Thursday, January 29, 2009

February Madness 2009!!!

The Israeli election is coming up on February 10! Following up on Mah Rabu’s successul March Madness prediction pool for the 2006 election, Jewschool and Mah Rabu are excited to announce FEBRUARY MADNESS 2009!!! All you have to do to enter is predict the number of Knesset seats that each party will win in the election.

The winner will receive a book of his/her choice from Ben-Yehuda Press. Entrance is free, but there is a suggested donation of $10 to the organization of your choice dedicated to making Israel the best it can be. Israeli citizens are encouraged to vote in the actual election as well.

To enter, go to February Madness! The deadline to enter is Monday, February 9, 2009, at 11:59 PM Israel Standard Time (4:59 PM EST).

Here is the official list of parties and candidates. Right now it’s only in Hebrew, but we’ll post a link to the English list when and if they post it. Also, in the next few days we’ll put up a post with descriptions of each of the parties and links to their websites.

The winner will be chosen based on who correctly predicts the greatest number of Knesset seats. For example, if the actual results are Men’s Rights 50, Tzabar 30, Aleh Yarok 20, Leeder 10, and Koach HaKesef 10, and you predicted Men’s Rights 40, Tzabar 40, Aleh Yarok 5, Leeder 5, Koach HaKesef 15, and Lechem 15, then your score would be 90 out of 120 (since you correctly predicted 40 seats for Men’s Rights, 30 for Tzabar, 5 for Aleh Yarok, 5 for Leeder, and 10 for Koach HaKesef). Your predictions must add up to 120 to be a valid entry.

Just for fun, there will be two optional tiebreaker questions:
1. Among the parties that do not meet the threshold for Knesset seats, which one will come the closest?
2. Which party will receive the fewest votes?

Good luck!!!!


Linking to the Reform Shuckle twice in one week: there's an interesting discussion going on about the Rethinking Reform Think Tank -- i.e., the people who other people expect me to agree with and are surprised to find out that I don't so much. In practice I'm probably closer to them than either of us is to the mainstream of the Reform movement, but we seem to differ on philosophy: they seem to think the problem with the Reform movement is too much autonomy, whereas I think the problem is that (informed) autonomy hasn't really been implemented yet.

Monday, January 26, 2009

First Bush-free Shabbat in 8 years

Last Friday night's Kol Zimrah gets a positive review from blogger David A.M. Wilensky.

It was a great time, with a real sense of post-inauguration joy. After dinner, birkat hamazon was augmented with spontaneous harachamans asking for blessings for the new president, and expressing the wish that we will support him and/or hold him accountable, as appropriate. The Shabbat zemirot like "Tzur Mishelo" were mixed with American folk songs like "This Land Is Your Land". When it was time to leave, we left singing the traditional "Kol Haneshamah", but then followed it with a rousing "Star-Spangled Banner" out on the sidewalk.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Them parties will have to wait / There's so much to do

Now that the days left in the Bush administration have diminished into hours (just 42 hours left!!!), and everyone is gearing up for the inauguration (at the school where I teach, we'll be watching it on the TVs in each classroom), the song stuck in my head is "President" by Dan Bern:

Raised up my hand and said "I solemnly swear" one January day
And just like that I was the president of the USA

The shift in this country's consciousness over the last 8 years can be encapsulated by comparing two similar Dan Bern songs.

"King of the World" appeared on Dan Bern's first and self-titled album, released in 1997, at the height of the Clinton years, on the leading edge of the dot-com boom. It begins:

Well, they elected me
King of the World
I said, "Here's what I'm gonna do
Send everybody over to China
Except for me and you
Strip ourselves naked
Go to Beverly Center
Watch movies and eat Cinnabons"
I think I'm gonna like
Being king of the world
For a change
What's this song about? Nothing of deep significance. It's a whimsical fantasy, not that there's anything wrong with that. Compare that with "President", 7 years later. In 2004, Dan Bern wrote a set of songs with a political bent and toured around the country (particularly to swing states) playing concerts and getting out the vote. These songs were collected on the album My Country II.

"President" bears a superficial similarity to "King of the World": the narrator has been elected to a powerful position, and describes what he will do with that power. But in "President", though the descriptions of the first days in office are still whimsical, they represent real policy positions:

Second day I told Detroit
Start makin' cars that don't use gas
And I give everybody a big rebate
And they started sellin' fast

We'll stop burning up the air we breathe
And making the planet boil
And we won't have to kiss the ass
Of whoever's got the oil


My 8th day I made health care
Cover everyone
If you get sick, see a doctor
That's how my government's run

And by the way, abortion
Is included in this plan
No one tells a girl how to treat her body
Least of all some man

My 9th day I said sorry
This government is no fool
Ain't gonna pay you extra to send your kid
To some weird-ass wacko school

We'll do our best to make our schools
Best anyplace on earth
If they ain't good enough, think about it
Before you go give birth

To be fair, this song also includes "Monday was National Nude Day / Everyone disrobed / Tuesday was National Stoned Day / Everyone got stoned." But still, this represents a massive shift.

