Category: Culture

Caveat Venditor

New York has always been a culturally dynamic city, but certain neighborhoods have generally been able to maintain their character over the years. To some extent people follow reputations; once an area establishes an identity it is likely to attract those who find such an area attractive, thus perpetuating the status quo. Economics likely play a larger, but related role, in that certain neighborhoods may attract diversity due to cheaper rents while others will be more exclusive due to the high costs. But even the formerly inoculated communities have been finding that as the economies change, so goes the neighborhood.

Eden Woks Away

I recently received the unfortunate news that the Eden Wok on 72nd is now closed (though not updated on their website). I’ve always liked Eden Wok for the quality/price, and the $20 all you can eat Mondays was remarkably convenient for sheva berachot.
The best story I have though has to be the time when Jose and I split a pu pu platter. I noticed one of the egg rolls was precariously close to the flame thingie in the middle, and then the nearby wontons started smoking. Before we knew it, all the deep fried goodies started catching fire which spread to the wooden serving bowl itself.
It took a while to flag down a waiter – in retrospect service could have been faster that day – and they promptly doused the thing in water and gave use a new one. I guess what made it funny at the time was how nonchalant Jose and I were to the point where the guests seated nearby looked like we were crazy for being so calm – which of course was a completely accurate assessment.
Ah, good times.

Revisiting The Restaurant Health Codes

Last summer we discussed the deplorable conditions at the popular eatery Kosher Delight. As you may recall, KD failed its 05/05/2006 inspection with a score of 33 violation points, and after briefly rebounding to a more respectable score of 9, is currently holding its precarious score of 26.
A score 28 or above is considered failing, and requires a reinspection.
Much to my surprise (and dismay) KD doesn’t even come close to being the worst in New York. According to Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx) that dubious distinction belongs to Cafe La Fonduta which somehow racked up an astounding 160 violation points, and my own quick lookup returned D.M. International Restaurant with an impressively pathetic score of 174.
Once again, the failing score is 28.
After some more poking around I noticed that at least three of the worst offenders were presumably Kosher establishments, interestingly, all located in Brooklyn. Souad Glatt Kosher Catering received a 105 on 12/26/2006, then the homely named Ess N’ Bench scored a 106 on 02/15/2007, and finally “Moses Wertzberger” received a 122 on 12/12/2006.
The dates here are relevant for the all important “historical context;” some establishments have a long history of negligence while it’s possible that other just had a bad day. For example, in 2006 Souad Glatt failed three other inspections (29,32,55) before finally dropping to a more respectable 8. On the other hand, Ess N’ Bench has had generally been acceptible score-wise.1 (No history was listed for Mr. Wertzberger)
We also find this variation on the most extreme end of the scale. D.M. International typically scored high (37,22,20,59) but Cafe La Fonduta was relatively acceptable scoring 12 and 16 in previous inspections.
How do these establishments degrade so drastically? My guess is that there would have to be either a significant change in the establishment or in the health codes, possibly both. If a restaurant changes ownership, the new proprietors may be either oblivious or incompetent in the areas of food safety and city guidelines. Changes in the establishment may also include irresponsible physical alterations. Violation 7 of Ess N’ Bentch is labeled “Facility Design,” a violation notably absent in their previous inspection. This would lead me to conclude that somehow the design or layout changed of certain areas which could have led to not only the specific violation but facilitated every other one as well. Finally, any changes in the health codes would obviously impact the final scoring if what was once acceptable is now deemed to be a violation.2
Even so, some of these increases do seem high to me. While I suggest avoiding the above establishments, I am also wondering if we also should take these reports with a grain of salt.

1. As I mentioned in one of the earlier posts on the subject, I personally view some violations more severe than others. Lacking an “Employees Must Wash Hands” sign does not bother my sensibilities as much as any violation involving “mice” or “vermin.”
2. There are many other possibilities, but I am focusing on those which do not involve anything illegal.

Taking Each Other Down A Peg

דרש בר קפרא, מאי דכתיב: “ויתד תהיה לך על אזנך?” אל תקרי אזנך אלא על אוזנך,
שאם ישמע אדם דבר שאינו הגון יניח אצבעו באזניו -בבלי כתובות ה:א-ב
Bar Kafra expounded: What is the meaning of the verse “And you shall have pegs (yated) among your tools”? (Deut. 23:14) Do not read “your tools” (azeinecha) but rather “your ears” (oznecha) such that if someone were to hear something inappropriate, he should plug his ears with his fingers (B. Ketuvot 5a)

I had barely taken a few steps in the apartment upon returning from Chicago when Roommate Yonah asks me if I had been following the big news on the blogosphere. Apparently, the Israeli newspaper Yated Ne’eman printed more missives directed against Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) where Roommate Yonah is currently finishing smikha. This of course led to several discussions, points, counterpoints, and of course the expected flamewars.

During my time off I had intentionally minimized my web surfing, so I was blissfully ignorant of this whole brouhaha. My initial reaction when Yonah summarized the happenings is exactly how I feel right now:

To be perfectly blunt, I just don’t care.

In other circumstances I would not waste the time and energy in continuing this discussion, but I do feel that a meta-analysis would do some good. Specifically, why is it that Yated’s editorials are so important to so many people to warrant such outrage?
The simple answer is just that people don’t like being insulted in any context, especially regarding one’s spiritual beliefs (and possibly inherited traditions). When insulted and rejected on such a personal level, it should not be surprising to find people react defensively. But this is only a partial explanation since there are many occasions when we or our faiths are insulted and yet we ignore those insults without incident.

