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I write the biweekly “Beliefs” column for The New York Times and also report for The Atlantic, The Nation, This American Life, and elsewhere. I have four daughters and two dogs.

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Let that woman go!



Remember David Wax, rabbi who, with his wife, was arrested for taking $100,000 to kidnap and threaten to bury a live an Orthodox Jewish man who refused to give his wife a religious divorce? Well, he pled guilty.

This case, by the way, was presaged by — in addition to much of Jewish history — an early episode of The Sopranos, in which some of Soprano’s goons give a beat-down to a man who won’t grant a divorce to the daughter of Shlomo, a Sopranos ally:



Get thee to a learnery



Yesterday, thanks in part to my wife’s activism, the state of Connecticut moved closer to funding pre-Kindergarten slots for all children in the state. Watch the video above, and you can read more here. An excerpt:

Prior to the start of school this past fall, a friend’s second grade daughter told her younger sister, who was about to enter kindergarten, what to expect: “Some kids won’t know the alphabet. You see, not everyone went to a good preschool like we did.”

My friend’s daughter was right. In the 2011-12 school year, more than one-third of all children entering kindergarten in Hartford and Bridgeport reported no prior preschool experience. My friend’s daughter was also right about the implications of preschool attendance. Neurologists tell us that quality early childhood education makes a dramatic difference in healthy child development. Educators report that children who attend high-quality preschools are more likely to enter kindergarten better prepared, less likely to need special education services, less likely to be held back and more likely to graduate. And business leaders tell us that high-quality early childhood education has among the highest returns on investment of any social or educational policy.


Does one “thound gay”?




I actually do have some thoughts on this topic — is there such thing as a “gay voice”? — but I don’t have the time to write them up just now. So for the time being just enjoy this thread, courtesy of Andrew Sullivan.


Jacuzzis and “natural childbirth”


In The New Republic, for my Fatherland column, I review a new collection of essays about labor and delivery, co-edited by the great novelist Eleanor Henderson. I don’t love the book, although I love many of the essays therein. One choice paragraph or two, from my review:

But the co-editors, Henderson and her friend, novelist Anna Solomon, have drawn their contributors almost entirely from the pool of MFA-credentialed women who, for reasons of genuine conviction, cultural indoctrination, or weakness under pressure presume that “natural” birthing is better than unnatural birthing; that doulas and midwives are better than doctors; and that the birth experience is supposed to be profound. As a result, many of them end up in alternative birthing centers, or ABCs, instead of in traditional maternity wards. And in those birthing centersif these essays are to be believedthe women can relax in Jacuzzis instead of mere showers or hotel-style tubs.

Because, as Ina May Gaskin and indigenous midwives from throughout the Third World can tell you, the electric whirlpool bath has for millennia been integral to the authentic, woman-centered birthing experience. It just took the Italian-American Jacuzzi brothers to market the idea to post-war America.


Do Jews have dirtier mouths and minds?


That is sort of the question being posed by a book I very much hope to read soon, Josh Lambert’s Unclean Lips. A review by the erudite Stephen Whitfield just went up at the LA Review of Books. An excerpt:

Have Jewish writers shown a proclivity for transgressions of good taste, for violating community standards of decency? Consider the roll call.

Henry Roth leads the short list that literary scholars have compiled of the major Jewish novelists of the interwar period. Josh Lambert devotes nearly twenty pages to examining how Roth’s first novel, Call It Sleep (1934), pushed the envelope of profanity and expletives, only a year after the ban on Ulysses had been lifted, making permissible description of sexuality such as the soliloquy of Molly Bloom. Call It Sleep was too technically advanced to be popular, and both it and the author vanished for three decades. But Ludwig Lewisohn, whom Lambert considers “by far the most prominent Jewish writer in interwar America,” generated controversy by affiliating himself as well as his fiction with the theme of the primacy of desire over the norms of propriety. The notoriety of Ben Hecht’s second novel, Fantazius Mallare (1922), was assured — even though it was sold only to subscribers — because Hecht was prosecuted, convicted, and fined $1,000 for a work deemed “lewd, obscene and lascivious.” When Norman Mailer published his first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), his cousin, an attorney named Charles Rembar, suggested “fug” as an alternative for a word Mailer could not print, though soldiers commonly used it while fighting the Good War.  “Fug” in fact “was phonetically closer than was the classic spelling to the prevailing G.I. gutturals,” Rembar noted. Mailer’s third novel, The Deer Park, was rejected by seven publishers, who feared that it would run afoul of the statutes prohibiting obscenity. The Deer Park nevertheless appeared in 1955.

Few novels in postwar America have run more afoul of censors than J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). An entire monograph — Pamela Hunt Steinle’s In Cold Fear (2000) — has examined the phenomenon, with school librarians and teachers suppressing a work that happens to record teenage lingo rather faithfully. In a way, The Catcher in the Rye promotes an ideal of decency, because Holden Caulfield, a champion of the integrity of innocence, wants to erase a “Fuck you” sign on a staircase. He nevertheless comes to realize how befouled the world already is: “If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘Fuck you’ signs in the world.”

Though Salinger’s own connection to Judaism was severed after his bar mitzvah ceremony, he nonetheless joined Lambert’s queue of novelists of Jewish origin who have managed to incite charges of obscenity. Or take Portnoy’s Complaint.
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