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Nick Bilton on multitasking and media

I'm tag-teaming today, as I did yesterday, with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

I should mention, by the way -- in case you're not finding Ethan's and my liveblogging to be sufficiently exhaustive -- that you can watch a live stream of the conference here.

Nick Bilton (Pop!Tech bio; homepage) is speaking as part of the (Re)Mixed Messages session this morning.

"He's a deep thinker about the future of media," says Andrew Zolli. "We thought it would be potentially worthwhile for you to see just how far we've come, in terms of the media and the internet, so we'd like to show you an actual early report from the early 1980s -- one of the first experiments in the space."

We're shown a video in which a news reporter posits that someday we might sit down to read our morning paper on the computer -- "it's not as far-fetched as it might seem," the anchorwoman says, and the whole room laughs. We see someone dialing an old-fashioned rotary telephone hooked up to a modem, and the voiceover explains how the newspaper (without pictures, ads, or comics) can be sent through the phone lines into someone's television set! "We're not in it to make money," says someone from the SF Chronicle (which draws some knowing laughter from the room.)

"This is only the first step in newspapers over computer," says the voiceover -- someday, he predicts, we might get all of our news via computer! "It takes over two hours to receive the entire text edition of the paper," adds the anchorwoman. Ah, the 1980s.

Continue reading "Nick Bilton on multitasking and media" »


Reihan Salam offers a new perspective on conservatism

I'm tag-teaming today and tomorrow with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

CC photo by Kris Krüg.

"For a different perspective on where we go next and fleshing out the American story," Andrew Zolli says, "I'm very excited to introduce our next speaker. Reihan Salam is a profound thinker about conservatism in the Umited States."

Reihan Salam (read more about him here) begins by saying, "I am incoherent as a general rule so I like to break things into tiny pieces." He tells a story about doing interpretive dance on stage as an undergrad, wearing a red fez and a dirty white singlet. "It's likely that this experience will be at least slightly less embarrassing than that! For which I thank all of you."

"Andrew was talking about how I'm a passionate obsessive about the future. Like a lot of you, I'm guessing, I read a lot of science fiction as a kid" -- so since he's so interested in the future, naturally he's going to talk about the New Deal, a conservative project to transform a country which was going to hell in a handbasket. It's useful to look back at that time, and see what we can and can't learn from that time.

Continue reading "Reihan Salam offers a new perspective on conservatism" »


Robert Guest on the greatness of America

I'm tag-teaming today and tomorrow with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

Robert Guest writes the Lexington column in the Economist. "I'm going to talk," he says, "about America and why I think it is uniquely positioned to be not merely the current superpower but the next superpower. I'm going to focus on one very narrow aspect of this. America's greatest strength, in my view, is that people want to live here. That's something that the people who already do live here take for granted" -- maybe because we haven't visited the other countries of the world and seen how much they suck? We assume that people want to live here for reasons having to do with money, and that's an important part of it, "but that's only half of it." One can earn reasonable amount of money in a lot of places. "The other part of the equation has to do with freedom."

By freedom he means not only the absence of coercion, "but the availability of choices. The fantastic number of different lifestyles and niches you can find in America."

He's interviewed a lot of immigrants to ask about the non-economic reasons why they came here. He has three stories to tell us. The first is a Korean man named Joshua Levy, a fundamentalist Baptist, who came here to attend seminary in Kentucky. He moved to Virginia, got a job, got married. He's surrounded by Korean restaurants, can attend a fundamentalist Baptist church where sermons are in Korean -- "and at the same time he can enjoy all the advantages of an American suburban lifestyle." A nice house, big back yard, good schools.

Continue reading "Robert Guest on the greatness of America" »


Amanda Geppert and Lincoln Schatz aim to "Cure Violence"

I'm tag-teaming today and tomorrow with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

The final long session of the day is called Challenging Conversations, and will involve a series of speakers whose work falls under that rubric. "We're going to hear from four very different points of view about the Amercan experience, the American moment," says Andrew Zolli. First up is Amanda Geppert (here's her Pop!Tech bio), who comes to us from CeaseFire: the Campaign to Stop the Shooting. Geppert is speaking alongside Lincon Schatz.

