopian Jewry, most of which immigrated to Israel in three secret airlifts in the 1980s

Representing German Jewry and Jews who returned to Germany after the fall of the Former Soviet Union

An "Israeli" Sukkah, which according to the explanation at the festival is supposed to represent the connection between the community, natural resources, and the centrality of the natural area. According to my roommate, this particular Sukkah is not considered "kosher" because the tree around which it is built provides shade. To be a kosher Sukkah the shade must come only from branches placed upon the booth itself.

Representing American Jewry, the 2nd largest Jewish community outside of Israel. This particular Sukkah is one of 12 that were exhibited at Union Square in New York City as part of "Sukkah City," an international Sukkot project exhibited for the first time this year.

Today it is back to interviews, planning interviews, and transcribing interviews.  Sukkot ends tonight and I am hoping to see my roommate again soon…

So far from Kentucky and tortured

Organic apples? Really? Organic macoun? You’ve got to be kidding! Jet lag be damned. I’m there.

I find my way there eventually ending up on small, twisty roads. – a great sign! I pull into the parking lot and my enthusiasm begins to waver as I see parking lot attendants [yes, plural] and rows and rows and rows of cars [i eventually count 6 rows and estimate roughly 15 cars/row].

Dam! I am no longer in Kentucky. There is no denying it. It is understandable, though – a wonderful autumn day, fresh apples, organic orchard, tri-state region.  I get it. I accept it. I mean, I am here for the same reasons.

I put on my game face, head down and bolt for the store. Gotta make this a short visit.

And then it hits me, conditions that support my waning enthusiasm: a bouncy castle and face painting.

No. I’m sorry. Apple orchards in September are temples. They are holy sites; Mecca, if you will. It is a time and place where all the all the sacred elements of the Sun, great soil complex, rain, air and biology synergistically emerge in the shape, color, and taste of a crisp, sweet and tart apple. Heavenly perfection. Nirvana.

I did all I had to not go Jesus on these money changers.

I got bumped. I had to stand in line. I laughed (internally) at the orchard tourists, SLR digital cameras and camel packs, you know, so that they do not die of dehydration walking around the orchard picking apples. An oblivious mouth-breather jumps line  to buy two Boylan sodas. Does he not respect that this is the closest he’ll ever get to Kazakhstan, home of the domestic apple? Where is his reverence? To avoid gong postal, I start chanting (internally), “O.M….O.M. Organic Macoun…”

They take credit cards. I don’t have to sign as it is under $50. Great. In & out and nobody gets hurt.

I’m gone.

And then, it melts away. Less than 3 miles from the orchard and with 2/3rds of the first macoun melting into my system, I am transported to my Malus Temple; to Kazakhstan.

Fishill Farms, NY:

pros – organic, macoun, doughnuts;

cons – bouncy castle, face painting, plastic bags, 100 cars during peak times

Reed Valley Orchard, KY:

pros – 75+ varieties of apples*, Trudy**, homemade apple pies, 10 cars in the lot at peak;

cons – conventional apples, not one macoun tree left 😦

– it is a wash – both orchards sit atop my top 10 apple orchard list between KY , NY & VT. while Trudy is worth about two pros (see below), organic apples essentially count as two. if they were across the road from one another, which if that happend there would be a tear in the fabric of the universe, a black hole would form and it would collapse upon itself.

* – this diversity of varieties is nearly Inkan in its stability in production. the diversity buffers it from poor growing conditions. for example, in 2007 when central KY experienced an early, warm spring followed by a hard frost and minor drought, most orchards in the area lost much of their fruit. Reed Valley lost much fruit, too. however like farms of the Inkas, the variety of apples planted in the orchard essentially guaranteed continuous fruit despite poor weather or weather events. some of their usual varieties didn’t produce, but they brought out about 5-6 other varieties during that season they normally do not promote. as a biologist, i loves this. it is thrilling.

** – Trudy is almost worth two pros. She shares the equivalent of an apple as she gives you samples from the 5-8 variety of apples available for picking so you know exactly what you are purchasing. the funnest part of this is that Trudy eats right along with you, slice for slice. I’ve tried to calculate how many apples she eats a day during peak season. I’m guessing 5? 6?


post note:

I’ve studied apple orchards like I’ve studied soft-serve ice cream stands across the eastern US. And, like the angle of slanted windows on these stands and their positive correlation with ice cream quality (texture and creaminess; r = 0.67, p<0.01 – though this relation is non-linear at the margins of window angle), there a strong relationship between the carnival elements at an orchard and the quality of apple. In this case, however, the relationship is negative: the greater the number of carnival elements (face painting, bouncy castles games, etc), the lower the quality of apple (texture, crispness and genuine, intended flavor of each variety). Priests & priestesses of Malus need to focus solely on the product, not the tinsel. Please. I’ve studied this. Reed Valley has none of those things  on a day-to-day basis while the other two orchards in the Lexington area have these things. The other orchards produce inferior apples compared to Reed Valley. Another example of this issue at Fishkill are their plastic bags. If they truly cared about their apples, they would offer papers bags as Reed Valley does. Apples last longer in paper. It is no secret.

