Chicago: The Manual

(A work in progress)

Come on, babe
It’s time to polish prose—
And paragraphs!

I’m gonna print out drafts
For us to recompose—
And alter grafs!

Load the files; I know a reference book
To fix your grammar—usage—
How your page should look.
It’s just a massive pile
Of good advice on style
And pa… ra… graphs.

Swap your texts,
And start a peer review—
And alter grafs!

I hear that Father Dreyer’s
Got his pencil blue—
To alter grafs!

Hold on, hon,
We’re gonna acquiesce
To the diktats of the
U. of Chicago Press
They’ve thousands of guidelines
So that your MS shines!
Let’s al… ter… grafs.

[spoken: Fred and Roxy are texting each other and reciting as they type, or it’s onscreen]
R: So that’s final, huh, Fred?
F: Yeah, I’m afraid so, Roxy.
R: Oh Fred…
F: Yeah?
R: Nobody sends me a rejection slip! People are going to hear about this, you son of a bitch!
[spoken aloud:]
I gotta tweet!

No, I’m not published yet,
’cept on the Internet.
And all that jazz!
That jazz!

Got a little squiggle
Always sees me through:
When you’re good with commas,
Karma’s good to you.

Careful punctuation
Heats up what you wrote—
Go and slip your comma
Inside that closing quote.

Some people like to put one in
Whenever there’s a pause.
But commas never set apart
A restrictive clause!

When a comma’s found in
An item in a list,
Use your semicolon
With an iron fist.

Here, the Oxford comma
Gets a happy nod,
Lest we end up thanking
Our folks, Ayn Rand and God.

So what’s the one conclusion
I can bring this number to?
When you’re good with commas,
Karma’s good to you!

I don’t care about “from” or “through”,
“Over”, “under”, and “hereto”—
No, no not me.
All I care about is “of”. (That’s what he’s here for.)

I don’t care about “ands” or “buts,”
Though they drive others nuts,
They don’t mean a thing,
All I care about is “of”. (All he cares about is “of”!)

Gimme two letters who
Came together, stuck like glue.
Let me read the lips they kissed
And honest, folks, I’m a descriptivist!

I don’t care for any function word
Merriam might have heard.
No, no not me.
All I care about is “of”. (All he cares about is “of”.)

Maybe you think I’m talking about possesive “of”. Well, I’m not. Not just possessive “of”. There’s other kinds of “of”. Like “of” of affiliation. “Of” used as a function word to indicate apposition. Those kinds of “of” are what I’m talkin’ about. And possesive “of” ain’t so bad either.


Pens and Inks

I recently splurged and bought myself a present for completing my Master’s in Software Engineering at Harvard Extension School. Because of COVID, I was reluctant to shop in person; this may have been a mistake. Don’t get me wrong – I have no complaints at all about Goulet Pens, which is where I ordered from, but pens are such a personal thing that to buy a pen without holding it in your hand, and especially without feeling how it writes with your favorite inks on your favorite paper is a bit of a gamble.

I’ve been using Pilot Metropolitans with medium nibs for a while. They’re good reliable workhorse pens — just the right weight in the hand, with a nice posting cap. I have a somewhat small handwriting, and when I first went pen shopping at Bob Slate Stationers in Harvard Square in pre-COVID days, it was the only entry-level pen with a narrow enough nib for me. Well, almost narrow enough, more on that in a moment.

I’ve since purchased three more, and loaded them with:

  • Pilot Iroshizuku Fukurokuju — a glorious green ink that I use for primary note-taking
  • Diamine Oxblood — a deep red that I use for writing my daily schedule. It contrasts wonderfully with the Fukurokuju.
  • Diamine Imperial Purple — a lively purple that I use for “personal” scribblings (like solving crossword puzzles)
  • Pilot Iroshizuku Hotei-son — an incredible near-black with a green tinge that I use in a Metropolitan with a calligraphy medium nib (1.0mm Stub) for writing headings in my notebook.

I also bought a Jinhao 51A Demonstrator Fountain Pen at one point, but it has a mostly concealed “hooded” nib and I found it difficult to maintain the correct angle. (Needless to say, I’m using converters for all of these rather than cartridges.)

