Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Of Germs and Jews

Microbiomes are hot stuff, and I, too, am pyched about it. Bacteria keeps us functioning! Put down that antibiotic! Play in the dirt!
As most trends, it's starting to get a little too hysterical, cautions Ed Yong ("There Is No 'Healthy' Microbiome"), as some believe that the Western gut needs reinforcements from authentic hunter-gatherer tribes. 
This reasoning is faulty. It romanticizes our relationships with our microbes, painting them as happy partnerships that were better off in the good old days. It also invokes an increasingly common trope: that there is a “normal” or “healthy” microbiome that one should aim for. There is not. The microbiome is complex, varied, ever changing and context-dependent — qualities that are the enemies of easy categorization.
Yong argues that if one is healthy, one's microbiome doesn't require backup. It has simply adapted to that specific individual's ideal. Microbiomes don't remain static, even in the healthy; they change, even on a daily basis, maintaining the balance necessary for steady robustness. 
Whereas those hunter-gatherers have their own suitable microbiome, catered to their own environment. If a Westerner does not share their lifestyle, usurping their bacteria won't do him any good.  Maybe even harm.
The microbiome is the sum of our experiences throughout our lives: the genes we inherited, the drugs we took, the food we ate, the hands we shook. It is unlikely to yield one-size-fits-all solutions to modern maladies.
We cling to the desire for simple panaceas that will bestow good health with minimal effort. But biology is rarely that charitable. So we need to learn how tweaking our diets, lifestyles and environments can nudge and shape the ecosystems in our bodies. And we need ways of regularly monitoring a person’s microbiome to understand how its members flicker over time, and whether certain communities are more steadfast than others.
Our microbes are truly part of us, and just as we are vast in our variety, so, too, are they. We must embrace this complexity if we hope to benefit from it.
This concept is applicable in many other arenas. Even when it comes to Jewish hashkafa. 

We are all born into homes, each of which holds its own practices and perspectives. For a long while, we think this is the only way to live, and this is the only way that's right. 

Yet we grow, and meet different people who have their own practices and perspectives, also within the same Jewish realm. And yet, despite the fact that many have been raised FFB, a number launch across a vast divide and vehemently adopt another lifestyle. 

This article helps me to better express my perplexity with such a situation. 

Our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents evolved as Jews from their own experiences. They bent in certain areas in order not to break. They emerged frum, these practices and perspectives fused to their very DNA, organic, comfortable in their own truth. 

No Jewish frum lifestyle is "better" or "worse" than another. Scorning one's own heritage to don a borrowed culture says otherwise. Heightening stringency in halacha is not the same thing as defecting to another community. 

The transfer is rarely fluid. For a long time, perhaps forever, the newly transplanted never feel completely at home, totally accepted. Because this isn't where one is supposed to be.

We're all one. The Diaspora scattered us, and we return not quite the same, but no less valid. 

Monday, July 6, 2015

Be Honest

Say Yes to the Dress is seemingly harmless entertainment. Glossy-eyed brides-to-be troop in with their posses, searching for the "One," after finally pinpointing the other "One."
This is "reality" television, so they always manage to put a pleasant spin on interactions, but if one watches them carefully enough, it becomes obvious that the entourages are not as generous as they claim. Sisters, friends, even mothers—all are capable of sabotage. 

"I-I love it!" the bride stammers in delight after she is zipped and clipped into a gown. Ecstatic, she sails out to the main room where her people await. She poses in front of the mirror, exuding sheer and utter bliss, slowly twirling around, face shining in hope. 

Noses curl. Mouths contort. Thumbs get jabbed downward. 

Her smile crumples. Her shoulders slump. 

She returns dispirited to the dressing room, listlessly climbing into the next possibility. 

Sure, sometimes the peanut gallery gets it right. But that's not always the point. 

Many women don't have the best of self-esteems. When they face derision instead of support, they are visibly shaken—they aren't sure they are even capable of deciding what sort of gown style they themselves like. They want her to look her best, but if she has no confidence, even a $30,000 gown (yes, it actually does exist) won't make her look beautiful. 

Some, comfortingly, successfully shoot down the haters. In a re-run, a bride requires a last-minute dress. She has a low budget, no time to order a gown in advance, she's not a sample size, and her height means extra length in required: her options are not many. 

The second gown she dons she adores, as does most of her crew. Except for her "best" friend. Her mouth purses into a moue of distaste. The bride stares at her in shock. 

"I'm just being honest," the friend invokes defensively.

"Fake it," the bride snaps. "Why don't you like it?"