Lincoln Schatz is a video artist. "I use chance to break habitual modes of thinking." He presented his work here last year and one of his co-presenters was Gary Slutkin from CeaseFire. "I thought to myself, my God, how can I get involved?" They had lunch in Chicago the next week, and from that was born Cure Violence, a project that's being launched today at Pop!Tech. Cure Violence empowers communities to openly and safely discuss the causes -- and more importantly, solutions -- to violence.

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Daniel Nocera on personalized energy

I'm tag-teaming today and tomorrow with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

Daniel Nocera (Pop!Tech bio, professional bio) is going to talk to us about personalized energy. "I'm going to be different from the last talk; the last talk worried about you, and I don't care about you," he says.

Globally, we currently use 14 terawatts (a trillion watts) of energy each year; we'll need 16 TW/year by 2050. (You can read more about how Nocera reached this statistic in this article in Reason Magazine.) "Close your eyes and think about 42 years from now... think about a kid, right now, that you like: this is going to be their future. It's going to be a bad future if you look at these numbers." If we converted the entire crop basis of the world to fuel and burned it, we'd reach a figure of 5-7TW. Photosynthesis has a limit.

If we take all the wind that's 10 meters above the ground, we'd find that 2-4 TW are extractable. In terms of nuclear power, we can generate 8 TW; we'd have to build 200 nuclear power plants each year to reach our needs. That's one new plant every 1.5 days, and bear in mind that we'd have to decommission them almost as fast as we can build them.

Right now we use 14 TW; why do we need 16? "The first assumption I made is that you will do all the right things, and save 100% of the energy you're using today. We'll still need 16 TW. If you want to be dummies, and not [do the right thing], then we'll need 40 TW." The picture as he initially paints it looks pretty dire.

Continue reading "Daniel Nocera on personalized energy" »


Nicole Kuepper and low-cost, low-tech solar cells

I'm tag-teaming today and tomorrow with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

CC photo by Kris Krüg.

Nicole Kuepper's bio is not in the printed program -- she's a special addition to Energy, Form and Motion program today. She comes from Australia where she's working on "low tech ways of producing low-cost solar devices," Andrew Zolli explains.

"I'm passionate about bringing affordable solar electricity to the developing world," Kuepper says. "If like me you're lucky enough to be born to two very nerdy German mathematician parents, and you get given a solar-powered car for your 8th birthday, it is pretty inevitable that you will end up, like me, a major nerd, hanging out in a lab, going giddy about solar technologies whenever you get the chance to talk about them!"

She's excited about solar energy because it has potential to solve two major problems, climate change and global poverty.

Continue reading "Nicole Kuepper and low-cost, low-tech solar cells" »


Deb Levine revolutionizes sex ed

I'm tag-teaming today and tomorrow with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

CC photo by Kris Krüg

Deb Levine is a Pop!Tech social innovation fellow. (Here's a list of the 2009 cohort.) "Deb is doing extraordinary things using mobile devices...to help drive access to information in an area that impacts everyone in the room," Andrew Zolli explains.

Levine founded ISIS – Internet Sexuality Information Services – in 2001 to build better tools to promote sexual health and prevent disease. (Levine's bio on the social innovation fellows page explains that "[u]sing the web, mobile phones and mash-ups, ISIS gives people private, convenient and accurate access to information on today’s major health issues, from HIV prevention to unplanned pregnancies to access to healthcare.")

Raise your hands, she asks us, if you've ever been a teenager. "Now raise your hands if you know a teenager! Raise your hands if you know a teenager with an STD?" (Most of us raise our hands for questions one and two; very few for question three.)

Continue reading "Deb Levine revolutionizes sex ed" »


Derek Lomas and the Playpower Foundation

I'm tag-teaming today and tomorrow with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

CC photo by Kris Krüg.

Derek Lomas is a Pop!Tech social innovation fellow. (Here's a list of all of the 2009 fellows.) Lomas is part of The Playpower Foundation, created "to foster development of affordable, effective and fun learning games for under-privileged children around the world."