I’ve experimented with papers; most of my writing is done in a Filofax notebook which uses refills that are like the various discbased notebooks out there, but is wirebound. I can turn the cover all the way around and write on both sides of the page while the notebook is balanced on my knee, and because it’s trivial to add, remove and rearrange pages, I am much less hesitant about committing an idea to paper than I used to be. The drawback is it needs fairly heavy stock and I am particular about line spacing; I’m currently printing out lined pages on HP 32# stock and punching them with a Staples Arc heavy-duty punch (see my previous post for details).

Part of the joy and the frustration of using fountain pens is finding the exact right combination of pen, ink, and paper to get to the point where the physical sensations of writing are a pleasure and the end result on the page pops with color and beautiful letterforms accurately rendered. Feathering, overly thick lines that combine instead of displaying fine loopwork, or smudging are just some of the things that can go wrong.

So in my latest order I decided to experiment with some finer nibs.

  • Pilot Kakuno is a really cheap starter pen for kids. But it’s got an extra-fine nib! And it’s completely clear, so you can appreciate the beauty of the liquid ink, and know when you’re running low and it’s time to refill. I’ve loaded it with a new-to-me ink, Diamine Wild Strawberry, which is a bright vibrant red which I chose in part because it’s close to Adobe red. I’m getting really nice thin lines; it’s a little scratchy on the page which you’d expect from an extra-fine nib, and the point dries out if I think too long between answers without recapping. Overall, well worth the money to experiment with. Supposedly I can swap this nib with one of my Metropolitans, which I haven’t tried yet. That would mean losing the “demonstrator” feature of seeing the contents of the ink reservoir, but it would give a nicer feel in the hand.
  • Monteverde Invincia with an “extra-fine” nib was a more expensive choice — about $72 for the style I chose. A little heavier in the hand than the Metropolitans. Since it’s not Japanese, their “extra-fine” seems to be the same width as the Metropolitans’ “fine”. I loaded this with Noodler’s Baystate Blue — wow! What an amazing color that is! The cap screws on, which I find a little annoying, having gotten used to the Metropolitan’s snap-on-snap-off cap. It’s a fine pen, but I’m not sure it is worth the price premium compared to the Metropolitan.
  • Platinum #3776 Century Fountain Pen – Bourgogne/Gold with Ultra-Extra-Fine nib was my treat to myself. At about $176 it’s definitely in (the low end of) the luxury-pen area. It’s a bit lighter in weight than I expected, to the point that I am sometimes distracted. It’s a screw cap. And it’s very scratchy. Again, for an “ultra extra fine” nib some scratchiness is to be expected, although I was hoping that since this is a gold nib and the others are steel that the nib material would somewhat compensate for the fact that there’s less ink flowing to lubricate the pen-paper interface. The UEF nib does let me write incredibly small (a little bit tighter than the Kakuno). But the biggest problem (which the Kakuno doesn’t share) is that there is so little ink flowing through that my beautiful highly-saturated inks all look faint on the page. The brilliant green of Fukurokuju is like a pale mint. The exhilarating red of Wild Strawberry is the pink of artificially-flavored “strawberry” ice cream. Even Noodler’s Borealis Black is a shadowy grey. Testing on Rhodia ivory 90gsm stock didn’t help much.

What I think I’ve learned from this, and comparing it to the Kakuno (and using as a guide) is that I like 0.2mm nibs; 0.1mm is too narrow for me (mostly because of the ink intensity problem) and 0.3mm is the widest I can use (and even then I start to have problems with legibility).

I also bought a Platinum Preppy Extra Fine, for a whopping $5. This would be a 0.2mm nib from Platinum, but I haven’t tried it yet. That should test my hypothesis about sizes, and I probably should have done that experiment before plunking down the money for the 3776. In any case, depending on how that experiment goes, I will probably order a straight-up “Extra-Fine” nib for the Platinum 3776, since it would be a shame not to use this pen, but as it is now it does not live up to my hopes.


Daily Notebook

A co-worker asked: “What’s your favorite pen and planner? I want to improve my planning and note taking and a physical object may help me” My answer was somewhat long and I thought I’d share it.

That’s both an easy and a hard question.