I have to say that while I enjoyed the 1st macoun, it was not the best I’ve ever had. But, this is only an N of 1. Time for more replication.

Pardon me.



Neighborhood graffiti, take 2: It’s always politics…

You’ve all met the Jew Pac/Jew Tang Clans by now, but what you don’t know is that they make up only a small part of the graffiti strewn about my neighborhood.  Today I thought I’d introduce you to some of the politics scattered throughout the streets here – painted, plastered, and always in your face…

First, not exactly from my neighborhood, but a protest I passed yesterday – Solidarity, a group working to prevent house demolitions both in Sheikh Jarahh, a neighborhood on East Jerusalem, and in Al-Akarib, a Bedouin village in the Negev Desert.  I was walking down one of the more cosmopolitan, cafe-filled streets of Tel Aviv yesterday on my way home from an interview when I crossed this group’s path:

Protesting building demolitions in the Negev and Jerusalem

Having been confronted with politics so early in the day, my eyes were attuned to political commentary and aesthetics as I maneuvered my way home.  A few things that caught my eye:

Extreme measures to protest the use of tear gas

The poster above, plastered a few streets from my apartment, describes [visually and in English and Hebrew] the protests of one man against Israeli military/police use of tear gas in breaking up Palestinian protests. His own protest took the form of inhaling tear gas and photographing the results [this is what you see in the picture].  Extreme, but dramatic and effective…

Looking for regular people, just like you!

Down the street from the first poster – an ad looking for people to join a protest against the use of carcinogenic chemicals in Israeli industry.  The top of the flyer says, “Wanted: Regular people, just like you!”

Holocaust imagery on the streets of Tel Aviv

This image, famous from the WWII-era, is all around the streets of my neighborhood.  And the effect of using Holocaust imagery to protest deportation of foreign workers [a big issue here, just as in the United States] is not lost on me.

Unlikely partners

Gilad Shalit is the name of an Israeli soldier who was kidnapped by Hamas in June 2006 and has been held in captivity in the Gaza Strip since then.  He is a central figure in Israeli politics – marches and protests have been held in his name, and discussions have been held about freeing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for his release.  It is interesting to me that in this particular political commentary his name is next to Jonathan Pollard, an American CIA analyst accused of spying for Israel and imprisoned in the United States.  Clearly this guy is not a “one issue voter…”

Education for Freedom

You May Not Have Chains...

And last but not least, two pieces of political commentary facing each other on my street.  Their proximity is rather striking: the first piece of graffiti, above, says, “Education for Freedom.”  Below, and facing it across the street, is a sign suggesting that “You may not have chains, but you are not free…” I wonder what the connection is between them…

To be honest, I am actually surprised that I haven’t seen MORE political commentary on the walls and around the neighborhood.  In this country, it really is always politics…

Lack of pictures explained…

I feel the need to explain to you all why my blog posts are not as visually appealing as Neil’s. Basically, it comes down to this: his research can be photographed without fear of confidentiality loss, and mine cannot.  In other words, trees aren’t covered by university Institutional Review Boards…*

But people are.  And it occurs to me that I haven’t told you all about my people [aka my research participants], so maybe now’s the time.  My research project is essentially an attempt to figure out what happens, down the road, to participants in two different organizations bringing Jewish and Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel together.  So I’m interviewing lots and lots of people – alumni of both organizations as well as current and past staff/board members [in order to figure out how the programs themselves have changed over the past few decades].  Both organizations have been around since the 1980s, meaning that there are lots of alumni at various life stages.

…and as a result, even though I’m less than two months into my research, I’ve had interviews with people in a variety of places, too.  My interview locales have ranged from coffee shops to offices to living rooms; from the suburbs of Tel Aviv to a kibbutz to an Arab village, with lots of time in Haifa and Yaffo.  I anticipate that the range of places and spaces will only expand as this year continues.  I have to say I am finding my fieldwork even more interesting than I anticipated, although of course not without its frustrations, too.

