Jew-ish Studies and the Search for the Perfect Chocolate Chip

My friend Rachel just moved to town, which makes me very happy. Before we can hang out and enjoy living in the same city, however, she has some important business to take care of. I am a prime resource for questions like these:

  • How does our town handle recycling? (Throw everything in the big green bin.)
  • Do I know a good cleaning person who can show up the day of closing and scrub the empty house before the movers show up the next day? (Yes. Three texts and one hour later we’re all set.)
  • Do I have a set of allen wrenches? (Yes, but I can’t find it.)

And my favorite: Where can I buy pareve chocolate chips?

For those who don’t understand kashrut, this may seem like an odd question, but it is extremely important to those of us who keep kosher and want to serve non-dairy chocolate chip desserts after our (usually meat) Shabbat dinners. In the interest of peanut butter chocolate chip cake, I cannot afford to run out of pareve chips.

Of course I knew where to them nearby. I even sent her a photo of my favorite brand, available at Whole Foods, Holiday Market and One Stop Kosher (which has an entire shelf dedicated to such things.) You used to be able to buy pareve chips at Trader Joe’s, but that brand is now considered dairy – an immeasurable loss to people like me for whom TJ’s is grocery stop #1.

The College Essay Connection

Reminiscing about TJ’s chocolate chips reminded me of one of my son Sammy’s college essays.

Sammy didn’t get in to the University of Chicago, for whom he composed this hilarious piece. He’s headed to the University of Michigan (big cheers from the home team!) But it would be a shame to relegate this essay to the Google Drive archives. With his permission, I share it with you.

First, the prompt: Due to a series of clerical errors, there is exactly one typo (an extra letter, a removed letter, or an altered letter) in the name of every department at the University of Chicago. Oops! Describe your new intended major. Why are you interested in it and what courses or areas of focus within it might you want to explore? Potential options include Commuter Science, Bromance Languages and Literatures, Pundamentals: Issues and Texts, Ant History…

Jew-ish Studies, by Sammy Saperstein

xmas chineseAfter nine years of day school, I figured that I was done learning about Judaism. I’ve learned Hebrew, I’ve studied Torah, and I’ve memorized virtually the entire morning service. I took a break from Judaic studies by going to a public high school, and figured I would do the same in college by not entirely ignoring my religion, but not making it a focus of my studies. That was until I heard about UChicago’s “Jew-ish Studies” major, a major that focuses on things sort of Jewish but not directly tied to the religion. Core classes include “Jews on Christmas” (JIST 20081), investigating the annual migration of Jews to local (non-kosher!) Chinese restaurants on December 25th, and “Sleepaway Camp,” a study of the decade-long mating ritual that is Jewish summer camp, in which campers are subtly led into a hook-up culture from a young age, culminating in their time as counselors, at which point the culture continues, ideally leading to a long-term relationship, children, and the continuation of the Jewish people. While I feel I’ve had enough of traditional Jewish Studies, Jew-ish Studies is perfect.

One subdiscipline that fascinates me is study of “The Jewish Goodbye.” This interdisciplinary subject takes a deep dive into the complex sociological relationships between Jewish friends and family that lead to infamously long goodbyes. It’s a rapidly developing field, with cutting edge ideas employing Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity to explain how, during a Goodbye, 30 minutes can feel like 10 seconds to a parent reliving with their friend the shock they felt when they first discovered that Trader Joe’s chocolate chips were no longer non-dairy and could therefore no longer be used for meat-based Shabbat desserts, while simultaneously feeling like two hours to a kid who just wants to go home and change out of their business-casual synagogue clothes and into the pair of bar mitzvah party giveaway sweatpants they received the week before.

Within the study of Goodbyes comes study of The Shift. This phenomenon, which is defined as the moment (or set of moments) at which a goodbye goes from feeling long to feeling short, has been observed both in a lab setting and in the field across denominations, demographics, and generations. Theolog-ishians are currently attempting to establish the age/time at which The Shift occurs. There are some fundamental questions people have about The Shift, such as: When does it occur? How does it occur? Do all Jews experience it the same way? Why does it exist in the first place? Over the past few years, a number of different camps have sprung up , each with its own theories. These camps largely focus on the first question (When does The Shift occur?), as the others are deeper questions that require more of a solid theoretical basis than we have right now. There are the Evolutionists, who believe that The Shift takes place over one’s entire lifetime and that Goodbyes gradually feel shorter and shorter. Mathematical Jew-ish Studies oftens favors the Evolutionists, modelling the age vs time observed as a logistic decay curve with the bulk of the decay occurring around the ages of 30-50. Discretists, of which I am a member, believe that instead of a gradual change The Shift occurs at a certain moment in one’s life. If this is the case, it remains unclear whether that moment is unique to each individual or if it’s triggered by a particular event.