For pens, I like the Pilot G-2 in the 0.7mm size for a disposable, but to truly enjoy the writing experience I recommend finding a combination of fountain pen and ink that speaks to you. I’m really enjoying the Pilot Metropolitan, usually with a fine nib, which is the equivalent of a European extra-fine nib. Pilot is Japanese and their nibs run narrow, which I like. One of my Metropolitans has a calligraphy nib which I don’t use for casual notetaking but do use for “headings”.

For inks, I’m using two incredible ones from Pilot — hoteison is a near-black in the green family, which is in the pen with the calligraphy nib, and fukurokuju is a vibrant green that is my main note-taking ink right now. I’m also thrilled with an ink called oxblood by Diamene, which I use for my schedule (see below). And I have a couple of other inks that I’m experimenting with, but those are my main three right now.

I also have a Pentel 8-color mechanical pencil that takes a little getting used to but is critical to my ‘system’

For the planner, my needs have changed over the years. We do so much time management in Outlook and on our phones that I no longer feel the need to maintain a formal “planner”. I have a notebook, and I have a particular system for using it, which I’ll explain.

For years I was just using the medium spiral-bound notebooks that Adobe stocked in the supply cabinet. That’s certainly the easiest/least expensive starter option.

A couple of years ago I upgraded my experience to the Filofax Notebook series, in part because I wanted something slim which I could fold back on itself (like the spiral notebook) and which I could use while it’s balanced on my knees, and in part because I wanted the ability to add/remove/rearrange pages. What is unique about the Filofax Notebooks is that the binding is very much like a spiral notebook — very low-profile, not like a three-ring binder and not like the disc systems that Levenger calls Circa, Staples calls Arc, and others sell under other various names.

To have the pages be stiff enough to work with this system, they need to be on the heavier side, but that also makes them much more rewarding to write on, especially with the right pen and ink.

The challenge has been finding the right refill paper for the Filofax (which is not an issue with the Gel pen, but is an issue with a fountain pen.) I don’t like the line spacing on the Filofax papers; it’s too narrow for me. For a while I was buying paper from a company called Unpunched Refills but they seem to have gone out of business. I’m now using a high-end HP printer paper and I wrote a Python script using ReportLab to print exactly the kind of lines I want, and then I use a paper guillotine to cut each sheet down into an approximation of A5 paper and a Staples Arc hole-punch (which is close enough to the spacing of the Filofax notebook). 

OK, so that covers pen and paper. Now to describe my system, which is always a work in progress.

At the start of the day, I write the date in double-high letters/digits. For a while I was making an art project out of that, but the key thing is that it should be a top-level heading. Some days I force a new page, some days I just continue from the previous day.

On the right side of the page, under the date, taking up about 1/4 to 1/3 of the page width, I copy down my meeting schedule for the day: Time, who the meeting is with, and back when we were in the office, a third column with an abbreviation for which conference room was reserved. (This was when I fixed up appointments which didn’t have conference rooms; it also means that I can glance down at my notebook as a meeting is winding down and trivially remind myself what’s coming up, where I need to be, if I need a break between meetings or whom to alert via Slack if it looks like the current meeting will run over, etc.)

I have started marking a + or a – next to a meeting at the end of that meeting to indicate whether, in retrospect, it was a good or a poor use of my time. I also make sure that “lunch” and a mid-afternoon “coffee” break are included in that schedule, because otherwise I skip them and I get grumpy.

For a while, I would also write my current high-priority to-do items in the same column underneath the dates. Lately there have been too many of them and they’ve moved into the main column.

I like to use a different color (currently Oxblood) for the schedule so it is visually distinct from the rest of the page. I also sometimes draw a vertical rule between it and the rest of the page.

On the main part of the page (which takes over the full width once it gets below the daily schedule) I then recopy my to-do list. As I said above, I used to do this underneath the schedule but it got too long; I also used to use the bottom of the schedule/todo column to keep a list of non-work reminders and to-do list, following the principle that if I don’t have it written down I’m going to stress out about forgetting it, but once it’s written down I can forget about it. That got lost in the pandemic craziness and I should bring that back.

The format of the to-do list is also somewhat specific. Each item starts with my drawing a square and using hanging indent if things run onto more than one line — but I try to avoid having them be that long. An item which I should do in the next day or two is indicated by lightly shading the square orange (using my Pentel); an item which must get done today is shaded in red; an item which I’ve written down to remember but won’t be an active to-do in the current week is shaded light blue.