"Derek Lomas is doing something absolutely extraordinary," says Andrew Zolli. "You've heard about the $100 laptop experiment; Derek's here to tell us about the $12 computer."

Lomas asks, "What would you do if you were walking through a crowded electronics marketplace in India and someone tried to sell you a computer for only $12? I didn't buy it! I had to live in INdia for almost a year before I discovered that it is a real computer, and also that if you bargain, you can buy it for ten bucks." These computers are sold around the world, in Nicaragua and Pakistan and other such countries. How can a computer only cost $12? It uses an existing television as a screen, first of all. But beyond that, it's based on the 8-bit 6502 microchip, originally popularized with the Apple II computer and Nintendo entertainment system. The computer is effectively in the public domain because the patents on the tech have expired. Hence, it can be affordded by the emerging middle calss -- those who make between $2 and $10/day.

"I first encountered this computer while wokring in India...doing ethnographic design research on uses of mobile phones in urban and rural contexts." He decided to stay in India and teach a course remotely via Skype to students at UCSD. He bought the computer because he thought it would make an interesting class discussion. When he first turned it on, he wasn't sure whether ot be disappointed or amazed -- it works! You can compose 8-bit music, or learn to program in Basic. But most of the software was pretty low-quality, a hodgepodge of typing games and 8-bit karaoke. But his own education with 8-bit educational games was very rich: Carmen Sandiego, etc. "It occurred to me that if this platform had just a few decent games, and one good typing game, it could be economicallyt ransformative, because touch-typing can make a difference between earning a dollar a day or a dollar an hour.

The companies that makes these computers are concerned with keeping costs down -- "not educating kids." They can't design and research effective learning games. That's why we created PlayPower.org -- a global open source community" made up of 8-bit hackers and developers. The intention is to develop 8-bit games around the world. "We are looking to move into some uncharted territory by trying to license some of that 8-bit abandonware software. It no longer has commercial value but would be incredibly valuable for our product."

Distribution network: giving this educational software away so it can be bundled instead of the 8-bit karaoke. The companies have asked whether there's any programming in Arabic. "We can leverage the existing low-cost manufacturing base and also the informal distribution network bringing these computers around the world to places where consumers are buying them."


Dennis Litky and the big picture of learning

I'm tag-teaming today and tomorrow with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

CC photo by Kris Krüg.

We're still in the Teaching Change session this morning. "How do we teach, and how do we build curriculum?" asks Zolli.

For an answer, we hear from Dennis Litky (Pop!Tech bio, webpage), founder of Big Picture Learning, an organization which works to radically reform what education is. But before he gets going, one of his students gets up on stage and takes over, leading the room in a chant. Half of the room is chanting "Pop!Tech, Pop!Tech," and the other half chants "We can change!"

"We all know that everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame," Litky says, quipping that being here is clearly his 15 minutes. He asks how many people in the room have been fired, and a lot of hands go up. "We've all done great work in our life, and then we get fired and we get known; that's what happened to me. When I got fired, they wrote a book about Dennis Litky and his fight for a better school." The book was Doc: The Story Of Dennis Littky And His Fight For A Better School. NBC also made a movie, called A Town Torn Apart, which tells this same story. (Here's a review.)

The question, he says, is how to change the system and how to change what's going on inside the school. He'd been a principal most of his life, and thought he was done with that; he came to Brown University; and then he was asked whether he would start a school. "Only if we could do it exactly how we want," Litky said, not thinking anyone would say yes -- "and they said yes."

They asked 300,000 students to name one word that describes school, and they said "boring." So his plan was, let's create a school that's not boring. "That's why kids drop out," he said. "They're bored, they're not engaged. We really closed our eyes and said, we're not going to tweak around the edges. This is too big; we have to redesign. What would school be, if you didn't know there was such a thing as school?" If you were homeschooling your kid, would you make him sit and read a book for 45 minutes, then ring a bell so he could go to the bathroom, then make him do science for 45 minutes...? A lot of reformers, he says, are trying to make teachers a little better, or materials a little better, but really change needs to be about engaging students in developing their own personal learning plan.