The chapter on politics in Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks (published in 2000, before the election) became instantly dated, but reflects the mentality of its time. It describes a country that is no longer "political", where there are no significant differences between the two parties. Of course, a year later, everyone learned otherwise. But the late '90s didn't feel so politically charged (other than trivial nonsense such as the Clinton impeachment), and the meme of no significant differences between the parties ("Tweedledee and Tweedledum") gained widespread currency and led to Ralph Nader's zenith of support. (I might have made that mistake myself, had I not been imprinted by a childhood memory of 1988, when Bush I carried Illinois by 2 percentage points. As a result, I still thought of Illinois as a swing state, and played it safe and voted for Gore, who went on to win Illinois by 12 percentage points, and so it was that I kept a clean conscience for the next 4 years.) "King of the World" represents this "apolitical" time.

As soon as Bush II took office, it became clear that there were huge differences between the parties. The Democrats in Congress may not have had a spine, but Bush and the Republicans proceeded to piss on the Constitution, get us into a quagmire in Iraq, (and other things that the congressional Democrats rubberstamped but probably wouldn't have done on their own) and you know the rest of the story.

And so, in 2003, we felt angry and powerless -- it looked like no one was mounting any challenge to the Bush agenda. But by 2004, there was a significant "anyone but Bush" movement (catalyzed by Howard Dean's campaign, even if Dean himself was out of the picture). No one was all that enthusiastic about John Kerry himself; the important thing was that he wasn't Bush. (The website, which is now 404, summed up the zeitgeist.) During Bush's first term, many people who hadn't previously had much political involvement were inspired to become activists. This is the context for My Country II. Its final track is the simple and memorable "Bush Must Be Defeated". In the live version (which I got to see in New York in the weeks before the 2004 election), Bern had everyone singing the chorus, then said "Changing 'must' to 'will'" ("Bush will be defeated") and finally "Changing 'will' to 'has'" ("Bush has been defeated").

We remember how crushing it was several weeks later when it turned that Bush had not, in fact, been defeated. But it wasn't long before his administration and his popularity began to implode. If the U.S. had a parliamentary system of government, with votes of no confidence, Bush wouldn't have made it past 2005. But we were stuck with him for another 4 years.

Driving home from doing GOTV in New Hampshire the weekend before the 2008 election, I popped My Country II into the CD player. "President" seemed as relevant as ever, with its message of hope for what it would be like if we had a president who put progressive American values into practice. But the rest of the album, expressing the anger that we all felt in 2004 and that has stayed around for the next 4 years, felt out of step from the national mood in 2008. The "Bush Must Be Defeated" message (whether his name is Bush, McCain, or anything else) was part of the 2008 campaign, but so was the positive vision put forward by Barack Obama (and by Hillary Clinton), and this positive vision combined with the anger of the last 8 years to put the Democrats over the top in this election.

And now, as we prepare to inaugurate Barack Hussein Obama as our 44th president, we can finally say "Bush has been defeated" for real this time. To be sure, Obama's first ten days in office aren't going to be nearly as effective as Bern's fictional first ten days, and he'll probably have to spend most of his term(s) undoing the damage that Bush has wrought (and that's in a more optimistic scenario; in a worse case, Obama lets the damage stick around). But on Tuesday, we can celebrate the beginning of a government run by people who believe in science and empirical evidence, and the fact that after Tuesday, Bush can't do any more damage than he has already done. And the country will try not to make this mistake again.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Israel-related non-Gaza posts

I posted two posts yesterday to Jewschool: one about the contest to select Hebrew names for Uranus and Neptune (as part of the International Year of Astronomy), and one about the preliminary candidate lists for the upcoming Knesset election. Check it out, and stay tuned for a February Madness pool in the style of our 2006 March Madness pool.

Oh, well

I was all excited when it looked like my AP Physics class had (initially by accident) discovered and then proven a new theorem:

If a physical pendulum with pivot at point A has its center of oscillation at point B, then when the same pendulum has its pivot at B, its center of oscillation will be at A.

But it turns out that Christiaan Huygens had beaten us to it by about 350 years. See this paper and scroll down to Proposition XX. And he did it with his hands tied behind his back -- he didn't even have Newton's Laws at his disposal, let alone the Parallel Axis Theorem. Huygens was certainly no slouch, so if we're going to lose to someone, it might as well be to him.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Reactions to the news

The following conversation between two Mah Rabu readers was forwarded to me:

> i actually thought "gee i hope this means there will be lots of interesting posts on mah rabu about weddings"
> "The Wedding Industrial Complex and Kant as viewed through the lenses of the various Jewish denominations from 1880 through today: Part 1"

Thursday, January 01, 2009


I didn't realize that "slow blogging" was even a thing, but the Washington Post says it's "in", while Twittering is out. So it seems that Mah Rabu is ahead of the trend once again. The next long post has been outlined, and will be written... sometime. No promises about timelines.

If you have thoughts about a coherent self-sufficient Reform Jewish ideology, feel free to post them in the comments.