When I start work on an item, I draw a dot in the middle of the square. When work is significantly done but must be paused, I draw a single diagonal through the square. When the item is complete, I draw both diagonals (an X). An item handed off to someone else gets filled with a right-pointing triangle. An abandoned item gets a horizontal line through the box.

I look over the previous few days’ unfinished to-do items and recopy the ones that are still top-of-mind, high-priority and undone. This doesn’t mean that anything I fail to copy over has been abandoned; this is a way for me to reassert the priority order. When I’m looking for “what should I do next?” the order is basically: Anything marked red for today; anything marked red from previous days that I declined to recopy; anything marked orange for today; anything marked orange from the last few days that I failed to recopy; anything else non-blue. Sometimes this means I get to X off multiple boxes when something has been carried forward, which gives a nice sense of clearing the decks. And sometimes an orange item ages out of the system and never gets done. As someone said to me recently, “We all have to drop things on the floor; the secret to success is making sure you drop the right things.”

As the day goes on, I add new items to the list. Maybe they are action items coming out of a meeting, or out of a Slack message or an email. Or maybe they come out of an idea I just had. Or maybe they are loose ends from another task. No matter, they simply go on the page as they come up. I also make heavy use of drawing the Slack logo or an envelope icon along with someone’s initials so I can find the original item. I guess JIRA numbers are going to reappear in my notebook now, too.

I’ve also started adding + and – indications in the margin once a to-do item has been worked on, to indicate whether it was a good or poor use of my time.

When a meeting starts, I use the main text part (where my to-do items have been accumulating) to start taking notes. I start on the left side by writing (in large, heavy numbers) the time of the meeting, in a box. That provides a visual separation. Then I just take notes, leaving enough of a left margin that if a to-do item comes up, I can draw a square (which functions like a bullet) and add the to-do item in the context of the meeting it came from. If appropriate I shade in the box as soon as I know what the importance is. I then switch back into note-taking mode.

The presence of a square in the left margin will help me not lose my action items; the use of color also ensures my attention. If the item is done by end of day, great; if not, it will almost certainly be recopied the next morning. So I’ve saved myself the effort of maintaining and correlating separate pages for meeting notes versus to-do reminders; it’s all one thing.

At the end of a meeting, if the next thing is another meeting, then I can rely on the timestamp block to separate things; otherwise I use three heavy short diagonal strokes to indicate that I’m returning to “loose” notes and to-do items. (This is borrowed from orchestral scores that use those sorts of strokes to separate one system from the next)

Sometimes I essentially have a “meeting with myself” — design ideas, questions I am pondering, architecture diagrams, etc. Those function like any other meeting — if I’m formally reserving time with my brain then it goes into Outlook and goes into my daily schedule. Even if it’s informal, my notes go into the main text block just like any other meeting notes.

I do have separate sections in the notebook for particular long-running things where I want to keep related notes together. For example, I have a section for certain data-annotation projects, one for my thesis, one for architectural sketches for our big infrastructure initiative, etc. With the Filofax notebook it’s easy to move things around and to mix lined, blank, and dot-grid pages.

So that’s my system. It’s evolved over time, and in writing it up I’ve been reminded of things that I used to do that naturally attritted and that I might want to restore. I’d sum it up with these principles:

  • There is no better way to remember things than the physical act of writing them down, and this is even more effective the more you are physically engaged in the act of writing — by choosing a pen, ink, paper, and handwriting style that draw you into the tactile and visual experience of committing an evanescent thought into a material object.
  • Use color, visual grouping, and icons to help organize your thoughts and make things easy to find
  • Recopying information is a feature, not a bug. Sure, electronic to-do lists don’t forget things, but they also don’t force you to reprioritize your queue every morning. Making my first work-related act each day be hand-copying the date, my schedule for the day, and my commitments to myself and others helps me clear my mind; establish priorities, goals, and expectations for the day; close open loops; and consciously choose what gets pruned instead of simply dropping random things on the floor.

Note: I mentioned some specific brands and products in this blog post. I don’t get any commissions from anyone. And I’m sure this would be more effective with pictures, but my actual notebook contains stuff I can’t share publicly and this took long enough to write that I’m not going to fake up a page today.


