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Archive for April, 2010

as she would probably have a mild heart attack if she heard the following conversation, which transpired between Chloe, and her host mother in Paris, Karolina– who has graciously let me stay in her lovely apartment twice:

KAROLINA: When you get to Barcelona, don’t take your eyes off of Yaffa. Someone might try to slip something in her drink.

CHLOE: (giggling to herself) Um, Yaffa isn’t exactly a big drinker.

KAROLINA: No! She is. I’ve met her, and she has American sorority party girl written all over her. I mean, look at the length of those dresses.

CHLOE: Yes, she wears dresses because she can’t wear pants– being all Jewish and religious, you know.

KAROLINA: Um, I’ve giving you the fanny pack anyway. Give it to Yaffa. She is likely to be pickpocketed, as she is someone liable to chat up the guys, get a little tipsy, and well, …

CHLOE: Well, what?

KAROLINA: Make sure you have her number because you might wake up at the hostel all alone the next morning, if you know what I mean.

Now while this is not a direct translation of the conversation– which occurred in French– it captures the highlights, or possibly lowlights of my Parisian existence. The little Jewish girl who never shows her elbows or knees has given way to the stereotypical American abroad, or so Karolina claims. I find this odd, and yet quite amusing at the same time. I never even sipped a weebit of alcohol in Karolina’s presence, let alone wandered back from a club all by my lonesome at 3 am while staying in City of Romance.

I believe this line of mis-thinking began the night I took Chloe to the Cabaret. Karolina is probably convinced that I dragged Chloe– slightly hermetic ¬†by nature– out to the Champs D’Elysees at night to expose her to the seedy underworld of drunken French people, with a propensity for stripping. However, I promise that Chloe paid for my ticket– and not the reverse. Chloe has always supported experiences that expand my Jewish bubble a little bit more. And she was the one who persuaded me to expose myself to two hours of women shimmying in little more than itsy, bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikinis.

I am not offended, though. It’s a liberating feeling– to think you can forge a completely new identity, and have people accept that said identity is your true one. To Karolina, I am Yaffa “Party-Hardy” Fred, but to nearly everyone else I’ve ever encountered outside Paris, I am a hard worker, slightly neurotic about perfection, and obsessed with caffeinated beverages– rather than alcoholic ones. I can only imagine what impression I will make on the Spaniards in two weeks from today, when Chloe and I try to fly to Barcelona a second time. Either way, the trip will definitely involve some of this (sorry, Mom):

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so I could claim “Young Forever” to be my own creation, or the very least my reappropriation of the 1984 German pop group Alphaville’s hit “Forever Young.” I think both the 2010 cover and 1984 original capture a sentiment that will pervade my final months in Europe– a desire to pause time at age 20, when my biggest concern is how late Starbucks is open on essay-bingeing days.

As a futurist– or someone who lives six months ahead of the present– I am struggling to savor every minute of this study abroad experience. I tell myself this is only the beginning of a global exploration. I can taste the beaches of Cape Town and the wineries of Durban from here. And, if need be, I can do it alone. I can embrace my new found independence and my love for black rappers from Brooklyn, and explore whatever continent is my oasis that day. It sounds trite to say it, but I have realized that my biggest obstacle thus far has been me. Removing the fears of loneliness, facilitated by my gender and New York neuroticism, I have discovered a potential within myself– a potential I plan to put into practice in Barcelona in two weeks and Lisbon in a month (natural/human disaster permitting).

And in the meantime, I have a wonderful week in Oxford to look forward to, including a visit to my favorite museum– the Modern Art Museum of Oxford to see “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort“- a 1967 Agnes Varda film about pastels, boredom, and spontaneous musical dance parties. See the opening of the film–below– for a sneak preview:

This movie exploration, accompanied by much needed sushi, will be followed by an all-nighter the next night in preparation for May Day celebrations. And 6.45 AM caroling at Magdalen College on the following morning, during which sleep-deprived, still-intoxicated individuals will attempt to jump from Magdalen Bridge into the river below. Why they do it, no one quite knows, but at such a G-d forsaken hour of the morning, everyone seems to find it amusing– except for the officers on duty at that time. Did I mention that said rebel-rousers often remove quite a bit of clothing before attempting their leaps of faith?