In any case, I thought you’d like to know what I am actually [supposed to be] doing here and why it doesn’t include awesome photographs.  I’ll leave those for Neil, although now that he’s headed back to the USA it might be a while…

*sadly this is going to make giving aesthetically-pleasing conference presentations, especially presentations meeting Neil’s standards, somewhat difficult.

the one that got away…for now

the main portion of the 2010 field season went out like a lamb yesterday, no Mongolian pun intended. we traveled the Millennial Road to check out a site I spotted a few weeks ago and look for other sites that might help fill in a part of the northern portion of our climate network. on the third viewing from afar, it looked better than the first two. however, what we could not see was a fence on the eastern end of this rocky, elevated valley nor the chained gate on the dirt road leading into the site:

fences and, especially with gates, are new things in Mongolia. most land is open to the public, so to speak. it turns out that the owner is a famous lama and sculptor. our leader on this trip, Professor Dima [pic below], compared the owner to Zanabazar, a famous artist and lama in Mongolian history. also, the modern lama-artist is building a new monastery on his little cul-de-sac in this corner of the world.

the owner went back to town that morning, but we were allowed on site by the owner’s gatekeeper because Dima said we wanted to take pictures of the unique rock formations and the trees sitting on the rocks. after getting in we asked permission from the construction workers to do the same. it was agreeable to them for us to tour the site. but, given the elevated status of this site and our unusual appearance and request, we decided to hold off on any sampling until we get permission to sample by the owner.

after a wonderful autumn hike while scouting out the site, autumn was in the air and yellow birch leaves were on the ground, it was hard to drive away with no samples. it was a nearly ideal site in a great location for our research needs.

there is always next yr, correct?

this yr turned out great! we sampled >1400 trees in a wide swath of Mongolia, from Urgun Nars to past Sologotyin Davaa [east to west], and from the Tuul Gol watershed in the south to near the Russian border at Tujyin Nars. big cheers to the whole crew: Byamba, Tom & Cari who arrived first and spent most of their summer in Mongolia. Enkhbat, engineer and Renaissance Mongolian who drove long days on the roughest road, cooked scrumptious meals, made peace with the ants and introduced us to the world of Mongolian Road Trance Tripping. Peter, who sampled the eastern portion of our network before battling a bit of an illness. Amy, who fiercely led what might have led the toughest portion of the summer: insects, rain on cold days, a windstorm, snow, terrible roads and a co-leader who dropped like a fly a couple of times. and, a big thanks to Ashley for volunteering her time and money for our September sampling. it certain made the sampling that much easier and better!

Most of all, we could not have completed the long summer without the leadership of Dr. Baatarbileg and his great set of students assisting us, most notably, star quarterback, Bayaraa, his sidekick Galaa who made sure no food went to waste and Uyanga, whose assistance at the margins of this field season are extremely valuable to the success of this project.

now, some pix from the Lama Cul-de-Sac:

Bayaraa on the QB perch with the western valley in the background.

Bayaraa emerging from a wolf cave?

the main formation that drew my attention from the Millennial Road

the west side of the main rock outcrop. note a couple oldish looking trees and low forest density. it seems a large fire, producing 15-25′ fire scars, thinned the woods.

full pan of the western valley. note the unbroken forest to the southwest and on the far mountain range.

western valley

west valley view

a few words about Dr. Dima. first, i want to call him Professor Dima because he embodies the great patience, tolerance, wisdom and intelligence you want from your favorite professor.

luckily, i met Professor Dima within the first week of my first visit to Mongolia in 1998 at a small conference at Terelj. at that time his hair was much longer. and, as i recall, it stood out almost like a headdress. and, for the longest time he held that epic stoicism that Mongolians are well know for. he is stout, but in a muscular kind of way like many Mongolians. he looked fierce. it was easy to envision him on horseback as a part of Chinggis’ great army. he was intimidating.

by the end of that trip, or perhaps on my second visit, his placid mask melted and the kind, patient and intelligent man you are getting a glimpse of above was revealed. at the time, during Mongolia’s post-communism hunger period, he told me that there was no money for him to conduct research. he studied biophysics and was perhaps the most intelligent scientist i had met [oh, and he speaks Mongolian, Russian, Japanese and English]. his intellect is  impressive and i was saddened that he could not conduct his research. it must have been frustrating.

i am happy to say his career has risen. he is collaborating with people in Japan and is heavily involved with the first eddy-flux tower in Mongolia, which measures how a forest ‘breathes in’ CO2 and ‘exhales’ oxygen. i am thrilled at his success. i was taken back when he told me this year that he would retire in about 3 yrs. i told him he was too young. he then informed me that he had been teaching for 35 yrs. well, he has certainly earned retirement. [i swear he looks in the lower to mid-50s, not lower 60s. i would have guessed 12 yrs ago he was in his late-30s – that is how robust he looked. his age is starting to peak out now].