The friend shrugs. 

"That's it?" The bride mocks the so-called-friend's unhelpful shrug. "That doesn't tell me anything!" 

"I don't like the back," the friend feebly and weakly claims. 

The bride rolls her eyes and returns back to the mirror, nodding firmly to herself. With a joyous flourish, she says "yes" to the dress. The closing credits show her looking gorgeous by her wedding in this rushed, miraculous find. 

But that is a rare happening. Too many brides wilt under "dear" ones' disapproval. 

"Being honest" is under woeful mistranslation today. Apparently, it means, "That dress doesn't suit you. I'm just being honest." 

Oh, are you? Let's be honest. Are you, "BFF," maybe a wee bit jealous about your friend getting married? Be. Honest. 
"Honesty" doesn't mean hurting people without suffering the consequences of remorse. "Being honest" means sharing with others something true about oneself. That's what vulnerability means; sharing something deep and meaningful with another to create connection.

Let's try this again: 

"You know, Kathy, seeing you there, looking gorgeous in that dress . . . it's hitting me. You're getting married. It's kind of hard for me, you moving on, settling down with Gary. I hope one day I can be as happy as you. And look just as stunning in a wedding dress."    

Friday, July 3, 2015

Thursday, July 2, 2015

What It Means to Me

Midtown, morning rush hour, icy winter day in New York: I took the last empty seat across from a young woman on the B train.
She was bundled against the cold in a floor-length down coat. A hat covered her forehead. A scarf was pulled over her nose. On his way out at 59th Street, a man lifted his chin in her direction. “You have pretty eyes,” he said.
The doors closed. The young woman locked eyes with me. I can’t guarantee that we were on the same wavelength, but I believe we were coregistering the lunacy of catcalling someone whose physical presence was entirely obscured. The woman went back to her book and I to mine. Being a woman is universally odd.
For many, bad weather offers a reprieve from the public gaze. Instead of being men, women and children, we are lumps of different sizes. When I zip into my insulated tube of outerwear on a 14-degree day, I am an ageless, sexless, shapeless agent in single-minded pursuit of a dry commute to work.
The above is from a witty review by Molly Young of a newly opened lingerie boutique. This introductory passage jumped out at me because it confirms that which I believed: Men will ogle anything

Despite the fact that this woman was "ageless, sexless, shapeless" whilst buried beneath her winter layers, a male was still able to desperately winkle out an attractive feature for him to comment on.  

I firmly believe that what is perceived as "tznius" is a corruption from the original meaning. When "hatzneya leches im Hashem" was intoned (in Micha, the haftora this Shabbos) the intended audience was not specifically women. Nor, do I doubt, was it meant regarding arbitrary hemline criteria. 
A few years ago Just Call Me Chaviva launched "The Tzniut Project," in which Jewish women of various hashkafos gathered to discuss what tznius means to them. Here's a sampling of responses from different contributors to her series when asked the question, "I say modesty or tzniut … what does that mean to you?": 

A) On a deeper level, the concept of tznius comes from the pasuk in Micha (6:8), which says, "hatznea leches im Hashem Elokecha" — walk modestly with Hashem your God. This is often taken out of context, though — the whole pasuk actually says, "You have been told what's good, what Hashem demands of you — asos mishpat (do justice), v'ahavas chesed (and love kindness), v'hatznea leches im Hashem Elokecha (and walk modestly with Hashem your God)." 

Tznius isn't just an outfit — it's a midah, like justice or chesed. To me, tznius means striving to be the kind of person who walks with Hashem, and the clothes I wear are just one part of that — it's also about being humble, speaking in a refined way, being sensitive to my own privacy and the privacy of others, and knowing the appropriate time and place for everything. It's about protecting my dignity as a daughter of the highest King.

B) Tzniut tends to be most commonly translated about modesty in reference to clothing. I think defining it down on this level does an injustice to tzniut and people who uphold the ideal of modesty. Personally, I believe that the most important component of tzniut is how we carry ourselves, not how we dress ourselves. Holding your head high with confidence, without boasting. Being a good person and friend, without advertising that you feel you are such. Lending a hand when needed, without making a big show about how helpful you are. That is the inner-modesty which is so much more valuable in today’s society. While how we dress should reflect the person we are on the inside, should a woman’s skirt length be more important than living a modest life?

C) Tzniut is more than just covering your body parts. I practice tzniut in my everyday actions and words. A quote that really helps me remember my tznius values is: “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.” Long story short, I feel that if I keep my thoughts modest, my character and destiny will keep modest. Modest actions and words to me mean following The Golden Rule, remembering “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” and realizing how lucky I am to have everything that I do, and taking none of it for granted.

