Thursday, October 27, 2011

Circumcision, Elderly Singers, and Capstone Plans

Happy Thursday! It's very rainy today, and possibly snowy in the somewhat-near future (the forecast suggests).

I have one important update relating to my Jewish Studies capstone - earlier today, after my JS 117 class (Narratives of the Hebrew Bible) I met with Prof. Fox to discuss possible independent study/capstone projects. Because I am looking to go into either hospice or chaplaincy work following my time at Clark, I hope to ultimately pursue topics in this area regarding my capstone. Upon brief discussion with Prof. Fox, he deemed it probable for me to examine biblical passages & midrash relating to illness and dying. It seems we will meet throughout the semester, ending with a thirty to forty page paper concerning these topics.

I am fairly excited, both because I am very interested in these two topics (& it will give me a good head-start into the process of entering these fields) and because Prof. Fox is a professor with whom I've had many classes and enjoy the teaching style of. 

Today I will spend some time working on my circumcision presentation, due one week from today in SOC 203 (American Jewish Life). I am thinking of organizing my presentation (and subsequently the paper) according to this rough outline:
1. Overview of presentation (aka table of contents)
2. Definition of circumcision (what is it? why do we do it?)
            a. origins (inclusion of biblical texts and tradition) 
            b. when was it accepted into American culture and adopted as a tradition beyond Jewish custom?
3. How & why has this custom changed over time?
            a. female reactions (baby-naming ceremonies, puncturing of the hymen) 
            b. male reactions (hopefully including quotes from the film Private Dicks: Men Exposed)
4. How do these changes extend to remark on broader patterns of American Jewish life?
            a. maintenance of tradition / adoption into a broader culture
            b. personal dissonance with tradition & its implications beyond religion
            c. empowerment (feminism, masculinity, choice)

That's all I have for now! I'm sure that as I continue to do research, my outline will shift. 

One last thing to mention - in my COPACE (The Final Chapter) course yesterday we watched a lovely film called Young@Heart. I am personally infatuated with the elderly in general, making this one of the best things I've ever seen. It's a film that focuses on a chorus of elderly folk, following their daily lives as they work to prepare for a concert (if anyone wants to get me the greatest birthday present ever, please purchase me tickets to one of their shows). One of their music videos, showed briefly in the film, can speak to some of society's discomfort with the elderly (and the proximity of death). Is everyone familiar with the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated"? Young@Heart's version is pretty close competition. 

Watch the movie trailer here (and then see the movie if you are fond of 1. the elderly or 2. covers of classic rock songs):

I hope everyone has a lovely Thursday!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Jewish Feminism

In American Jewish Life (SOC 203) we've been discussing in depth the different branches of Judaism. In our most recent class, we adopted a feminist perspective to examine the role of women in Jewish practices, laws, and customs.

A broad feminist critique would suggest that Judaism, in general, is sexist. The same broad statement could be attributed to most religious organizations - I don't intend in any way to pick on Judaism, but rather to point out how recent readings and discussions have made me more aware of sexism & biases ingrained within in the community in which I was raised.

To begin, here are the four branches of Judaism & the years when their rabbinical seminaries were first organized:
Reform - 1875 - Hebrew Union College (this faction is often viewed as the most liberal form)
Conservative - 1902 - Jewish Theological Seminary (this faction is often viewed as a compromise between reform & orthodox)
Orthodox - 1915 - Yeshiva University (this faction is often viewed as the most traditional/strict)
Reconstructionist - 1968 - Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (this faction is newer and overall views the social aspects of religion as central to Judaism)

And now, following the brief overview of the factions of Judaism, here are some specific situations within Jewish tradition that make me uncomfortable because they could be interpreted as sexist (included are the manners in which the situations have improved):
1. Halakha (Jewish law) dictates that a minyan (prayer quorum) must contain ten adults in order to count towards public prayer. However, women, traditionally, were not included in those that "count" towards the minyan. In recent years, women have become recognized as members of the quorum in reform, conservative, and reconstructionist factions.
2. Traditionally women and men are separated using a mechitzah (barrier) during the prayer services to prevent distraction. Previously, this has been carried out by women being placed above the men on a balcony (called "ezrat nashim" in Hebrew - a " gallery of women"). More modern examinations have suggested that there are manners in which we can have "more equal manners of separation" (as contradictory as that sounds), such as being separated by a side-by-side barrier.
3. During times of menstruation women are viewed as impure; in Orthodox tradition women are required to sleep in separate beds from their husbands during that time. Men are not supposed to touch women while they are menstruating. The mikveh, the ritual bath, is utilized as a way to become clean after menstruation (in addition to using it for other traditions - before marriage, after a major life event, etc). Some have recently come to embrace the mikveh under different circumstances; not necessarily under the traditional auspices. The professor of SOC 203 gave an example of a mikveh created under different circumstances: Mayyim Hayyim, in Newton, MA. In my own life, my mother worked to help create a community-based mikveh in Portland (where I'm from!). Website here: Mikvat Shalom.