If that isn’t enough quintessential Britishness for one 24 hour period, I will complete the weekend with a punting expedition down the controversial river where drunkards go to die. Punting involves girls in light, white or floral dresses being chauffeured along the river by handsome young men, who offer– in addition to their river navigation skills– champagne, cheese, and bread. It is like a romantic gondola ride for two. Only, being the cat lady that I am, I will be going with Anna, my British biffie who has finally returned from the Holy Land.

And somewhere– amidst the madness of Oxford in the spring time– I will construct two extremely important essays. One answering the eternal question– “What is law?” — for my Jurisprudence (translation, philosophy of law) tutorial with my adorable Portuguese tutor, who discussed Lisbon baked goods with me for half of our meeting this morning. The other on how accurate assessments of HIV/AIDS prevalence and incidence in Africa truly are– a key numerical reality that must be gaged before I begin an analysis of the public policies surrounding the disease.

Wish me luck, and let me know if you share my Tuck Everlasting sentiment against aging.

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Preacher In Pink

Yesterday, I was a very naughty Jew. Though, having been a sinner in a sea of the saved, I have to say my faith in Judaism has been significantly strengthened.

In the 1980s, Rav Moshe Feinstein, a leading Orthodox rabbi in New York, forbid Orthodox Jews from entering Conservative synagogues. It was a controversial decision, and one my mother and father actually dismissed when they chose to be married by a rather liberal Orthodox rabbi in a Conservative synagogue. Uncle Freddie, as the family refers to my black hatter great uncle, did not attend the ceremony.

However, yesterday I took my parent’s transgression to a new level. I entered a church–Emmanuel Church– as a favor to Johnny, “the boy who enjoys other boys.” The son of a vicar, Johnny is a rather religious Christian with a real commitment to G-d. I value that, as I have discovered Oxford to be an atheist’s paradise and a theist’s metaphorical hell. Even the Jews who attend Friday night profess to have dismissed the notion of a heavenly body long ago. So– in some twisted, and definitely must go to syngagogue on Yom Kippur and repent sort of way– I took comfort in finding Johnny and having the chance to experience G-d the way he and his fellow churchgoers do.

Needless to say I was not impressed. By that I mean I think the church Johnny attends is perfect for Johnny, but not for me. The missionary bent of the sermon (given by a preacher in a distractingly pink jumper) on Philemon, a wealthy Christian whose slave ran away, committed a crime, and subsequently sought the help of Paul in regaining entrance and forgiveness into Philemon’s house, was simplistic and not exactly in line with Jewish values. There is no forgive and forget in Judaism. In that respect, I think this form of Christianity, which I was exposed to, is a little too idealistic and out of touch with human nature. Call me Hobbes, but I don’t think most people are good at heart. And even if they are, when they are wronged, they won’t instantly forgive or forget. Or maybe that’s just my dark and twisty self speaking for mankind.

The non-proselytizing portion of the service involved singing songs off of a Powerpoint. The basic theme of the songs: “Jesus is our savior; he died for our sins; he loved us, and hence we should love him, G-d, and the whole heavenly shebang.” It was no Psalms or Proverbs or Song of Songs. There were no rich metaphors; no profound analogies to be pondered beyond the hour and a half service. Now that doesn’t make the music powerless. In fact, I think it deeply moved Johnny and his Christian cohorts. But as an Orthodox Jew with a rich Jewish education, it certainly didn’t move me. I genuinely missed the words of King David and King Solomon at that moment. Those were men who could put pen to paper and produce some of the most beautiful poetics. And I’m not a poetry person so that’s saying something.

Regardless, I am glad I had the experience. It was a further reminder that Judaism is the only religion that will ever have real meaning to me. I can accept and respect the existence of others, but I am not about to embark on a whirlwind trip to India and Thailand to find myself, my religious identity, or any other sort of cliched excuse for escaping the confines of American suburbia.