It’s also important to note that Discretists view The Shift as a product of one’s environment, instead of a natural/inherent process like the Evolutionists. This means that a completely isolated Jew would not experience the Shift, but this is almost impossible to prove. Any experiment involving isolating someone for an entire lifetime would never pass an ethics board, and such a Jew would have no one to say Goodbye to rendering the experiment useless.

As my senior project, I hope to run an experiment to test my hypothesis, which predicts that The Shift occurs immediately when one becomes a parent. While this is a highly controversial theory, as it fails to offer any indication into what happens to Jews who never become parents (or why The Shift isn’t observed in non-Jews who do become parents, for that matter), finding evidence that it’s true would be a remarkable step forward for the field. There are good reasons to believe this is the case. For example, one’s role in one’s Jewish community changes drastically when one becomes a parent, so it would make sense that one’s perception of the Goodbye would change as well. Additionally, The Shift has, up to this point, only been studied in child/adult pairs, so there’s little reason to believe that childless adults feel any sort of time distortion during a Goodbye. And while Evolutionists will use the problem of the childless adults to argue that The Shift affects Jews according to age rather than by any social markers, I view it as further evidence of the importance of becoming a parent to one’s Jewish identity, especially in the case of Goodbyes.

Some say that the “Jew-ish Studies” major is a waste of time with no practical applications, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. While it’s unlikely that students will end up as clergy members or Talmudic scholars like their traditional “Jewish Studies” counterparts at other schools, many find jobs as religious preschool teachers, deli entrepreneurs, or religious heads at sleepaway camps. All of these are prestigious and clearly show that Jew-ish Studies is not only a fascinating area of study, but potentially lucrative as well.

While to the uninitiated it may seem like I already have a strong understanding of the subject, that is far from the truth. I’ve been fascinated by Jew-ish Studies ever since I found out about it, so I’ve spent a good deal of time over the past year reading books and watching videos made for laypeople on the subject. This is why I’m so excited to continue this study in college. I have enough knowledge to understand the basics, but still yearn to dive deeper and learn from experts in the field. For the next four years, I’ll be focusing on Jew-ish Studies as much as I can.


The Atlantic Misses an Opportunity to Bring a Nuanced Discussion of Gender to the Mainstream

After the Atlantic published a cover story by Jesse Singal Monday entitled “When Children Say They’re Trans,” I received an email from Caroline Kitchener, an associate editor at the magazine. It read, in part:

I’m looking for parents of trans or gender non-binary kids to respond to our latest cover story. Much of the piece reads almost like a letter to this group—of which I know you’re a part—and we’d like to start a thoughtful, productive conversation around it. I read your great essay in the Detroit Free Press, and am wondering if you might want to participate: What does Jesse get right in the piece, and what does he get wrong? What could be the potential implications of a piece like this? Continue reading

Tell Me Something Good: Friends

Indigo Girls, Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell on the radio, and suddenly I am catapulted to the early nineties and my friend Steve’s backyard in. More specifically swinging in a hammock with music bursting from speakers he’s placed in the open windows.

pexels-photo-696218.jpegWe practically live down the street from each other, but I never see him. How do we lose track of people and keep them at the same time? I text him and tell him what I’ve been hearing today, that it must be a sign that we’re due to meet for a drink soon. We’ll go to the same place – Cork Wine Pub in Pleasant Ridge – and sit at the bar and have a couple of glasses of wine and some snacks. We’ll catch up and say we should get together some time soon, but we won’t.

And then something will remind me of him, and we’ll be in touch again. Let’s be honest. I’m the one who stays in touch.  Continue reading

Response: “They” is Too Confusing

Yesterday I received a comment on my post, On Parenting and Pronouns, that I want to share, reflect on and, ultimately, argue against.

Here’s the comment:

There has to be a better way. Using they is too confusing. You are not communicating. My solution: don’t use pronouns at all. To the waitress: I’ll take a coffee, but my partner won’t. Is Scooby upstairs? Tell Scooby dinner is in 10 minutes. Yeah it is awkward, but not more awkward than “they” and is miraculously clear.

Maybe English will develop a gender neutral pronoun. Until then, find a way to make a gender neutral person comfortable AND communicate without confusion to that person and all others. I spent my career in corporate communications and when this came up successfully eliminated hurtful pronouns and wrote text that communicated. No, a crowd is not coming downstairs for dinner.

Here’s my response: Continue reading

Tell Me Something Good

Once or twice a month, my friends Kim and Shari and I send each other quick, unedited essays. We intended to do this every week, but we’re not that consistent. Calling them essays is rather ambitious; they’re more like snippets or observations. We share a Dropbox folder labeled “Tell Me Something Good,” and fill it with these brief missives – a page or less, first drafts, first thoughts, reflections on something that made us smile or feel grateful or breathe a sigh of relief. Continue reading