In my own life, I am made uncomfortable due to some of these traditions. My orthodox (male) cousins and uncle do not often hug me, which although having a basis in traditional, still can feel hurtful. Dissonance occurs, because I want to respect their beliefs but I do not feel that the tradition is one that I personally would obey.

Additionally, it's discouraging to me that women are seen as "impure" during menstruation, a time when women's bodies are following through with an important biological process. It is particularly frustrating to me when women are shunned or made to feel embarrassed because of a natural, necessary process & an important bodily function.

Lastly, it frustrates me to think that certain folks may not believe that I "count", or that other women do not. Bigotry is irritating in any form, but to think that tradition dictates that God may not recognize women's prayers, is a terrible thing.

In the moment I am stricken with frustration and dissonance, but I am hopeful that through more examination of these topics, I can determine a manner in which I can create a positive impact in regards to feminism within the Jewish community. In SOC 203 this past Thursday, we read some women's midrash. Midrash are the stories that people write to complement biblical passages - oftentimes to explain certain tales, or to supplement ideas already presented. The bible frequently appears to have been written by a male voice - thus, it was nice to read some women's views to compensate for the lack in biblical texts. I am hoping to continue examining women's midrash on my own time, and potentially to do so as a part of my capstone study for Jewish Studies. In this way, I hope, to make a positive impact and to feel empowered through my own actions.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

(Brief) Rainy Day Thoughts

Currently, I'm doing a bit of laundry and contemplating which homework I should work on. My options:
1. Research paper/presentation over circumcision & how its meaning has shifted over time in the United States (for SOC 203 - American Jewish Life)
2. Brainstorming research paper ideas for (my COPACE course) The Final Chapter: A Study in Death and Dying final paper/presentation
3. Writing my book report on Veronika Decides to Die (by Paulo Coehlo) for a 3-5 page paper/mini-presentation, also for The Final Chapter
4. Beginning more in-depth examination of prosopagnosia for my capstone research paper (PSYC 270)
5. Watching some youtube clips that my JS 117: Narratives of the Hebrew Bible professor just emailed around to the class

... yup, youtube wins.

Today was a rainy day, and one of my classes was canceled (surprise!) so all I was required to do this afternoon was to project Killer of Sheep for the SCRN 101 class.

Besides that, it's been one of those quiet, let's-drink-a-lot-of-coffee-and-get-really-distracted-watching-the-rain-and-not-really-do-much-else days.

I have only one class tomorrow because my later one was canceled. But, I will do some things! In addition to my SOC 203 class, I shall be attending the Active Minds weekly meeting at 6pm, followed by Clark Musical Theater's "Gender Bender" Cabaret at 7pm.

On Saturday, I'm very excited to take the New England Excursions $5 bus to Salem for the third (and last!) time.

Beginning this next week (Sunday) is CUFS' Horror Week, followed by the annual midnight screening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show on October 29th/30th. Also, my birthday! On Halloween.

I think I will head out now to do a bit of research/reading. I hope everyone has a pleasant evening, and a nice rainy Thursday tomorrow. I'll write again soon with updates on homework/fun club things.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Consciousness, Philosophical Zombies, and Connections Between Courses

Hello again!

The semester is suddenly picking up speed - midterms are over, I'm back and settled at Clark from Columbus Day break, and projects are approaching speedily. Coming up first, I have my SOC 203 paper/presentation on circumcision occurring on November 3rd. Following that, I present my PSYC 270 paper/powerpoint over prosopagnosia on November 28th. As I work more specifically with information relating to my SOC circumcision project in the next couple of days, I'll post more about it.

Today in PSYC 270, my capstone, we began student presentations. Sarah, one of my classmates, presented on the topic of the evolution of consciousness. Bits of the presentation were difficult to follow at times, if only because it's hard to define exactly what consciousness even means; Sarah suggested that there are two types of consciousness
1. phenomenal awareness (as displayed by all living things) and
2. conscious thought (as displayed by only humans)

With the first point being thought of as awareness, and the second point being a meta-reaction; awareness of having such awareness.

We talked about a couple "chicken or egg" scenarios: does culture create a need for consciousness, or does group consciousness create culture? Do feelings lead to behavior, or does behavior elicit feelings?

Obviously, there's no clear-cut response to such questions about consciousness because it's difficult to even determine if others around us maintain consciousness; thus brings into question the philosophical zombie: a being that appears as a normal human but is lacking in conscious thought.