Continue reading "Dennis Litky and the big picture of learning" »


James O'Brien of Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School

I'm tag-teaming today and tomorrow with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

CC photo by Kris Krüg.

Our second session on Friday morning is themed around Teaching Change. First up after the break is James O'Brien of Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School. He's a Pop!Tech social innovation fellow, along with the rest of the 2009 cohort.

The school started four years ago; now there are 4 grades and 430 students. "We believe that our students...simultaneously have access to every form of media, but also are the most susceptible to being consumed by that media." They use a 3-pronged approach of academics, creative arts, and professional development to support their students.

"Hopefully someone in the BCAM community is watching this live streamed" -- Fridays at BCAM students get to dress how they want (no uniform shirts) and today is pyjama day at BCAM, and it sounds like O'Brien got some flak for not being there. "Pyjama day will be never-before-seen like we do it at BCAM," he says. "Yesterday when we were hyping pyjama day and I said I wasn't going to be there, I'd be at a conference, the kids said: you're scared to wear pyjamas!" So he hopes they're watching the live stream and can see that he really did have someplace to be today. He had pyjamas on earlier today, he acknowledges, but now he's wearing a suit.

BCAM is a small school in Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York City. "Our students are like any set of students in any inner city across the country or world. We're an un-screeened open-enrollment school... we have access to students who aren't selected for specialized schools, didn't audition or take a screened exam." Some come in with college literacy levels; some come in with third and fourth grade literacy and academic skills, "and every place in between."

Continue reading "James O'Brien of Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School" »


Hayat Sindi and Diagnostics for All

I'm tag-teaming today and tomorrow with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

CC photo by Kris Krüg.

Hayat Sindi is a Saudi medical researcher who has invented a machine "combining the effects of light and ultra-sound for use in biotechnology." (So saith Wikipedia.) A few years ago she was part of a group of Arab women who peddled for peace -- participating in a bicycle ride from Beirut to Ramallah intended to "send a message to world leaders to get on with it and stop the suffering that continuous conflict brings."

She's the first Arab woman to win a Pop!Tech fellowship, and she's part of this morning's Mindshifts session, speaking as a Pop!Tech social innovation fellow. (Here's a list of the 2009 fellows -- not surprisingly, it's a pretty august crowd.)

"Hayat is an extraordinary scientist... an incredibly passionate advocate for the role of women and girls in the sciences, in particular in an important region of the world," says Andrew Zolli, welcoming her to the stage.

"This is my first time addressing such a diverse American community; I'm honored to be here," she says. She's the co-inventor and co-founder of Diagnostics For All, but wants to share a bit of her journey & passion before telling us about it.

"My journey has involved breaking boundaries between the East and the West, to help society and save everyone: child, man, or woman of different religions and cultures." She was born in Mecca and comes from a family of 8 children with a traditional upbringing and enormous love for knowledge. Since childhood she has admired people who do something for humanity. "I dreamt one day to be like them, to make a difference in this world."

Continue reading "Hayat Sindi and Diagnostics for All" »


Pop!Tech / Mindshifts / Daniel Goleman

I'm tag-teaming today and tomorrow with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

"The theme of the session this morning is thinking differently, about shifting our mindsets, about big shifts in how we relate to technology, how we think about science, how we think about the natural world," says our host Andrew Zolli, welcoming psychologist Daniel Goleman to the stage.

Goleman (here's his Pop!Tech bio, and here's his blog) wrote the 1995 bestseller Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. His latest work tends more toward the political than the psychological per se; he's author of Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything, which challenges readers to confront the real consequences of our purchasing decisions. He speaks this morning as part of the Mindshifts session.

"I want to do some mindshifting," he says, which will change our relationship to some of the environmental tragedies we heard about yesterday. He notes though a cautionary tale about believing everything you read on the web: his bio here says that he co-founded the Yale Child Studies center, but "I was about ten when that got going," though had he walked over there at the time perhaps he would have been the first kid they studied!

"How many folks here recycle? Everybody recycles. How many print on both sides of the paper? Those who can, compost? Print-on-demand business cards -- if you want my contact information, I write it out for you...?"