First, there is the issue of giving undue respect to the authors of the editorials and letters. I have a theory that the impact of insults and criticisms (and conversely compliments) is proportional to how much we respect our tormentors. For example, a five year old teasing “you’re stupid” can be disregarded more easily than hearing those same words from your professor or boss. The difference is obvious; we are more concerned with how our professors and superiors view our intellectual acumen than a random immature brat.
Religious attacks are no different in this regard in that we only will be sensitive to attacks from those people whose religious beliefs we value or respect. What I do not understand is how Yated would deserve this level of acknowledgment. While there could be a reasonable debate as to which hashkafot are “acceptable” in Jewish thought, it appears that Yated failed in not only presenting a rational argument but did not bother to do rudimentary fact-checking in the interest of determining exactly what YCT represents. People who would criticize as such – both in terms of argument and evidence – would ordinarily not be considered a “bar plugta” deserving of a response.

Herein lies the second issue in that sometimes even absurd positions need rebutting. When the Niturei Karta people infamously participated in the Iran Holocaust Conferencethere was a near-universal outcry and even public protests. These were not done out of respect for Niturei Karta, but to demonstrate that their positions were fanatical and outside the bounds of the Jewish community.
But for whom were these protests staged? I doubt that any member of Niturei Karta would look at the throngs of people holding placards and consequently reverse his positions, and I suspect that the protesters had no such expectations. Rather, the statement was made for the uninformed people who could be influenced by the Niturei Karta’s presence or more importantly a reaffirmation of one’s own beliefs and to demonstrate solidarity in their own common cause.

When Yated publishes such editorials, they do so for a readership which demands little by way of journalistic evidence to justify existing religious prejudices. In a similar vein, YCT promotes its hashkafa not to convince the Haredi community of their legitimacy but to reach out to those who would be receptive. What makes these flamewars particularly pointless is that in the exchange people forget that they will not convince people who are predisposed to their own opinions, especially when the argument is as juvenile as “yes, you’re koferim” and “no we’re not – you’re the koferim.”

Despite the general need for more religious dialogue, we also have to realize that sometimes it is more useful not to engage in certain conversations. While YCT supporters could be justified in defending the institution, they ought to realize that not much will be gained in a confrontation but instead would be better served by focusing their energies on those whom they have a chance of influencing.
As for Yated, those who are predisposed to disagree with their opinions have a Talmudic suggestion for a more appropriate response.

P.D.Q. Bach In Business

Loyal readers of the blog may have picked up on my interests in shtick and music, so it not come as a surprised to know that I would enjoy some of Peter Schickele’s work on P.D.Q. Bach.1 Last night I was fortunate to have attended my first P.D.Q. Bach Concert at Lincoln Center.
The best way to describe the experience would be to combine the music of classical composers, the irreverence of Frank Zappa, and the audience of Rocky Horror (though thankfully, without the drag). I’m not sure how else to explain the surreal and seamless synthesis of balloons, bicycles, basketballs, power outages, the hokey pokey, and a bagpipe vibrato.
If you find this sort of thing appealing or happen to be completely drunk, then check out come clips and the upcoming concert schedule.2

1. Many thanks to Ben Resnick for the introduction.
2. Though I doubt I can attend, I’m loving the fact that the April Fool’s concert will be held in a place called Fredonia.

A Conservative Compromise

Conservative Judaism recently made headlines with their reevaluation of homosexuality in Jewish law. Although Conservative Judaism rejected homosexuality in 1992 (PDF), there was a request to reconsider the issue. When we covered homosexuality from an Orthodox perspective in “Lonely Men of Faith1 we referenced the debate between Rabbi Elliot Dorf and Rabbi Joel Roth, but there has obviously been significantly more discussion on the matter culminating in yesterday’s decision. From what limited information we have at this time, this new decision is hardly as groundbreaking as people might think.

Whither The Jewish Vote?

Be careful in your relations with the government; for they draw no man close to themselves except for their own interests. They appear as friends when it is to their advantage, but they do not stand by a man in his time of stress (M. Avot 2:3).

Despite being a demographic minority in America, Jews seemingly wield a disproportionate influence in American politics such that the “Jewish Vote” becomes an annual topic of interest. Politicians are concerned with this minority that both Democrats and Republicans equally compete for the “pro-Israel” label, and any missteps must be swiftly addressed. There has been some recent discussion as to the nature, significance, and future of the Jewish vote specifically mostly focusing on party affiliation and voting patterns. Today on YUTOPIA we will be reconsidering if partisanship is really the ideal context for defining the Jewish vote.

Spitting Headache

New Scientist reports on an advancement in painkillers which might seem hard to swallow:

Saliva from humans has yielded a natural painkiller up to six times more powerful than morphine, researchers say.
The substance, dubbed opiorphin, may spawn a new generation of natural painkillers that relieve pain as well as morphine but without the addictive and psychological side effects of the traditional drug.

On the downside, it kind of gives new meaning to “lohesh ‘al hamaka” (M. Sanhedrin 10:1), so if you’re planning on taking this, just don’t say anything.

Really Tough Love

There’s a great quote today courtesy of Rev. David Clippard speaking at the Missouri Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in St. Louis. While his speech was littered with anti-Islamic statements, his comments afterwards were perplexing to say the least:

Clippard said Tuesday that his message was really about love.
“I don’t hate Islamic people,” he said. “We need to love these folks, go after them and love them, one at a time. We need to crucify them with Christ.”

And here I thought the crucifixion was a *bad* thing when really it was just a little “tough love” by the Romans. My question is are 2×4’s now considered acceptable gifts for a 5th or “wood” anniversary?