D) Refined character clothed accordingly. Honoring Hakadosh Baruch Hu by using proper speech and carrying myself as one who takes his laws seriously.
Because externals are so easy to judge, we make the mistake that means that it is okay to judge. We are supposed to be inspiring and tolerant by example, not wagging admonishing fingers (when has that ever worked, like, ever?) To judge others is merely an expression of personal insecurities, not true self-righteousness. A righteous person doesn't wag fingers.

As we embark upon the terrorizing Three Weeks, let's try to take the judgmentalism out of our interactions.  

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


I was squinting at the eye pencil display in Sephora when she sidled up to me. 

Close to 60, her graying hair pulled back in a neat low ponytail, she appeared to be Hispanic. She introduced herself as of being of an American Indian tribe, rattling off her lineage. 

"I can see that you are a young woman, but you have an old soul." 

I was stunned. 

"Your colors are red, green, and gold." 

My jaw gaped. 

Score one for the first, slam-dunk on the second. I'm such a boring plodder that people who are thirty years my senior think I should have more fun. My favorite colors are red and green—I had actually been wearing red shoes—but no sign of green at all. Plus I love yellow gold; I think it is a much more flattering compliment to the bilious undertones of my skin, as opposed to silver shades. 

Satisfied that her darts hit their target, she continued: "Have you ever had a psychic reading?"

Ah. "Thank you, but my religion doesn't allow it," I replied as politely as I could. 

"I respect that," she said, then vanished. Probably to find a new mark. 

Familiarity with Sherlock Holmes and the basic method of con-men, I know that it is possible for some to observe someone and make correct conclusions, Ouija board aside.

But I still wonder . . .

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Scribble Away the Pain

I'm a bit slow on the uptake. It was not until recently (very, very recently) that I finally labeled myself with the lofty title, "Writer." Especially since the follow-up question is "Where have you been published?" Online blogging (obviously) does not count. 
I used to only write—and fiercely enjoy it—for school. In my dim-wittedness I did not know that I could do it, you know, for myself, maybe one day professionally. Once out of college and devoid of required papers, my writing ceased. 

This blog was originally established to be about the fetishes of the stereotypical Hungarian—fashion, skincare, makeup, really scrumptious recipes. But there is only so much one can post about face cream ("Elta MD is still my favorite SPF for summer!"). As I began to write, I also branched out in my reading, which in turn broadened my mind. My education has not ceased after leaving academia. 

I also feel pretty good. Is it that when writing, one can purge oneself of negative emotions? Tara Parker-Pope reports ("Writing Your Way to Happiness") that studies show that writing definitely helps: 
The concept is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health.
The mind can replay upsetting situations in a hopeless light. By writing it down, seeing the situation outside of one's brain, can awaken self-awareness, changing the perspective, finding solutions. 
“These writing interventions can really nudge people from a self-defeating way of thinking into a more optimistic cycle that reinforces itself,” said Timothy D. Wilson . . .
Dr. Wilson, whose book “Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By,” was released in paperback this month, believes that while writing doesn’t solve every problem, it can definitely help people cope. “Writing forces people to reconstrue whatever is troubling them and find new meaning in it,” he said.
. . . “The idea here is getting people to come to terms with who they are, where they want to go,” said Dr. Pennebaker. “I think of expressive writing as a life course correction.”
The health benefits are quite surprising, even extending to the romantic realm. In "The Best Way to Get Over a Breakup," Anna North writes about how writing exercises assisted the heartbroken. 

When one is in a relationship, "me" morphs into "we." When the other half leaves, one could have forgotten who one is. Writing about it can reclaim the lost sense of self. The sensation of loneliness lessened.
But one can journal about problems too much, ruminating almost as much as thinking about it. Write it out, find some revelations, get to comprehend motives and emotions, but don't wallow.   
For many, the key may turn out to be some self-reflection, but not too much: writing about your feelings, “but then not necessarily mulling over it or doing any more. Just write it, talk about it, leave it, do it again.”
“There’s a really delicate balance between avoiding and getting over-involved for every stressful event,” Dr. Sbarra explained, “and so you touch on it, you think about it, you put it out there, you reflect, and then you sort of create some distance.”

Monday, June 29, 2015

I'd Do Anything For Love

"She didn't!" 