Imagine you have a morning yogurt, and recycle the lid in a plastics bin. What's the impact on global warming -- how much do you remediate via recycling that lid? People call out 0%, 23%, and 5%. The answer is five percent. Most of the global impacts from your morning yogurt come from the cows, the farming, the transportation -- "there's an enormous amount of invisible impact from everything we buy and consume, everything we don't see but are about to." The new discipline of industrial ecology allows physicists, chemists, and engineers to study the hiden impacts of everything. A glass jar, like you might buy your pasta in, goes through more than 1000 steps from manufacture to disposal, and each one of those steps can be examined for social and environmental impacts. Emissions into air, soil, and water. "We have a new lens on everything we buy."

Continue reading "Pop!Tech / Mindshifts / Daniel Goleman" »


Two very different conferences

It's possible I'm wrong about this, but I'm guessing that I'm the only person who's planning to attend both Pop!Tech 2009 in Maine, and then the first ever JStreet conference in Washington DC, which happen back-to-back this weekend and early next week.

I attended Pop!Tech once before, back in 2004. It was Ethan's first time speaking there, and I came along for the ride. It was a fabulous conference: smart, interesting, thoughtful people having wild conversations about thought-provoking things. This time Ethan and I will be liveblogging the conference together: on Friday and Saturday we'll take turns sharing the sessions as they unfold. Pop!Tech's theme this year is "America Reimagined," and though most of the speakers aren't yet known to me, I'm guessing they'll impress and inspire. I'm looking forward to that, and also to visiting coastal Maine -- one of my very favorite places to be.

Driving Change, Securing Peace will be JStreet's first conference, and I'm incredibly excited to be there and to be a part of it. With sessions like "How Jews, Christians and Muslims Can Work Together For Peace" and "How We Stop Talking to Ourselves: Innovative Ways to Broaden the Conversation," it's clear to me that this conference is right up my alley. I'm eager to learn from the sessions, and also to meet the other people there; as at the Rabbis for Human Rights conference I attended last December, I'm guessing that most of the people who choose to attend the JStreet conference will be people who care about some of the same things I do.

If you're going to be at either conference, please come and find me! Pop!Tech is limited to 700 people (which still feels pretty big to me); the JStreet conference will apparently be attended by 1,200 people, which kind of blows my mind. One way or another, I'm pretty easy to recognize -- visibly pregnant, laptop, sometimes a rainbow kippah.

For those who are curious: here's the Pop!Tech schedule, and here's the JStreet schedule. Expect a deluge of blog posts over the weekend and into the middle of next week...


This week's portion: blameless

BLAMELESS (NOAH)


Noah walked with God.
He was a righteous man.
He was blameless in his age.
Noah begot three sons.

He was a righteous man
though his era was lawless.
Noah begot three sons
and the earth became corrupt.

Though his era was lawless
he found love in Na'amah.
The earth became corrupt
but she sang so sweetly.

He found love in Na'amah
they hunkered down together
and she sang so sweetly
it drowned out what was outside.

They hunkered down together
and God spoke to him, saying
(it drowned out what was outside)
I've given up on creation.

God spoke to him, saying
build an ark of gopher-wood
I've given up on creation:
watch the waters rising

build an ark of gopher-wood!
As God commanded, Noah did
watch the waters rising
did he weep for what was lost?

As God commanded, Noah did
he was blameless in his age
did he weep for what was lost?
Noah walked with God.


This week we're in parashat Noach, which tells the story of the Flood. Rereading the portion this year, I was struck by the short declarative sentences at its beginning. I copied those out and realized that they could be interwoven in interesting ways. That was the spark of this week's Torah poem, which takes the form of a pantoum.

Five times in this Torah portion the text mentions ishto, "his wife," but the wife of Noah is never named. Rabbinic legend holds that Noah's wife was named Na'amah. Two midrashim from Bereshit Rabbah reflect on Na'amah, suggesting that she was a "singer of sweet songs." (For more on this, I recommend the Noah essay in The Women's Torah Commentary, ed. R' Elyse Goldstein.)