A strange Yahrzeit

Today was my father’s ninth Yahrzeit. As it happens, it was also the first week that my shul experimented with outdoor Shabbat minyanim. (There have been daily minyanim for the last 10 days.)

I wasn’t comfortable with the length of the morning services, but I signed up for Minchah — I figured 15 minutes with everyone wearing masks, standing on their designated six-feet-separated marks in the parking lot, and limited to no more than 12 people on each side of the mechitzah was low-enough risk. (We also did a heicha kedusha to further reduce our time together; the ba’al korei got all three aliyot and was the only person to handle the sefer Torah; only I was permitted to handle the music stand that we used as the “amud”; I used my own tallit; and I was told to speak, not chant, the prayers as shaliach tzibbur.)

It was a strange experience. I was with my community, yet not with my community since so many regulars were not in this week’s rotation. I was at shul, yet not at shul since we were in the parking lot facing the uninspiring vinyl siding on the back wall. It was 90 degrees and I was talking into my mask, and I definitely felt the lack of oxygen by the end of the service. It was sunny, so I kept my wide-brimmed had on (which I normally don’t daven in).

For weeks, I’ve been assuming that I wouldn’t be able to say Kaddish this year, and I was fine with that. My father would not want us taking risks with our health, and I don’t hold that there’s anything mystical about saying kaddish on a Yahrzeit. To my understanding, the point of saying Kaddish, or more precisely the point of prompting the congregation to respond y’hei sh’mei rabbah, is to demonstrate by action what kind of parents raised one. The fact that I am regularly asked to serve as shaliach tzibbur throughout the year is a more meaningful honor to my father’s memory than the fact that I get to be one of several people who recite kaddish after aleinu one day a year.

And yet, as the day grew close, and I realized that Shabbat Mincha presented an acceptably low-risk opportunity, I was torn and eventually decided to go ahead. As I said, people were careful with the safety precautions and now that it’s over I think I made the right choice. But it was still strange.



In memory of Carlos Ruiz Zafón

My good friend Michael Burstein drew my attention to the passing of the novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafón, whose prose is incredibly moving, deeply true, therefore often unutterably sad, and remarkably evocative in characters, places, and language.

As it happens, I had recommended The Shadow of the Wind to a good friend last week, and so I had started re-reading his books. Today I reread The Angel’s Game and the opening paragraph is a most fitting epitaph:

A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood and the belief that, if he succeeds in not letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal at the end of the day, and what he covets the most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price.

Or this observation, from later in the same book

I had always felt that the pages I left behind were a part of me. Normal people bring children into the world; we novelists bring books. We are condemned to put our whole lives into them, even though they hardly ever thank us for it. We are condemned to die in their pages and sometimes even to let our books be the ones who, in the end, will take our lives.



The Breath of All That Lives

One of the guiding principles of berachot — a term conventionally but inaccurately translated as “blessings” — is that we thank/praise the Creator of All whenever we benefit from what God has done for us. Before we eat, we choose the correct formulation based on what category the food comes from. After we eat, the same thing. (These are known as birkat hanehenin — berachot of benefit.)

After using the bathroom, we recite a beracha (known as “asher yatzar” after its opening words) thanking God “Who formed man with wisdom and created within him many openings and many hollow spaces. It is obvious and known before Your Seat of Honor that if even one of them would be opened, or if even one of them would be sealed, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You” (translation from Wikipedia).

That prayer is first introduced in the Talmud in Berachot 60b, and is followed by a series of berachot to be recited as one goes through one’s morning routine, thanking God for the ability to wake up, open one’s eyes, get out of bed, put on clothes, etc.

That section, in turn, is followed by a discussion of the principle that “One is obligated to recite a blessing for the bad that befalls him just as he recites a blessing for the good that befalls him.” (Translation from Koren/Steinsalz via Sefaria).

Isaiah (45:7) quotes God’s self-description as “the One who [both] creates complete well-being and fashions the bad” that befalls us in the world. This refutation of dualism acknowledges the consequence of monotheism: Belief in a single Omnipotent Deity forces us to grapple with the problem of theodicy.

