Monday, March 26, 2012


Dear God,

So I sit here on my sofa starting at an empty room and I think to myself: I should be grading papers. But really what I focus on is that I wish "Smash" would hurry up and start playing because then I could focus on the glitz and the glamour and the story of the young ingenue-in-training, all of which would be a perfect escape from what I'm currently thinking. I like escapes, because they are another way of working on avoiding, and avoidance is important.

So I'm listening to "Breathless" by Dan Wilson and figuring I should say hi.

There's a new film coming out. It's called "Bully." It's a really important movie. And just watching the trailer brings back a lot of memories.

A lot of memories.

We never really outrun or outgrow our pasts, now do we? Instead we carry them with us, as the turtle carries his shell.

I will always be that sensitive kid. It was my weakness and now it's my strength. It's what makes television and movies and books a totally different experience for me than it is for most people. It's what makes me see through to issues and morals that others don't carry with them. It's what makes my life more difficult and more complicated. It's also what makes me hate confrontation and feel like my only option is to shut down when it comes to that. I don't cry anymore, but I laugh...nervously. Nervous laughter is my weapon of choice because I still don't have the tools for more sophisticated ones.

I find it ironic that I teach 7th grade. That was the worst grade of my existence, the loneliest grade of my existence, the year of my life I would never repeat over, not for all the money in the world. It's like in this, too, God takes my hand and shapes my life and says that out of ashes there will come the phoenix, and all things build on one another.

Because in my life, they always do. Don't they, God. Everything is just another step to take me to the next level in the drama in which I star.

Some days I see that fully, understand it, respect it, work with it. Other days I struggle.

There are the days where I feel like crying, but instead I laugh. In the face of an absurd and difficult existence, I laugh. I feel like Gandalf at the maw of the bridge. "You shall not pass," I declare to my Balrog. "I shall conquer you." I wander through catacombs and mazes in search of the path that will finally lead me out of here and into somewhere brighter. I will get there through sheer effort of will and of course, with Your help.

I have my "The Show Must Go On" days where I wonder, "Empty spaces- what are we living for?" But in the end, as always, I concede to the song and determine that indeed, the show must go on, the curtain must rise, and it's time to dance my way across the stage again. (To be sure, I sometimes invoke a bit of the Black Swan when I do so. No one ever pegged me for a cooperative mortal.)

Let there be meaning! is my warcry. For in the absence of any, I find that I fade.

Thanks for the lessons,

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Hunger Games Is Morally Bereft

I went to see "The Hunger Games." I found it sickening. This was surprising, given that I had read the book and found it to be moving, important and value-driven.

I'm trying to pin down what I found so horrifying about the movie adaptation. As I was considering, I remembered learning 2 Samuel 2:14 in 6th grade.

Here, too, murder is considered a game. Here, too, there are 24 people who must fight to the death. The difference is that they are grown men and 12 are on Avner's side representing Ishboshes and 12 are on Yoav's side representing David.

I remember that when we learned about the bloodbath that ensued, the teacher pounded it into our heads that this was a horrific tragedy and that both Yoav and Avner die horrible deaths in part because of the fact that they were too lenient with the lives of these men. Even if their intentions were only to have the men duel with one another, the fact that it turned into mass murder was considered their fault.

The difference between "The Hunger Games" movie adaptation and this section of Tanakh is that in the movie adaptation, Peeta and Katniss survive and seemingly, move on. We don't see their remorse. We don't see the nightmares that keep them awake at night. We don't see their grief and horror. We just see them smiling sweetly at Caesar on a talk show and then heading back to their district. We have to imagine their inner torment.

And that's where I think the movie gets it wrong. If your point is to show how violence is wrong and how children should not be in a position where they are killing other children, you can't leave the inner torment to the imagination. You have to demonstrate it. Show it. Let us see the toll it takes to be the survivor, even though the game is not of your making. Let us understand how horrible this is. Don't let our last image be of a triumphant Peeta and Katniss in a big poofy gown and a nice suit, heading home.

Kafka said that "a book should be the axe for the frozen sea inside us." But in order for a book- or a movie- to accomplish this, it needs to really be that axe. "The Hunger Games'" moral should be about the toll and horror that these games take on everyone, even and especially the survivors. Otherwise, what is the point? To have us root for District 12's potential love story? Is everything okay- all the macabre violence I just witnessed acceptable- so long as these two make it out alive?

I find that idea extremely troubling, and I think it is absolutely the wrong message to send to young kids. Perhaps I feel this more personally as someone who has read and learned so much about survivor's guilt due to its prevalence in Holocaust literature. But I think it's wrong to end such a disturbing movie on this seemingly happy note. If you're going to talk about horror, take the horror all the way through. Make it matter. Don't try to feed us the message that everything was bad, and kids killing kids was bad, but it's okay because these two nice-looking kids survived so it's all hunky-dory.

Granted, adults who understand subtleties and nuances will be able to fill in these gaps, but I'm willing to bet that most children won't. And that most kids will just leave talking about the Gale-Peeta-Katniss love triangle, untouched by the carnage that took place before their eyes. Which to me is simply a new means of teaching indifference of the highest degree- ironically, the exact antithesis of the presumed goals of these books and this movie.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Slaves and the Megillah

I was learning alongside a student of mine, who for purposes of this post will be called Yankel, when I realized the following thing.

It had always bothered me that Esther made the following statement:
    ג וַתַּעַן אֶסְתֵּר הַמַּלְכָּה, וַתֹּאמַר--אִם-מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ הַמֶּלֶךְ, וְאִם-עַל-הַמֶּלֶךְ טוֹב: תִּנָּתֶן-לִי נַפְשִׁי בִּשְׁאֵלָתִי, וְעַמִּי בְּבַקָּשָׁתִי. 3 Then Esther the queen answered and said: 'If I have found favour in thy sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request;
    ד כִּי נִמְכַּרְנוּ אֲנִי וְעַמִּי, לְהַשְׁמִיד לַהֲרוֹג וּלְאַבֵּד; וְאִלּוּ לַעֲבָדִים וְלִשְׁפָחוֹת נִמְכַּרְנוּ, הֶחֱרַשְׁתִּי--כִּי אֵין הַצָּר שֹׁוֶה, בְּנֵזֶק הַמֶּלֶךְ. {ס} 4 for we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to perish. But if we had been sold for bondmen and bondwomen, I had held my peace, for the adversary is not worthy that the king be endamaged.' (Esther 7:3-4)
Why would Esther have been okay with having the Jews sold as slaves? It's obvious why she's not happy about their extermination, but why is slaving okay?

The answer to this question occurred to me due to my student reminding me of the following tale regarding Mordechai and Haman based on Megillah 15a: "There was a tradition that Mordecai once went with a deputation to the king of Persia to ask permission for the Jews to rebuild the Temple, v. Jast. [Rashi: One (Mordecai) came as a rich man, the other (Haman) as a debtor. Haman according to the legend had sold himself during one of the wars as a slave to Mordecai for a loaf of bread.]"

Per the more elaborate rendering of this legend in Legends of the Jews by Louis Ginzberg, Mordechai used to show his shoe and/or his kneecap, where the contract had been written regarding Haman selling himself as a slave to Mordechai, which provoked him.

What is clear to me now is that Esther is saying the following: "I understand that Haman was incensed by Mordechai's constantly reminding him that he once sold himself as a slave to Mordechai. Therefore, it would have been understandable if Haman in return decided to enslave Mordechai and all the Jews. However, Haman has gone even farther than that and has decided to exterminate the Jews. At this point, I must step in."