We sat, immobilized, stammering in hushed tones. You know that girl, So-and-So? Well, we all know that she and Such-and-Such were dating, but they were young, no one thought it would last, and then they want to get married, but her parents said no, while his were okay with it . . . 

The next step being, that the couple married, while her parents and siblings did not attend. 

I come from a long line of the non-confrontational and family-oriented, so when I hear such tales I can't get my head around it. The pain! The heartbreak! What do you think the problem was? For weeks we try to formulate hypotheticals, why, for all intents and purposes, a child would hurt her parents in such a way. 

I am all too aware that halachically, one does not need parental approval to marry. One can very well marry against their parents' wishes. But looking down the road, how many times was that defiance worth it? 

I read the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy by Sigrid Undset, the first book published in 1920, the last in 1922. Kristin, the main character, is a Norwegian girl of a good and noble family born in the 14th century.
If you plan on reading the books, there be spoilers ahead, since it is necessary to make my point. 

When Kristin is of age (meaning just entering her teens) her loving and caring father betroths her to steady, reliable Simon Darre, who is neither handsome nor dashing, but a good man. Kristin is not excited by him, and finds herself resigned, as opposed to happy, to marry him. 

Sent to a nunnery for a visit, she meets in town Erlend Nikulaussøn, who is both handsome and dashing. Love at first sight, yadda yadda. They manage to meet on the sly more than once, and eventually Kristin's honor is out the window. 
Simon finds out, but makes her promise not to tell her father, since it will kill him (that just shows what a decent guy he is). But Kristen still stubbornly stays by Erlend's side, even when she discovers all sorts of unsavory things about him. Simon, not wanting an unwilling wife, breaks the betrothal, but Kristin's father needs a lot of coaxing before he is willing to ally his daughter to someone of Erlend's bad reputation. 

Eventually they wed, at the point where Kristin's nerves are frayed as she attempts to hide the signs of pregnancy. Her father knows that Erlend is a good-for-nothing, at it pains and saddens him to marry his daughter to such a one. 

Happily ever after? Well, no. Erlend is the thoughtless antithesis of Simon. Kristin struggles to establish her position amongst Erlend's sullen household, while he cheerfully rides off when he needs some entertainment. When her child is born, she swiftly passes on her adoration to him, leaving Erlend resentful. He always manages to pick the wrong side in a political skirmish. He grows no wiser with age. 

Kristin is forever haunted by the shame she brought on her parents, and always regrets that love affair with Erlend. When Kristin suspects that Erlend's illegitimate daughter (born before they met) by a married woman is sneaking around with a married man of the household, she tries to warn her: 
"My Margret, bitterly have I repented—never could I joy fully in any gladness, though my father forgave me with all his heart for all that I had sinned against him—you know that I sinned against my parents for your father's sake. But the longer I live and the more I come to understand, the heavier it grows for me to remember that I repaid their goodness towards me by bringing them sorrow. My Margret, your father has been good to you all the days of your life—" 
Margret does not heed her, and makes the same mistakes as her father and Kristen.

Kristin and Erlend's courtship may have been the stuff of romance, but their marriage is no better than anyone else's. It could be said that it is even more bitter, since it all went downhill from the original ecstasy. Whereas, if she had been content with Simon, she could have discovered affection in time as well as enjoying a more honorable position and comfortable household.
She had chosen him herself. She had chosen him in a frenzy of love, and she had chosen anew each day of those hard years at home at Jorundgård—chosen his wild reckless passion before her father's love that would not suffer the wind to blow ungently upon her. She had thrown away the lot her father had shaped for her, when he would have given her to the arms of a man who would surely have led her by the safest ways, and would have stooped down, to boot, to take away each little stone that she might have dashed her foot against. She had chosen to follow the other, who she knew was straying in perilous paths. . . 
So there was but one way for her—not to murmur or cry out, whatever should befall her at this man's side . . . Unworthy is it to murmur at the lot one has chosen for oneself. 
While the two never doubt their love, their marriage is another story. From the beginning, it was never happy, and Kristin takes a "I have made my bed, now I must lie in it" dutiful view as opposed to that of pleasant cohabitation. Kristin, in the end, was raised to be considerate and generous; Erlend has no such sensibilities, as opposed to Simon Darre, her ex-fiance. Kristin is all too aware of Simon's goodness; her younger sister recognized his sterling qualities and married him, so she and he are then in-laws.

Kristin and Erlend separate from time to time, usually when she gets the best of him in any argument and his ego can't handle it. They were at odds for months, until his premature death, which was, of course, brought murderously about by his own unending mindlessness. 