Which then leads to "Cogito ergo sum", or "I think therefore I am"; we can only be certain of our own consciousness because we can never know the thought processes involved in others' actions (or are they all just zombies, reacting to stimuli with no conscious thought involved?)

Anyway, before getting into all this philosophical stuff, I was thinking that in very simplistic terms this topic, of consciousness, relates directly to some thoughts I was having as a result of my COPACE course On Death & Dying, mainly, how do we determine quality of life, especially in regards to consciousness?

If an individual is in a state of being unable to connect with people around, is he/she experiencing a quality of life that is valuable to the individual to sustain?

I suppose, more than anything, it is impossible to determine for each individual when exactly life is worth living, and at which point it becomes less than desirable. Luckily, things like the living will help to record for the individual's family and friends which type of care should be presented under certain situations. But, going back to a point I've mentioned many times previously: people fear death. It is fearful to discuss situations where death is inevitable, where a person may be unresponsive or lacking consciousness.

It's a tough thing to come to a conclusion on. Luckily, I have many more presentations on different types of consciousness to view in the coming weeks; maybe after viewing the remainder of my classmates' presentations I'll have more ideas about what consciousness means to me, and what it can mean in a medical sense or in terms of quality of life.

So, an update over things that aren't class-related (and a plug for student council): I had a chance to go to Boston this past weekend, on the bi-weekly free bus that student-council provides! It was quite lovely, I do recommend that students take advantage of the bus (it's free! And convenient). Here's a picture of Boston at night, taken from a bridge, to close out the entry.

I hope everyone's week starts out well! I'll update soon with more course-things and likely some club-things as well.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

NJPS, Jewish Holidays, and Ritual Retention

My second midterm is finished! One meeting tonight (for Active Minds, a new club at Clark that aims to remove stigma related to mental health) and then I'm done with school things/midterms until Wednesday. Woo-hoo, my first time returning home to Portland since the school year began!

Today during my sociology course (SOC 203: American Jewish Life) we began talking about different branches of Judaism. The U.S. Census is not allowed to collect data on religion because it presents a fear that the information may be used against people in a discriminatory manner. So the data available to be examined is somewhat controversial; the NJPS (National Jewish Population Survey) collected data in 1990 and 2001 using random digit dialing. But the controversies stem from how complicated the questions must be: who is Jewish? How do we define a "Jew"? How would this data be skewed by increase of cell phone use? Would random digit dialing even be an accurate portrayal of the national Jewish community at this point in time?

So, yes, the information available is not necessarily an accurate portrayal. Which is unfortunate, because religion, particularly how it changes over time, is an interesting thing. But in general, some basic concepts were gathered from the survey results; that is, which holidays are celebrated the most?

A student in class suggested that Yom Kippur, Passover, and Chanukah were the major Jewish holidays, celebrated the most.

But as it turns out, these are not defined as the most major of holidays in Jewish tradition, despite them being presented as such in American society.

So then we began to wonder: what makes certain holidays become "major" in American society, despite other holidays being more relevant and important in Jewish tradition? For example, Shabbat, one of the most significant observances, is often not recognized as such.

Thus began the discussion of an article by Marshall Sklare. The five criteria for ritual retention, as suggested by Sklare, are:
1. The ritual is capable of re-definition in modern times (e.g. Passover, the miracle of the parting of the sea, and the overall concept of freedom portrayed)
2. The ritual does not demand social isolation or a unique lifestyle
3. The ritual uses Judaism to fit into a greater religious community - it provides a "Jewish alternative" (e.g. Chanukah & Christmas occur around the same time, and Chanukah rituals have adapted some things originally seen as a part of Christmas (such as gift-giving))
4. The ritual is centered around a child (e.g. Chanukah, or Passover, where the child is a central part of the seder)
5. The ritual is not too informal; Shabbat, as an example, occurs weekly. Generally, this would cause it to be seen as too "informal" to be viewed as a "major holiday" in the eyes of American society

And there you have it! A summary of the speculations for why some holidays are viewed as major, whereas others are not.

I'm hoping to continue along these same lines when I start working more on my final project for the course - I'm going to trace circumcision and baby-naming rituals over time throughout American society; hopefully I'll be able to delve more into the topic of why this ritual has shifted from a symbol of the covenant between God and the Jewish people, and is now more of a medical custom occurring in hospitals as opposed to on the eighth day after birth.

That's all for now - I hope everyone has a lovely weekend! I think it's supposed to be a bit warmer, which is great, because right now I'm so cold that I've reluctantly started utilizing my zebra-print snuggie (I won it in a raffle during my sophomore year here! It was practically forced upon me. It's nice and cozy though).

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

30 Rock References, DCFC, and Difficulties Discussing Death

Tonight was the "COPACE Social" - the beginning of class was slightly delayed due to a bit of pizza eating/mingling in the lobby of Jonas Clark. Recently acquired food allergies kept me from eating the food, but I heard from classmates that it was enjoyable.