This year, the question which resonates for me most strongly is the one I articulate in the two last stanzas: did he weep for what was lost? What would it be like to watch all of creation, everything you'd known and everything you never had a chance to know, be washed away?

This week's ReadWritePoem prompt relates to cut-up poetry -- a fascinating and fun way to work, and I'm sorry I didn't manage to combine it with my Torah poem practice! I'll edit this post on Thursday to include a link to the weekly Get Your Poem On post, in case you'd like to read the poems that people post in response to that prompt.

[blameless.mp3]


The shape of the spiritual year

The two-semester class I've been taking since last February, Moadim l'Simcha / "Seasons of Our Rejoicing," has ended. At the end of the class, Reb Elliot asked us some thought-provoking questions. Here's the first of my answers to those questions, about the "big picture" of the spiritual year.


The big picture. What is the shape of the spiritual year (as it emerges from the sources we have studied)? The peaks and the valleys? What are the major motifs, themes, questions, challenges?

The Jewish spiritual year has a rhythm, a natural ebb and flow. This two-semester learning began at a time when when our spiritual sap was starting to rise. We learned together through a time when God's presence is curiously hidden and we are called to rise above binaries and boundaries, and then a time when God's presence is palpable yet we have to take the leap of creating change. Then from that peak we plunged to the bottom of a long mountain climb, and made our slow way back to the peak again, where we encountered a silent א, wordless but containing all of our tradition's endless words within it.

We reconvened during a time of broken hearts. From there, into the deep cleanse of our spiritual year, a forty-day temporal mikvah. A liquid time, a time to be transparent before God. We explored how each year we accustom ourselves to sins, and how we are called each year to purify ourselves from that, what it might mean for teshuvah to be inscribed upon our soft hearts. We emerged from the cosmic womb and began anew. Then into this season of our rejoicing, when we dwell beneath the shelter of the Shekhinah -- in which we continue to dwell even once we have moved back into our solid homes.

Continue reading "The shape of the spiritual year" »


A conference call with Judge Goldstone

If you pay any attention at all to the Middle East, you know about the Goldstone Report, the report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict. (You can read the report in full here, which I recommend doing rather than taking anyone else's word for what it actually says.)

What may be most remarkable about the report is not its heartbreaking findings, but the ways in which the United States and Israel have colluded to bury it. (For more on this, read Rabbi Brian Walt's post at Ta'anit Tzedek entitled Israel and U.S. Collaborate to Bury Goldstone Report. While I'm at it, I can also recommend "It's so sad that a respected member of the tribe would bash Israel so unfairly", posted on Rabbi Walt's own blog.) [Edited to clarify: that latter post is one in which Rabbi Walt deconstructs the argument implied by the post title! It's an ironic quotation, not an expression of his own beliefs.] In the words of Rabbi Brant Rosen, in his op-ed A Call to Moral Accounting:

Since the report's publication, the UN and commission chair Judge Richard Goldstone have been vilified and disparaged, by both the Israeli government and American Jewish leaders. There has been little consideration of the actual findings, or the fact that Israel refused to cooperate with the commission, or conduct its own investigation.

As a rabbi, this grieves me deeply. For, painful as it is for us to admit, Israel's behavior in Gaza has consistently betrayed our shared Jewish ethical legacy.

Tikkun magazine published an interview with Judge Richard Goldstone on his UN Report on the Gaza War shortly after the report came out, but I haven't seen a lot of other serious American Jewish engagement with the report or its findings.

On Sunday evening, I was part of a conference call -- convened by Ta'anit Tzedek: Jewish Fast for Gaza and co-sponsored by the Brit Tzedek v'Shalom rabbinic cabinet, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America, and Ohalah: the association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal -- which gave rabbis and rabbinic students the opportunity to speak with Judge Goldstone. If you're interested in knowing some of what he said to us, read on. [Edited to add: you can also listen to an audio recording of the call here at the Ta'anit Tzedek website; there's an embedded mp3 file, and the call lasted for about 75 minutes.]

This is a very long post (6000+ words), but if this subject is important to you, I hope you'll read the whole thing.

