Friday, March 29, 2013

Crossing Boundaries

Monday, March 25, 2013
Sunday’s New York Times had an interesting article on New York City’s use of data in governing. One example was the development of a statistically-likely list of restaurants illegally dumping cooking oil into sewers, otherwise known as nouveau cuisine. Illustrating the article was a colorful graphic with a dozen or so random factoids. While the most popular boy’s name at birth and the number of water fountains in city parks are of some interest, I felt a personal connection to two factoids. Stuyvesant is the high school with the highest SAT scores in the city, hardly a surprise. But, the next one really hit home; it deals with my zip code, 10023. It has the highest residential electrical consumption in the city. My best explanation is the density of the neighborhood. Just about every building in sight is 30 stories or so with big footprints, none of those two-apartments-to-a-floor exclusivity. Of course, airconditioning is omnipresent and, even if electric crêpe makers have been retired, the typical apartment is equipped with refrigerators, ranges, toasters, microwave ovens, coffee makers, kettles, mixers, blenders, food processors, televisions, radios, clocks, sound systems, video systems, computers, answering machines, lamps and other devices plugged into an electric outlet. Additionally, the neighborhood has a big concentration of older folk, retired who stay around the house more hours of the day than us young job holders who use our employers’ juice eight hours or so daily.

Passover begins tonight, and the three generations temporarily stuffed into Palazzo di Gotthelf will be crossing the Hudson River actually in order to cross the Red Sea symbolically at the home of Aunt Judi and Uncle Stu. Of course, a menu report will be available tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013
Last night’s menu, served to 27 people, contained few surprises: fried gefilte fish (I could have danced all night), brisket of beef, veal ribs, relish (cranberries, pineapple, oranges, apples), squash kugel (sweet and smooth), vegetarian kishke (an oxymoron as you students of kishke will recognize), and a salad of shredded cabbage, red peppers, scallions and candied slivered almonds in a dressing of garlic vinegar, sugar, ketchup, black pepper and salt. Please note that the lovely Shoshana was personally responsible for preparing the almonds, adding a sweet touch to her mother-in-law’s salad. While there were store-bought cakes and cookies for dessert, Aunt Judi ended with a flourish with her chocolate chip mandelbrot/biscotti, a few of which she slipped me on my way out the door.

Our large group of celebrants includes some very thoughtful people of all ages. I was impressed by the comments of 13-year old Ephraim who discussed this famous passage in the Haggadah, the Passover story told at every seder: "For not just one [Pharaoh] alone has risen against us to destroy us, but in every generation they rise against us to destroy us; and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand!" He recognized the role that an existential threat plays in keeping the Jewish people more or less together. I wondered aloud whether the Jewish people need to be in a state of constant peril, whether we could live in normalcy (whatever that is). If we lose our sense of wary separation from other people, will we/must we become like them, losing our values and identity? While the ghetto was imposed upon us over and over again through the centuries, haven’t many Jews preserved psychological ghettoization, because of the doctrinal and behavioral conformity that it propagates?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Both the New York Times and the New York Law Journal headline yesterday’s oral argument before the United States Supreme Court on California Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California, the first of two cases before the Supreme Court on the issue. The stories were not concentrated on the substantive issues posed by same-sex marriage, where the legal winds are blowing stronger and stronger in favor, but rather the procedural posture of the case, whether Prop 8 supporters have standing to challenge the lower court’s ruling, and whether this highly-controversial issue is ripe for decision (ultimately a political not a judicial decision).

What (perversely) amuses me is my agreement with the Supreme Court’s cautious approach to the issue, a classic exercise of constitutional jurisprudence. However, five of those guys have eagerly abandoned caution, restraint, precedent and even proponents’ arguments when deciding Citizens United and Heller, the decisions which respectively put a For Sale sign on our elections and imbued the Second Amendment with an absolutism denied the rest of the Bill of Rights. In those cases, the five missionaries of conservative Republicanism actively avoided deciding only the issues before them, the traditional (may I say conservative) approach of most tribunals, but instead made broad policy conclusions that the winning sides themselves had eschewed. Citizens United, after all, dealt with the showing of a documentary film on Hillary Clinton on satellite television within 30 days of a Democratic presidential primary. The film maker’s position was that the film was protected from campaign finance legislation because it was fact-based and nonpartisan. The Supreme Court majority decided on its own that, regardless of the content addressed, the McCain-Feingold Act could not restrict how corporations, associations and labor unions spent their money in election campaigns.

In both cases, strong precedents were abandoned abruptly, unlike Brown v Board of Education, for instance, where Thurgood Marshall chipped away at the legal foundations of segregation case-by-case. Note that my friend and distinguished legal scholar Nate Persily saw Citizens United as more inevitable than I did.

Given the mind set of the Court’s conservative majority, I see an opening for the forces of same-sex marriage. Go to what turns these guys on, the protection of corporate power. Start with the merger of gay corporations, allowing freedom of choice in capitalistic intercourse. Then, since this Court has ruled that corporations are now entitled to the constitutional guarantees of citizenship, it follows that the equal protection of the laws requires gay people to have the same rights as gay corporations.

The Seder menu last night, served to a mere 20 people, contained some new (to me) dishes which I thoroughly enjoyed – a matzoh jam kugel, that is a pudding made of matzoh shards and crumbs with a modest amount of grape jelly stirred in; a cabbage kugel, shredded cabbage delightfully not tasting like cabbage, containing onions, eggs, sugar and potato starch. The fried gefilte fish and vegetarian kishke made return appearances. The relish tonight relied more upon Mandarin oranges than pineapple. The highlight, a reason to leave Egypt, was Aunt Judi’s Famous Meatballs served with faux couscous, made with matzoh meal instead of semolina wheat. Naming no names, some people ate meatballs to the exclusion of everything else. As I’ve said before in regard to the wonderful paradox of Aunt Judi’s Passover brisket and meatballs, you want to come back the next day and make a sandwich. The nominal main course was boneless chicken breast in white wine with mushrooms. With the chocolate chip mandelbrot/biscotti distributed into private hands Monday night, last night’s home-baked desserts featured brownies and zebra cookies, a soft, intense chocolate cookie dusted with powdered sugar.

This great meal eased our departure from Egypt, but entry into the Promised Land of Manhattan took almost an hour as repair work on the George Washington Bridge added more than 30 minutes to our crossing. Only the physical and mentalcontentment generated by the great meal and five-year old Boaz’s rendition of the Four Questions, kept me from grumbling (too much).

Thursday, March 28, 2013
A concerned colleague asked me this morning how I was doing two weeks after my extensive oral surgery. Since I’m still not finding things where they used to be, I replied that I felt that I was using a borrowed mouth.

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