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How the Rays Beat the Yankees

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The New York Philharmonic is arguably the best classical ensemble in America, perhaps the world. Critics have revered it for more than a century, and you can always depend on the New York Phil for a clean, accurate, skillful performance.

But if the Ramones were to hop up on stage next to the Phil with a couple of amplifiers, they could easily drown out the entire orchestra. Less skill, less training, less experience, more noise and energy.

Such was the case with the Yankees-Tampa Bay match this past week. Where the Yankees would hold, the Rays would run for the extra base. Where the Yankees would wait, the Rays would aggressively swing at a pitch. The Rays and the Yankees were essentially playing two different games, and the interaction between the two was telling.

In each game, the Rays scored in the first couple innings, staying one step ahead of the Yankees. Against a team like Boston, or even the Mets this weekend, the Yankees are playing at the same speed, with the same energy. But the Rays play a faster, more dangerous brand of baseball, so they were able to rush past the Yankees. The New York Phil just got overtaken by the Ramones.

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The Brightness of Worship

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Last night, I had the unique opportunity to visit an Orthodox synagogue while substituting for an Oakland Midrasha class. The building was cool to see, including the mikvah, and I enjoyed learning more about the Orthodox philosophy, but the rabbi said one thing that really resonated with me.

We were sitting in a small chapel, and the rabbi asked us what looked different from our own (non-Orthodox) synagogues. One kid, probably jokingly, remarked that the walls are white. But the rabbi said that there was an important story there: the walls used to be paneled with a very dark wood, and he pointed out some trim that was still dark. But all of the paneling had been painted a bright white.

Why? Because you shouldn't feel closed-in and dreary when you worship. You should feel happy and inspired, and bright paint on the walls directly affects the mood within. This struck me, because the synagogue I grew up going to was a prime example. Dark wood paneling, dark red velvet seats, only a few dim lights for the entire sanctuary. I felt incapable of joy when I was inside, so I stopped going.

When I returned from college, I was surprised by a newly-completed renovation of the sanctuary. Someone I know says it looks trendy like a hotel lobby, but I'm in love with all of the bright, happy colors. Tan carpets and walls, light-colored wood on the pews, and enough lighting to - OMG - read a prayerbook. You can't repair a synagogue's sprititual base with a simple remodel, but it sure didn't hurt.

Cashiers Who Talk

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Today at Target, my cashier asked me how I was doing. "Great!" I said. "How are you?" "I'm good," she replied, then she stopped herself. "Actually, I'm not that good. I'm working, you know?"

Last week, in the drive-through at In-N-Out, our cashier mechanically said, "Welcome to In-N-Out. How are you doing today?" Loal told her, "We're doing great! How's your day going?" She was so stunned by our response that it took her a minute to answer. She said that we were the first customers in hours to actually answer the question.

As a socially-motivated person who loves new acquaintances, I enjoy any opportunity to engage in discussion. One of my English teachers (I can't remember which one) said that even if someone calls you with a wrong number, you should still take a minute to talk to them, and find out about the story of their life, because that's the only way to develop your langauge skills and improve your perspective on the world.

As a journalist, I know that everybody has a story, and it's always a good one. You just have to dig deep enough to find it. And hell, don't you think it would make the cashier's job a little more fun?

Ira Glass Likes Friday Night Lights Too!

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First, the background: Last year, I started watching the TV drama Friday Night Lights. I liked it. This weekend, I listened to a RadioLab podcast in which Ira Glass (the oh-so-dreamy host of This American Life) discussed the magic of radio. He explained that Friday Night Lights, a TV show, appealed to him on the same deep level as radio reporting.

So, why do we (Ira and I) like Friday Night Lights? It's something about the feeling of the show. It's at once grand and personal, folks and big-city. It's like when you're processing a digital photo, and you turn the contrast way up, until it's a little grainy and only the purest colors show through. The thing about Friday Night Lights is that all the people are likeable, like Aaron Mandel. As I watch, I really want them to succeed at their various challenges, and they seem to be the kind of people I would hang out with. Same deal with How I Met Your Mother - they could be my friends, (and they would be if I lived in that neighborhood), so I feel a connection with them.

At its core, though, Friday Night Lights seems old-school classy. It feels like the fifties, when small towns and football were still "in." It feels like what high school should be, what it is in the movies, without all the stupidity that we see there now. And it feels intimate, and personal, like the stories you hear on the radio. No need to add any dramatic narrative, because the story speaks for itself.

The Key to Success in Baseball

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Amid all the passion and drama of this baseball playoff season, I have discerned a foolproof method of success for any baseball team - youth, amateur, or professional.

In physics (and, for that matter, road construction and crowd dynamics), one idea that has always fascinated me is the "capacity limiter." Traffic is nearly stopped entering a tunnel because of the bottleneck, but it flows perfectly as soon as the tunnel is reached. Or, water drips through a funnel, but it flows evenly once it's through the spout. The point is that the efficiency of the "capacity limiter" directly affects the efficiency of the overall process, and widening the capacity at that limit point will instantly expand the success/speed/efficiency of the process.