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This week's poem: likeness

LIKENESS (BERESHIT)


Understand, we created
because we yearned to be known

being everything is tiresome
no conversation, no surprises

so we made a being from clay
and breathed life into its nose

immediately it set to naming:
sumac, lemur, condor

but we had fashioned it
in our image, after our likeness

which meant it was lonely too
moping around the garden disconsolate

as it slept we shaped a companion
from its side, an equal, a stranger

our daughter inherited curiosity
our son, surprised, stayed silent

mouth full and eyes opened
yet he blamed her for change

every loving parent knows
it hurts to watch them fall

but the miracle of them walking
still takes our breath away

This week's portion is Bereshit, the first portion in the book which bears the same name. (In English we call it Genesis.) It's a wondrous and rich portion, and if I had world enough and time I could spend this whole week posting about these chapters and their many interpretations and implications. The creation of the cosmos! The creation of the first human(s)! The eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil! There's so much great material here.

Last year's Torah poem depicted God suffering from postpartum depression after the creation. This year my Torah poem took a different direction: this one's voiced by God, reflecting on the creation of the adam made from adamah (earthling made from earth) and the creation of the second figure from a piece of that first figure when the first figure proved to be lonely with only the animals for companionship. The poem is strongly influenced by the midrash which suggests that the adam was a bigendered being who was subsequently split into two.

God here speaks in the plural because that's one way of reading the Hebrew text: "let us make adam in our image, after our likeness." I'm always intrigued by that phrase: what does it mean to be in God's image and likeness? This year I was struck by the sense that if we're in God's image and likeness, then our qualities necessarily mirror God's -- including the curiosity which drove the woman to take and eat that fruit. Intriguingly, if you read Genesis 3 closely, you'll note that Adam was with Chava at the time of the conversation with the serpent; he's silent, but he's there. I'd never noticed that before.

I like the wordplay of the "fall" reference in the penultimate stanza, though I feel compelled to point out that in Judaism this narrative isn't referred to as "the fall" the way it is in classical Christian thought, and we don't share the Christian doctrine of original sin. Still, I like the way that couplet and the one which follows it hint both at a kind of growing-up (which is how I tend to read this story: Adam and Eve taking the leap of individuation, from an initial childlike innocence to something like adulthood) and at the way children learning to walk always inevitably have to fall.

Alas, I didn't manage to connect this week's Torah poem with this week's prompt at ReadWritePoem, but you can read other poems by RWP'ers linked from the comments of this week's Get Your Poem On post.

[likeness.mp3]


Two short teachings from the Baal Shem Tov

The texts here are from the Baal Shem Tov, widely considered the founder of Hasidism, though they were written down by his disciples. The questions are from Reb Burt Jacobson, who's teaching the class on the Besht which I'm taking now; the references to the "four core truths" are part of his framework for understanding the Besht and his work. The translations are my own.

1.

It is a central principle that one must attach oneself to the internal qualities of Torah, and the mitzvah is to connect one's thoughts and one's soul to the root of the Torah [which is to say, God.] And this mitzvah that one does: if one doesn't do it, God forbid, then there is a cutting-off and a crumbling from where one is planted. I received this from my teacher. (--Ben Porat Yosef, on parashat Noah, page 21, section 1)

What is your immediate personal response to the teaching?

Fascination with the metaphor of roots and planting. The Hebrew word for root here is a grammatical term meaning word-root. But it's my understanding that the word can also signify something more earthy than syntactical, which is echoed for me in the next sentence's reference to the danger of crumbling away from where one has been planted. This text presents a simple binary choice: attach oneself, heart and soul, to the root of the Torah -- or risk being existentially and spiritually uprooted from the ground of being.

Define the underlying question(s) or issues that this teaching seems to be addressing.

What is the meaning of the choice we make when we study Torah? Is the study of Torah just about learning the text on the page, or mastering the arcana of commentary? For the Baal Shem Tov, I think the answer is clearly no. Immersing ourselves in Torah means attaching ourselves (the verb is לדבק, sometimes translated as "to cleave" or "to unify") to the internal qualities of Torah, Torah's hidden inner face. It means connecting ourselves, heart and soul, to the root of the Torah which is the Holy Blessed One. And if we choose not to take that path, then we need to understand the spiritual risk we're taking.