The core Biblical philosophical text dealing with theodicy, of course, is Job. After disaster and death befalls his family, he responds by describing God as “אֲשֶׁר בְּיָדוֹ נֶפֶשׁ כָּל חָי וְרוּחַ כָּל בְּשַׂר אִישׁ.” — the One in Whose hand is the breath of all that lives and the wind of all human flesh. (12:10)

And that brings us back to the berachot after food. The most general of these berachot, borei nefashot, is for food or drink that do not fall into a more specific category, and quotes our verse from Job:

בּוֹרֵא נְפָשׁוֹת רַבּוֹת וְחֶסְרוֹנָן עַל כָּל מַה שֶּׁבָּרָאתָ לְהַחֲיוֹת בָּהֶם נֶפֶשׁ כָּל חַי

“Blessed” are You … the One who created many breathing-souls and that which they lack, for everything which You have created for the purpose of giving life therewith to the breath of all that lives.

The “lack” is traditionally understood to mean that we are focusing on the aspect of God which created living creatures who require food and drink to survive (that being what we lack), and then thanking God for providing the very sustenance which we were created to need.

But the Hebrew word nefesh, which is usually translated in this context as “soul” or “spirit”, literally means “breath”, which allows us to interpret this beracha differently in the days of COVID-19. Just as asher yatzar offers thanksgiving to God that our digestive system keeps us alive, we seek a way to express our newly sensitized awareness that our respiratory system is also a delicate balance that sustains us.

So borei nefashot can be re-considered: as a birkat ha-nehenin (a beracha of benefit) for each healthy breath, as a blessing over the bad as well as over the good, and as a petitionary prayer for continued medical progress in performing the sacred pursuit of healing:

“Blessed” are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign over all infinity, Who created many breaths, but also created situations when breath is insufficient to sustain life. We thank You for all that You have created — our own immune systems, when they are adequate, but also the ability for humans to discover medicinal interventions and to invent technology — through which life can be brought to the breath of all that lives. “Blessed” is the One who is the Life of all infinities.


Advice from a homeschool family

We’ve been homeschooling for six years, with our elder child now in college. A few quick thoughts for those who suddenly find themselves wondering how to help their kids learn:

  • This is a stressful time for everyone, but especially kids whose sense of security often derives from the sense that their parents and teachers have everything under control. Cut them some slack.
  • Cut yourself some slack, too. You got this! The most important ingredient in our success in educating our kids wasn’t professional teacher training, it wasn’t that we already had mastered these subjects, it was that we were there for our kids.
  • You do not have to replicate school at home. You do not want to replicate school at home. That would be a lot of work, and most of it would be wasted. Schools are designed to effectively teach classes of children together. Your kids are individuals, and they can and will learn better at their own pace.
  • Let your kids take the lead. Kids are curious, and they want to learn. Explain to them that we’re all figuring this out as we go, and you want to know how they think they would learn best, and which subjects they are most interested in. Are there particular times in history, or aspects of nature, or technologies that they are really into?
  • Find some documentaries on those subjects and let your kids binge-watch. If they are creative and want to make posters, or record their own “documentaries”, that’s great, but really if their “oral report” takes the form of you asking them over dinner about what they watched, and engage them in conversation about it, that’s all they need.
  • Khan Academy is great if you — and your kids — want to stay current on math. But only if they’re motivated. See above, about cutting them some slack.
  • Now is a good time to talk about the structure of government, and how the different branches at each level interact. Our local city council has started holding all its meetings on Zoom, which will make it much easier for kids to “attend” than when we used to spend evenings on the uncomfortable wooden benches at City Hall. Here in Massachusetts, in fact, “civics” is the only subject required by law for homeschooling families. To the extent that it doesn’t increase their anxiety, talk about the news with your kids, and teach them how to fact-check sources.

From what time?

The new Daf Yomi cycle started yesterday. Jews around the world opened the first volume of the Talmud, Blessings, and studied the first page.

“From what time do we read the passage ‘Hear, O Israel…’ in the evening?”

There is a lot to unpack in that first question, and I want to dwell on it for a moment. We think of Judaism as many things — a religion, a culture, an ethnos — but what the opening of the Talmud silently establishes is that Judaism is a way of experiencing existence.