The capacity limited in baseball is consistent pitching. Not exceptional pitching, and certainly not incredible speed. Just good, simple control. And consistency.

If you look critically at all negative occurences in baseball (for the team in the field), they all result from inconsistent pitching. Bad control results in a walk - another batter on base. Or, bad control leaves the ball in a location where the batter can hit it effectively. Conversely, good control can force the batter to hit a ground ball or a fly ball (both easily fieldable), or directly strike out the batter.

Of course, all pitchers have good days and bad days. Even the most flashy and exceptional pitchers have days without control. Even in the World Series, pitchers for the two best teams in baseball have displayed horrendous control.

So, here's my solution: Starting in Little League and high school, and continuing through college and the minor leagues, pitchers should be trained for consistency. It's not too much to expect, either. Athletes like Tiger Woods, Muhammed Ali, and even Aaron Mandel demonstrated consistent performance throughout their career, especially in the face of pressure. In his heyday, Mariano Rivera never allowed a single runner to reach first base - his control was that consistent. In an age when pitchers are encouraged to pitch faster, sharper, and more creatively, the entire sport would benefit from a focus on simple control and consistency.

Granted, it's extremely hard to hit a baseball, especially one professionally pitched. But most games are lost because the pitcher made it easy for the hitter. Control is the easy solution to elevate the game's competitive level.  

Was Maimonides Wrong?

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Or, more specifically, have society's values changed so dramatically that Maimonides' prioritization of the different kinds of tzedakah (Jewish charity) is no longer accurate?

History: Maimonides (a rabbi back in the day) decided that the best kind of tzedakah is the establishment of self-sufficiency for the needy. After that, he prioritized various kinds of anonymous giving (i.e. the giver doesn't know the receiver, or vice versa), followed by unhappy giving at the very bottom. But how were the rankings reached?

Maimonides prioritized his list based largely on the combination of efficiency and honor. You get the most bang for your buck if you help the poor provide for themselves, but honor (or kavod) is big in Jewish. Traditionally, Jews will go to great lengths to protect people's honor. If someone brings non-Kosher food into their house, they'll eat it to avoid embarrassing the person. If a guest wears a tank top into synagogue, none of the congregants will confront her, to avoid embarrassing her. And if someone is having a hard time, Jews will donate through an intermediary, like a rabbi or an organization, so that the receiver won't feel indebted to the helper.

But now, society's priorities have evolved. In a recent class, before teaching about Maimonides, we asked 16 eighth graders which kind of giving they thought was the most valuable. 11 said self-sufficiency, and 5 said double-blind giving. A strong minority, of kids who had gone to Hebrew school and learned about Jewish values and considered the role of need in the community.

This makes me think that perhaps honor has eclipsed self-sufficiency in today's society. It's great if you teach someone job skills and arrange for them to support themself, but how would they feel if you constantly ask them how their new job is going? How would you feel if your relationship has changed from friendship into one of constant (and possibly strained) gratitude? Perhaps the bigger mitzvah is to preserve the honor of society's needy by arranging for a rabbi to help them, or by using one of the many local organizations that operate on the community level. Ultimately, preserving the honor of society's neediest (while helping them, of course) is of paramount importance.

Why They Ate On Yom Kippur

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In the late 1800's, Judaism was transitioning in America. The religious were more observant than ever, and the "secular" Jews were finding new ways to connect to their faith while shunning religious traditions. One of their methods, popularized around 1880, was to eat during Yom Kippur. Not only did they eat, but they had huge festivals to celebrate the fact that they were eating.

A new article from Tablet Magazine explains the motivations behind such blatant and intentional heresy. "A range of leftists held massive public festivals of eating, dancing, and performance for the full 25 hours of Yom Kippur," the article reads, "not only as a way to fight for the their right to party, but to unshackle themselves from the oppressive religious dictates they grew up with."

Moreover, the events were important community bonding opportunities for a wide variety of Jewish groups. The socialists and the anarchists used the meals to discuss matters like God, atheism, and politics, and the Free Thinkers and the Bundists undertook actions specifically designed to solidify their ranks while angering the religious Jews.

Most importantly, though, this institutionalization of Yom Kippur food represents an important trend in Jewish thought. Traditions change. Rituals evolve. Dramatically few religious components have made it through 3,000 years without changing. In fact, it's a uniquely Jewish perspective to allow such evolution. Most branches of Judaism encourage participants to adapt their religion to their modern lives. "Follow the spirit of the law, not the letter." "The past has a vote, but not a veto." "Interpret the ancient tradition in the context of our modern society." Although this particular Yom Kippur innovation has since fallen away, it made sense at the time, and it was a valid way by which one set of Jews chose to connect with their heritage.