Monday Night Amendment: After my Sunday morning encounter with the creche, I decided to make up for it by attending a lecture given by Rabbi Akiva Tatz, a South African rabbi, who aside for his captivating accent, also carries a wonderful knowledge of Jewish thought with him. He gave a philosophical talk on “free will”– what it is, to what extent it operates in our daily lives, and under what circumstances we are accountable for the choices we make with it. Attempting to summarize the depth and intricacy of the speech here would do him and the issue a disservice. It is, though, a reminder to me to engage Jewish text more frequently. And it also provided a relevant contrast to the previous morning, where a pastor gave a speech on a different set of ancient texts, and from there only concluded we should do the right thing, which is spread the name of Jesus. Rabbi Tatz, aside from disagreeing, posited that there is no conclusive way to determine the right thing– it defers from person to person, wherever you may be operating spiritually at that moment in time. Somehow that explanation sits better with me. Though it could be because I don’t buy into the whole G-d impregnated a Jewish women ideology.

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I would have walked into one of the numerous real estate agencies I passed as I romped around the British countryside on Thursday and purchased an adorable cottage, complete with the requisite Cotswolds yellowstone and cabbage patch garden. And trust me, I was tempted. After three wonderful, but strenuous weeks in New York and London, I appreciated the calm, the silence, and The Little Black Dress Boutique the tiny villages in the Cotswolds offered.

Each village is compromised of more tea rooms than actual residences, with the exception of Lower Slaughter (which does not have a single store within its borders). And since there is little else to do– except admire the beauty of the rolling green hills in the not-so-far distance– tourists and locals alike can be found in these tea rooms, featuring an assortment of teas, scones, and other artery-clogging baked goods. Though I did discover the joys of sugar-free scones while wandering through Moreton-in-Marsh. Yes, many of the villages have hyphenated names. My visit to Moreton was preceded by a stop in Stow-on-the-Wold (source of the Little Black Dress shop).

On this particular Thursday, however, I visited the Cotswolds all by my lonesome. Previously, I had made the journey with a lovely Wellelsey alum and her husband. This time I journeyed alone, and it was such a liberating experience. Thus far, I had refused to travel anywhere within the European continent if I did not have a travel companion. Despite my claims of independence and quintessential only-childness, I genuinely fear alone time. Forced to navigate foreign terrain, ask strangers questions, and inevitably lose myself in my landscape, I ventured into new territory– Yaffa-land.

In this wonderfully insular, slightly selfish territory, I am my own boss. I dictate every step of my journey– from the museums I visit to the antiquarian bookstores I inevitably spend most of my days in. And shockingly, it was not the least bit scary. After my travel experiences this year, I feel capable of tackling any wanderlust-driven adventure, including my forthcoming exploration of the sub-Saharan African landscape (with the help of the Fulbright gods up above, or across the ocean in Washington DC).

This realization, however, comes at another critical moment in my life. While in the United States over Passover, three of my high school classmates became engaged, reducing the single girl pool to single digits– metaphorically speaking (I hope). And of course, just my luck, two of these upcoming nuptials are scheduled on the same day across New York City. If I am to attend both, this will require the “cab-change,” in which I pay an innocent taxi driver to speed down the West Side Highway, all the while changing bridesmaid outfits in the back of his vehicle.

Such is the dichotomy of my life– Oxford academic one day; bridesmaid to the Jews another. And somewhere in the middle of this disparate worlds situation, I need to find my balance. The Cotswolds, for one short day though, offered an escape from this balancing act. Alone with my thoughts and my frog-shaped tea pot, I did not have to delve into failed health public policies in Bostwana or deal with a dressmaker chasing me around for my bust measurements. I could just stare into an open abyss and enjoy the moment– a concept that is so foreign to me, but that I hope to master by 20 June, my date of departure from the Island.

Ribbit, ribbit.

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The term “fag hag” always bothered me– even when I worked for a children’s theater company in New York and all of the actors I encountered, and inevitably befriended, referred to themselves as “fags in search of hags.” The term is neither complimentary towards homosexuals or the females they cavort with. And yet despite my disdain for the expression, I have found myself in recent months– in Oxford– embracing it. It has become a part of the standard introduction; “Hi, my name is Yaffa, and I am fag hag.” The discovery of the gay male club scene in Oxford has only exacerbated the situation.

However, last night I attended a performance of Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband,” with Johnny, a gay boy*– the best gay boy I have met in Oxford thus far– and realized that I should not feel ashamed or tied to notions of political correctness in regards to the expression “fag hag.” Oscar Wilde, a gay boy himself, who attended Oxford and resided in a room that Johnny’s ex-boyfriend now calls his own, clearly did not have a “hag” in his life. And of course, why would he have? Oxford certainly wasn’t embracing women’s higher education in the late 1800s. Nonetheless, if had had female friends, the play I saw at the OFS Studio last night might have had an entirely different theme.