“Hear O Israel” — the Shema — is not a prayer. It does not address God, it is Moses addressing us. It does not supplicate, it does not praise, it is not a devotion. It is our foundational text. It tells us that Hashem is our God, that Hashem is singular and unique, and so on. It is a self-propagating text, commanding us to recite itself twice daily and to propagate it to future generations. It is our oldest meme.

And this opening question, along with the following discussion, establishes several additional essential points.

First, that there is a right way and a wrong way to perform the act of reciting this passage. Say it at 5:23pm (on a particular day at a particular location) and you have fulfilled your obligation. Say it at 5:22pm (on that same day at that same place) and you have done nothing. This is not idle pedantry — it establishes our worldview that in all our actions, it is important to know where the boundaries of effective and ineffective behavior lie. We will encounter this idea over and over in the next 7.5 years — how much does one have to eat to fulfill this commandment or to be in violation of that one? At what point in a purchase and sale is ownership transferred?

Second, the passage continues by bringing down three conflicting opinions regarding the latest time when reciting the Shema is efficacious. This establishes our worldview that there can be multiple approaches to any of these questions, and as long as they are grounded in the traditional sources and traditional exegetical processes, “both these and those are the word of the living God.” We do not insist on unanimity, we do not speak with a single voice, but we respect those whose answers are different from ours, we record all answers for posterity (including those whose foundation turns out to be insufficient), and use them to deepen our own understanding of the thread we follow.

Third, the passage relates the times through the actions of various classes of people and the kind of food they eat: Priests, who eagerly await the time when they complete the process of ritual purification and can eat sacred food. The poor, who eagerly await the time when they can eat what little food they possess. Every Jew, who eagerly awaits the arrival of the Sabbath and its special meal. In another page we’ll add the suckling, greeting the dawn by beginning to nurse. This is a worldview in which every action we take has the potential to connect us to God, if we are attuned to the potential for making that relationship happen in any given moment.

Fourth, the passage then relates a story of the sons of a leading rabbi who made a mistake and forgot to recite the Shema. We learn that we can learn from stories involving our scholars, as much as we can learn from their explicit teachings. We learn that even the great rabbis and their families sometimes had trouble keeping the laws. We learn the importance of building fences around areas where we are likely to fail. We learn that to follow this tradition is to embrace our humanity and our frailty.



I have been guilty of silence. And silence is the medium of repentance.

There was a man named Shlomo Carlebach who, in the decades of the 1960s through his death in 1994, was a charismatic “singing rabbi” whose melodies remain incredibly popular and influential today across the Jewish spectrum.

He is also alleged to have committed sexual assault, including against minors, often within the context of his “musical outreach”. I find these accusations overwhelmingly credible. (This is not a criminal court proceeding, it is a personal decision about how I will relate to his music, so questions of what legal standard to use are irrelevant.)

There are several reasons to abandon the use of Carlebach’s melodies in light of this assessment. First, some of his victims are still in our communities, and how can we subject them to hearing these melodies which will bring back horrific memories? Second, other victims of sexual assault are in our communities, and by using his melodies we signal to them that we’ll forgive such behavior if the alternative is giving up something that makes us feel good.

Even if that were not this case, how can we use these melodies in our relationship with God? This goes beyond the usual “tainted genius” question. By all accounts, Carlebach traded on his cult of personality, driven by these melodies, to gain access to his victims, to compel their silence, to create a community of enablers. These melodies are weapons that were used to destroy innocent lives; they defile.

For example, many (most?) children today are taught the blessing before the Shema to Carlebach’s melody to “Veha-er Eineinu.” That’s how I learned it; that’s how my kids learned it. And now I wonder how many of Carlebach’s child victims were made vulnerable to him because of that melody.

I chose a while ago to personally stop using his melodies. I will not use them when I lead services. I will not sing along when they are used by others. But I have not spoken about this, and in my silence I have failed others who are harmed by our communities’ continued use of these melodies.

So I have some work to do. My siddur, which includes musical cues, sometimes cites melodies which I now know come from his pen. I must identify these and mark them. (Not eliminate them, because others should be aware of their source.) A few years back, I contributed typesetting to a musical siddur for “Todah v’Zimrah” which makes extensive use of Carlebach’s melodies; I don’t know how to undo that.