This evening during my (COPACE) course On Death and Dying, while folks munched pizza around me, we reviewed for our midterm exam (scheduled for a week from today). As we reviewed the Kubler-Ross model of the five stages of dying/grieving, I couldn't help but remember a '30 Rock' episode that referenced the model (and poked a bit of fun at one of the main characters of the show: clip here).

Following my giggles over Jack Donaghy, I began pondering more the manner in which media skews death and issues relating. In discussion of doctor-patient communication and a 1995 project titled SUPPORT (Study to Understand Prognoses and Preferences for Outcomes and Risks of Treatment), we found troubling results in regards to various aspects of pain control, discussion between care providers and patients, how frequently patients' preferences for CPR were taken into account, and overall, the caliber of doctor-patient communication. I can't help but feel that this is because people shy away from death, and of speaking of anything related. Media seems to frequently portray death as two odd extremes: violently (think Saw, Kill Bill, or Silence of the Lambs, or any slasher/horror film), or as poetic, meaningful, and symbolic (like in one of my favorite films, Big Fish). Few people want to talk about the gritty specifics of death - what does quality of life mean to the individual? Should a feeding tube be put in place? When should a DNR (do-not-resuscitate) order occur?

And, of course, society shies away from discussing death with loved ones because that means coming to terms with the fact that everyone will, eventually, die.

There's a quote that's often read before the mourner's kaddish prayer during Shabbat services. It reads "it is difficult to love what death can also touch" (for the time being I forget with whom to credit this quotation).

I know that it's difficult to discuss death, particularly the death of one who is dearly loved. But it frustrates me to realize that society's fear of death (as a whole) could be damaging those last few moments of life that a person has. Only because it is fearful to discuss such terrifying and inevitable things are we unable to make those last moments more comfortable and desirable for the person dying.

Possibly, I will delve further into this topic during my final paper/presentation for the course.

Also tonight the professor briefly touched on a music project that we'll be engaging in a bit later in the semester; we will be venturing into the world of music in search of songs that deal with the topic of death. Initially, Death Cab For Cutie's "What Sarah Said" came to mind, as it was song that resonated with me during the time that my grandfather was dying. I couldn't think of any other songs, though, so I'll have to remember to pay more attention to death mentioned in music for the next couple of weeks (or, if anyone has any suggestions/recommendations, please pass them on).

I have successfully completed one midterm (for SOC 203: American Jewish Life) but I have another tomorrow (in JS 117: Narratives of the Hebrew Bible), so I need to study a bit more and then get some rest. Goodnight everyone! Sweet dreams (Are Made of This).

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Mid-Terms (& Columbus Day Weekend) Approaching

Earlier today a friend of mine from a fellow Worcester school, WPI (Worcester Polytechnic Institute), visited me here at Clark. "It's nearly midterms!" I exclaimed to him as we wandered the streets near the Clark campus. "Midterms?" He responded with one eyebrow raised, "they should be called mid-semesters".

Despite what you choose to call them, they are indeed approaching hastily. This upcoming weekend (a week from Monday/Tuesday) is Columbus Day break, and two of my four professors have made sure to squeeze in exams before the break begins. Tonight I will continue studying for my Tuesday exam in American Jewish Life (SOC 203). And on Thursday, I will have my exam in Narratives of the Hebrew Bible (JS 117). Luckily, my Tuesday exam is open-book/open-notes (we will be able to use the notes we've taken in class and texts assigned in order to provide evidence for in-class essays). And over the weekend, Professor Fox (of the Jewish Studies course) sent around a study-guide for the Thursday exam. So thankfully, I'm not feeling too nervous about either exam.

Additionally, this upcoming Wednesday, during my COPACE course, I'll have a chance to attend a Social; "COPACE Socials 5-6 p.m. Jonas Clark Hall. Enjoy food and informal conversations with COPACE students, faculty and staff" (as seen on the COPACE website here). Professor Nowicki mentioned it during our previous class; I had never heard of it, and I must say, I am excited to meet other COPACE students, faculty, and staff.

I'm going to stop writing for now so I can study some more for my Tuesday exam. Happy October to everyone! I'm beginning to get excited for all of the fun October events that Clark has planned, specifically:
1. CUFS Horror Week (October 23rd - October 29th)& Midnight Screening of RHPS (October 29th/30th)
2. OPEN's Annual Coming Out Stories (October 12th)
3. CUSC's free bus to Boston every other Saturday
4. The annual trip to Salem on October 22nd (only $5!)

Alright, studying time. I'll update with more class news soon! Here's a picture of students walking outside of the Academic Commons at Goddard Library to tide you over until my next entry.