The jist of the play is that women hold men to ridiculous expectations; they dream of Mr Darcys, which as I’ve discovered, do not actually exist out of the cinematic frame. And hence when men fail to live up to those expectations– and they always do– women chastise them from their estrogen-driven thrones. Wilde’s assumption– that women hold men to absurd standards– completely ignores the fact that men often have equally absurd expectations of the women they choose to woo. In the world of Orthodox Jewish matchmaking, I can’t even tell you how many times a guy has asked my mother, me, my friend what size clothing his potential wife wore. And if any of us choose to honor that question with a response, we had better have said size 2 or under, because Lord knows once she starts producing massive amounts of children, her waistline is only going to expand.

And trust me, men were no different in 1895, when Wilde first wrote his play. In fact, when women had less opportunity, they were judged particularly harshly. Had Wilde befriended a woman, or acquired himself a “hag”, he might have been aware of this otherwise unwritten reality. In otherwise, the play should have been called “An Ideal Spouse/Mate/Partner in Life.” It could have emphasized the follies of men and women alike, and shown that within each gender, there are individuals who aim for the Ivies when they should be applying to community college.

Now, despite Wilde’s lack of female companionship and testosterone-driven prose, I still enjoyed the play– as Wilde wrote witty banter like no other playwright in his time. To me, he is the male Austen– only overly caffeinated and with a propensity for all things pastel. And upon reflection of the play, I am reminded of Billy Wilder, an Austrian Jewish director from the 1950s and ¬†suspected gay himself. He offered an amendment to Wilde’s shortcomings in the final scene of his 1959 movie “Some Like It Hot.” After a wealthy businessman discovers that the woman he thought he loved is, in fact, in possession of man parts and hence not of the female persuasion, he responds, “Well, nobody’s perfect.” Therein lies the key to relationships– there is no ideal person, male or female. And if we can’t accept that, well then it’s time to take a trip to the pet store.

*Johnny is greatly distressed by the term “gay” and requests that I refer to him as a “boy who enjoys other boys.” Interpret as you like.

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5. Flea markets. I used to be morally opposed to purchasing things that had been touched, finagled, and caressed by someone else. Now I am an impoverished college student and am embracing the world of second hand goods.

4. “Books for Cooks.” A store that sells only cookbooks. Oh, and holds cooking demonstrations, in which visitors may sample the edible delights free of charge.

3. The Travel Bookshop. Yes, Notting Hill has quite a few specialty book stores. As a Barcelona-deprived nomad, I took solace in exploring the world from the comforts of this rich literary gem. I even purchased a book on British corruption in Kenya and had it signed by the author– Michela Wrong. It was “Africa Exploration” week at the bookstore. They knew I was coming, clearly.

2. The homes painted in pastels. Again, generally bright colors intimidate me. They remind of clowns and face paint. And those memories take me to deep dark places. However, for some reason, in Notting Hill it works. And I would like to reside in a baby blue abode, featured below:

1. The Hummingbird Bakery. Home of London’s best cupcakes. Red velvet is its specialty, and while normally I avoid baked goods like an Icelandic erupting volcano, this time was an exception on both accounts. For this one indulgence, I shall be zumbaing my remaining nine weeks in Oxford away. But when life gives you lemons, trade ’em in for cupcakes. Did I mention I bought the cupcake cookbook as well? My hips are saying all sorts of nasty things to me right now.

On a side note, I now have a published article on the apocalyptic affair that was my travel experience, aptly titled “A Sleeping Beast Awakes.”

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and other tales of reading the fine print after I recover from the oddest 72 hours of European travel thus far. I might also add that my trip to Barcelona has been rescheduled for mid-May and my venture to Lisbon is at a date to be determined. Oh, the joys of spontaneity.

However, the discovery of this image off Portobello Road in Notting Hill yesterday did provide some sort of unusual artistic comfort:

The wall reads “There is always hope.” Amidst the airline madness, I am reminded to never lose faith. To cite Theodore Herzl, “If you will it, it is no dream.” One way or another I will traverse the European continent– be it through volcanic ash or any other glorious and unexpected natural disaster.

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