I observe couples who look the same as any other, harried, absorbed in day-to-day duties, ever-after a distant memory. I know of a few who married against their parents' wishes, or caused such war before one side finally succumbed, and they are not happier than anyone else. Do they always look at their spouse and think, "S/He was worth it"? They actually seem pretty annoyed right now. 

There's a reason why Romeo and Juliet die at the end of the play. If they lived, they would have concluded that this undying love is all too mortal. 

"Yeesh, for this I scaled your balcony?" 

"I didn't ask you to!" 

"Whatever, I'm going for a drink with Benvolio." 

"I should have married Paris!"
There is no ever-after. If there is a marriage out there that thrives without effort . . . I believe that is the stuff of unicorns.

But marriage is a tough enough adjustment that casting off near and dear ones (at least wait a bit!) is not a good idea.

As the Meatloaf song goes, "I would do anything for love/But I won't do that."       

Friday, June 26, 2015

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Elliptical Won't Save You

"So, like, how much do you exercise?" 

"Exercise? No, not me. I try to walk as much as I can, that's it." 

"What, you don't go to the gym?" 

"The gym? Feh! I spit on the gym." 

"Wait, really?" 

"Yeah, really." 

"So how do you . . . " 

"I watch what I eat." 


Conversation is dead in the water. 
I am adamant: When it comes to weight, exercise is not the way to go. Yes, exercise is necessary for health. Yes, exercise can tone. But exercise won't be the way to kick those pounds to the curb. 

Even before Aaron Carroll's article ("To Lose Weight, Eating Less Is Far More Important Than Exercise") was actually printed, it became the most popular e-mailed online, to the point that CBS This Morning picked it up. Tack that together with Aseem Malhotra's Washington Post article, "Take Off that Fitbit."

Carroll begins by referencing The Biggest Loser, in which morbidly obese individuals are mostly clobbered in the gym as they attempt to lose the weight. But as Carroll and Malhotra point out: 

1) Exercising burns less than one thinks. Sure, you can be lying there post-workout, wheezing and steaming, every muscle screaming, but you probably only burned off a cookie or two. 

2) Exercise makes you hungrier. I knew a gal whose trainer would put her through hell, and she would fall into the fridge whenever she got home. Kinda defeats the point.

3) When losing weight, the metabolism can slow as the goal gets nearer. Many erroneously believe that the metabolism will get a burning boost through exercise. Research shows there is no correlation between the two.

4) Despite busy schedules, the determined manage to ration time and effort to get to the gym, work out, clean up, drive home. But there would be better results in utilizing those same hours in planning healthy meals, shopping the perimeter of the supermarket, and cooking up some vegetable-based lunches and suppers. 
Carroll: Many people think of dieting as a drastic and rigid change, with a high risk of putting the pounds back on. What is more likely to succeed is gradual change, made in a much more sustainable way. I also don’t mean to make it seem that weight loss with diet is easy and exercise is hard. They’re both hard. The challenge of a slowing metabolism, and the desire to eat more, occurs in both cases, although dietary change still works better than exercise.
That's how I did it. Starting small, reprogramming my palate, shunning certain foods and embracing others, learning that whole stupid portion-control thing, which I still struggle with. But I'm a work in progress.

It's happened to me very, very few times: 

"So how do you do it?" 

"I eat vegetables, mostly." 

"Can you type it up and send it to me? You know, what your plan is?"   
For me, exercise is the devil; altering my diet is a much more attractive option. Very few others want to hear that exercise is not the messiah. I challenge you, then: Change one bad eating habit. Tell me that you don't see results in a month. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Settle Down

He doesn't want to get married yet, I thought tiredly, unable to ignore his childish behavior any longer. 

"People" like to say that the older singles get they become less amenable and more comfortable in their solitary state, ergo they are no longer really putting their all in the quest for a spouse. 

Maybe that is true for some. But as I have been introduced to bachelor after bachelor who made it obvious they were not quite ready (still!) for the great adventure that is sharing an apartment with committed other, a chirpy jaded voice began to titter. 

Isn't there another guy like me? I thought with despair. Someone who is really trying, who really does want to get married, but hasn't yet found some One? 

A guy that will not have to be cajoled, or begged, or hinted to? A guy that does not have to be ultimatumed or threatened? A guy who is not just dating just to prove that he is attracted to the female species, but a guy who wants to settle down
Once in a while one does meet a guy like that. But then there are other reasons for why it isn't shayach.

It can't be that I am the only one, I tell myself with can-do bravado. You just haven't met him . . . yet.