Funny of the Day: Legal Advice from the ADL

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The Anti-Defamation League publishes a "Know Your Rights" guide with detailed instructions for how to handle encounters with the police. That's not the funny part. It's handy, and it has dedicated sections for walking down the street, getting pulled over in your car, police knocking at your door with a warrant, and situations like that. It also has a section for airline travel, and that's where it gets more interesting.

The opening is about security searches in airports, and it covers fascinating questions like whether the TSA screeners can force travelers to remove their religious head coverings. So far, so good. And then, the guide arrives at the following question: "What if I've been listed on the government's no-fly list?" It lists all the ways to complain to the government, and then it contains the following line: "If you think there may be some legitimate reason for why you have been placed on a list, you should seek the advice of an attorney." Yes, if you're a terrorist and the government knows about it, you're probably gonna need a good lawyer.

Unrelated Rosh Hashanah funny, from the synagogue's informational e-mail about services: "The Public Health Department believes this will be a special year for influenza." As in, influenza is turning 16, and we're all very happy for her. We hope you'll be able to attend her party...

Living in an Intentional Community

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At Camp Tawonga, we talk a lot about living in an intentional community. Every program (or meeting or conversation) is planned with specific outcomes in mind. We base everything around our unique mission, and we constantly consider the implications of our actions.

Six years ago, our intentions shifted. I went with 26 friends to El Salvador on Tawonga's first Teen Service Learning (TSL) trip, and camp's worldview suddenly exploded. No longer were we content to simply educate kids about tikkun olam, and cooperative community, and self-esteem and positive self-image. We never forgot those ideas, of course, but now we had a bigger task: activism and social responsibility.

The critical component of Teen Service Learning, the part that distinguished it from countless "service" and "mission" trips, was the learning. We'd spend the morning, for example, building an irrigation system alongside peasant farmers, and then in the afternoon we'd learn about the international issues surrounding water rights, agriculture, and government regulation. This unique mix of experiential education was unprecedented among high school groups, and AJWS was at first reluctant to adapt their college-age "alternative spring break" curriculum, but our trip was such a success that they now regularly host high school groups.

Each TSL trip, upon returning to camp, spends a few days educating campers about their experiences, and sharing their new understanding of global issues and social responsibility. Not only do the campers achieve some understanding of the concepts, but the presentations solidify participants' commitment to the cause, and ensure that they carry the lessons back into their everyday life. Even now, when I mention my TSL trip, current staff members who were campers in 2003 tell me that they remember our presentation.

Here's how I know the trip was a success, six years (almost to the day) after our plane landed in El Salvador. I'm now a supervisor, and I'm constantly mindful of my trip, especially when planning programs and activities. Every single program at camp can contain values of activism and social justice, either explicitly or implicitly, and it contributes to camp's culture of mindfulness and intentionality. But it's not just me. Charley Brooks (who was on the El Salvador trip with me) supervises the counselor-in-training program, and she's helped make her supervisees aware of the impact that their programs (and regular interactions) have on campers. Molly Austin (who went on the TSL Costa Rica trip a few years later) is the assistant kitchen manager, and she's spearheaded a dramatic move away from pre-processed foods and sugary drink concentrates, replacing them almost exclusively with recipes made from scratch, and "aguas frescas" and other handmade drinks. Countless TSL participants now work in every job from counselor to maintenance, kitchen to office, and it shows in camp's overarching mentality. Not just intentionality anymore, but global awareness, and social and political justice, and providing campers with the tools to be responsible local, American, and global citizens.

And the proof is in campers' year-round life choices. Nearly every camper joins (or leads) multiple service organizations in both high school and college. Hunger this, homelessness that, Amnesty International, Habitat for Humanity. Especially now that campers friend me on Facebook, it's easy to see that their camp experience has caused them to be far more involved in their community than any of their peers. The same is true in college. My old camp friends, now that they're in college, are now in charge of Hillels and Jewish student unions, co-ops and service organizations, and they invariably lead them according to the values they learned at Tawonga. Explicit or implicit, these values remain with campers for their entire lives, and THAT is the reason I've come back for twelve summers in a row.

So What's Wrong With Hugging?

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This from today's New York Times:

"Girls embracing girls, girls embracing boys, boys embracing each other -- the hug has become the favorite social greeting when teenagers meet or part these days. Teachers joke about 'one hour' and 'six hour' hugs, saying that students hug one another all day as if they were separated for the entire summer."

The article, For Teenagers, Hello Means "How About a Hug?", explains the difficulty that schools have had "controlling" rampant hugging. It explains how some have imposed time limits on hugging, or even prohibited it altogether. But its most fascinating section postulates that the increase in hugging is a direct response to modern society's electronic isolation.

Of course, for us Jewish summer camp kids, hugging is nothing new. We've been at it for years and years, and I said "no duh!" when the article explained the inter-personal connection that hugging provides. Moreover, the idea of greeting my friends with a hug has become so commonplace to me (at least between Jews, and Bay Area residents) that I was surprised when the New York Times picked it up. I guess the east coast is a little different...