Distill the essence of the teaching. What idea(s), value(s), virtue(s) or spiritual practice(s) does this text explicate?

Choose deep connection with the root of all things, or risk spiritual uprooting. The text seeks to remind us of the centrality of Torah study to Jewish life, not just because there is useful information there but because delving into Torah is a way of delving into connection with God.

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Eco-kosher babynaming

The Shalom Center has a beautiful new web design. The site is more easily browsable and searchable, and tags facilitate finding exactly what you're looking for. Kol hakavod to the Shalom Center!

There's also a new piece of content there from me -- an "eco-kosher" babynaming/welcoming ceremony, which I crafted as part of the Eco-Judaism course I took with Reb Arthur Waskow this summer and early fall. In order to help ensure that I was crafting something which would meet the expectations of the course, rather than working on our own son's babynaming on the sly when I should have been doing coursework, I chose to craft a naming ceremony for a girl. The ceremony aims to be at once a meaningful ritual opportunity and an environmental consciousness-raising tool. If you're interested, you can find it here: The Naming of Plonit.

("Ploni" and "Plonit" are the names given in traditional texts to unnamed individuals -- the rabbinic equivalent of John Doe and Jane Doe.) The formatting on the file wasn't preserved in its transition to the website, but the text is there, and I hope you enjoy it. And, as I said at the end of the introductory essay:

If this babynaming speaks to you, I invite you to use it, either as a whole ceremony -- or as inspiration for crafting your own! Re-use, remix, take it apart and put it back together again; this is how contemporary ritual creativity unfolds. My only request is that you continue to give attribution to the writers whose words appear in this document.

I'm a strong supporter of transformative works. You are always welcome to respond to anything I put out there in your own ways: write poems which dialogue with my poems, set my words to music, borrow from my ritualcraft to inspire your own. I ask only that you honor my work by making clear when you've borrowed from something I've created, and that you let me know what you've done so I can enjoy it too, because that's part of the fun.


Speaking of transformative works, the Organization for Transformative Works is having its biannual fund drive. If you believe that creative interpretation is an important part of culture, they might be up your alley.


Sukkot harvest

Etrog slices.

One of the ways I mark the end of Sukkot is by preserving etrogim. They're such precious and beautiful fruits (especially their fragrance -- the scent is intense and unmistakeable) that throwing them away seems ridiculous. Better to make something of them; better still to make something which will allow me to savor another festival more fully. So the last few years I've preserved our etrogim to eat at Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees which comes on the Gregorian calendar sometime in February.

As always, at this time of year the hills where we live have shifted into their short-lived but spectacular orange and yellow and red clothes. The icy snows of February are almost inconceivable. But I love knowing that on some cold winter day, when the hope for spring is fierce but the days of increasing light still feel far away, we'll open these jars and their contents will remind me of sitting in our sukkah this fall.

One of my favorite food/cooking resources, On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, tells me:

Perhaps the first citrus fruit to reach the Middle East around 700 B.C.E. and the Mediterranean around 300 B.C.E., citrons are native to the Himalayan foothills. They gave their name to the genus, and their name came in turn from their resemblance to the cone of a Mediterranean evergreen cedar (Greek kedros.) The several varieties have little juice, but an intensely aromatic rind that can perfume a room -- citrons are used in both Asian and Jewish religious ceremonies -- and that has long been candied.

McGee says that in China's Sichuan province, the rind is made into a hot pickle. (Anybody have a recipe for that? It sounds amazing.) Experimenting with the genre is tough; last year's attempted spicy etrog pickle wasn't really a success. (Now that I've preserved lemons -- which I did during the month of Elul, wanting to serve a dish which required them on erev Rosh Hashanah -- I understand why etrogim don't work in the same way: they're too much pith, too little fruit, and there just wasn't enough juice to marinate them in.) So I decided to reprise the etrog-ginger marmalade I made in 2007, with a few tweaks.

Resting overnight.

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