One of the challenges is that Jews tend to re-use melodies. So, for example, one melody that I grew up with as the beginning of the Musaf Kedushah turns out to actually be a Carlebach melody for part of Lecha Dodi. Tracking down all the places where his melodies are used will be difficult.

To manage this, I plan to maintain a list with three categories: Melodies which were written by Carlebach, melodies which I can trace to another composer, and melodies which are suspicious. For now, I’m avoiding not only the first category but also the third, especially when the melody has Carlebach’s style.

Just before Yom Kippur we recite the Kol Nidre, in which we enumerate various categories of vows and ask preemptively to nullify any vows which we will be unable to uphold. My intent to abjure any Carlebach melody is akin to a cherem, a vow to abstain from certain things. I know that, for the reasons given above, some will undoubtedly slip through because I don’t know that they are his, but I will rely on Kol Nidre for those.

Another difficulty with this act of conscience is that “not singing along” is not a noticeable action. I doubt any of my fellow congregants have noticed when I am silent and when I am singing. I wonder if there is some sort of physical gesture that those who are abstaining can use to create opportunities to explain.

Carlebach’s melodies are ubiquitous. It would take a concentrated, conscious effort for other composers to displace them and for congregations to pursue that. That is our generation’s challenge.

There is a time to sing, and a time to be silent. There is a time to be silent, and a time to speak.


Shlach L’cha – On sending away

This is not a fully-formed set of thoughts. It’s a hodge-podge occasioned by a confluence of events. Please bear with me.

Yesterday’s parsha (weekly Torah reading) was Shlach Lecha (Numbers 13:1–15:41). God tells Moses to send the Meraglim, the scouts, to go on ahead and assess the land which the Children of Israel are to inhabit. We all know what happens next — the scouts return with wondrous stories about the land, but ten of the twelve report that the inhabitants are too fierce and the people lose heart; God decrees that this generation (except for the two scouts who didn’t break faith, and (if you read closely) the Levi’im) must wander the wilderness until they die out, and their children will instead be the ones to claim their inheritance.

Tonight is my father’s Jahrzeit. Friday is his mother’s. Wednesday is his grandmother’s hundredth Jahrzeit. But on Thursday is a cousin’s first birthday. And our first-born just completed high school.

Ida Levine Greene (Chaya Grune bat Josef Tuvia ha-Levi) came to the US with her husband, Barnet, in 1887. They were the vanguard of the family. They arrived, started having children, earned money, sent it back, and brought over parents and siblings. In many ways they were Meraglim — sent on ahead to see if the United States was really the “Promised Land”, they reported back that it was prosperous enough, and because they joined an “Anshei” landsmannschaft (Ansheis were centered around synagogue services) we learn that they, like Caleb and Joshua, believed that God would continue to guide their lives.

And those families who didn’t send someone, who didn’t take that risk? So many of them were slaughtered fifty years later. Sending away involved palpable risk, but staying put constituted the silent threat.

Not only do I look back, I am also looking ahead. This autumn our first-born leaves for college. We are sending him forth to find his own place in the world. He will not only be learning academic subjects; he’ll be learning what it’s like to have roommates and responsibilities. He will learn new ways to balance commitments to others, commitments to God, and commitments to himself. He will be in a city he does not yet know. We have done what we can to prepare him, but sending him forth is scary.

Yet one message of Shlach Lecha — perhaps the key message — is that each generation must recognize when it is time to let the children become, if not yet the next generation of leaders, then at least to become their own people. If they are to become successful as a generation, they need to emerge from under our umbrella of influence, however protective that might be.

Lois McMaster Bujold, in the Vokosigan series, has one character say something along the lines of “I used to think I was the pinnacle of evolution, and now I have become just one link in the chain.” This is upon becoming a parent, but to some degree I’m feeling it more strongly now, eighteen years later. Up to now, I have been able to shield my child from danger, to guide his moral and intellectual and religious development, to help him cultivate his interests and skills. Now, I have to let go, take a step back, and watch along with everyone else as he claims his birthright as a full adult member of society. For if I don’t send him off, I will have most profoundly failed him.

Shlach Lecha. Send them away, for yourself. It is scary. Ten times out of twelve it might involve failure. But without it we will never see the future.