Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Sukkot: If it's in Downtown must be famous, right?

For the last time this Jewish holiday season, we're about to duck into a three-day time warp. And into something that in ideal times to come will be the skin of the Leviathan.

Since becoming Jewishly observant, I've always thought of the holiday of Sukkot (often spelled Succot, since any spelling in English is just a phonetic rendering of the Hebrew) as a reminder never to say other religions are weird.  Because many of the rituals associated with this 8-day holiday would strike anyone as...odd.

Strangest of all, perhaps, is the lulav and etrog, in themselves curious words that sound like characters out of Star Wars.  The lulav is really a closed palm frond, but it's also shorthand for the frond combined with small branches of myrtle and willow, usually in a woven raffia holder. They're three of the "arba minim," Hebrew for "four species," the fourth being the etrog, a lemonesque bumpy citron fruit.  The sweet international hit Israeli film "Ushpizin" spends a lot of screen-time on the competitive search and bidding each year among the pious for the most "perfect" fruit according to standards of beauty honored for centuries.

During the span of the holiday, Jews do things while holding the lulav and etrog that others might consider quaint.  Every day while facing east, we say a blessing and shake them in all six directions (including up and down). In synagogue, men parade in a circle with the Torah scrolls, holding their arba minim, reciting verses and asking God to "hosha na" (save, please).  These "hoshanas" were basically what followers of Jesus were doing with their palm fronds when he rode on his donkey to Jerusalem just prior to the crucifixion.

At the end of Sukkot, Jews in synagogue beat their bundles of willow rather fiercely, five times on the ground in the "grand" hoshanas (Hoshana Rabba). There's lots of commentary about the significance of the items and actions--harvest, life and death allusions; replication of ancient Temple rituals; the coming together of all types of Jews; reference to future Messianic times--but, bottom line, these are peculiar, but we do what God told us to do.

If you can select, wave, parade and bash a collection of fruit and herbs, you really must want to please God.  That these activities are increasingly popular among American Jews offers an encouraging message; my Google search of "lulav and etrog" yielded 43,300 results, mostly outlets for buying and instructions for using them.

Then, there's the succa (also spelled "sukkah"), the holiday's namesake.  Jews build not-so-watertight shelters in their backyards, according to very explicit rules.  The key is that the "roof" must be of once-living organic material--at our house, fir boughs freshly cut from backyard trees.  When we lived in LA, our topping, which has the throat-tickling name "skakh," was 20-foot palm fronds, also from our yard.  Those with limited greenery access, no time, or laziness often use bamboo mats; as long as it was once growing and unadulterated, it works--but it must be applied loosely, so the sun and moon can shine through.

Throughout the holiday Jews move into the succa, at least figuratively, eating, spending maximum time, and, if possible, sleeping there. It's preferable to beautify the succa and use one's finest tableware to really internalize and honor the occasion.  There's lots of symbolism--dependence on God; withdrawal from materialism; remembrance of the "clouds of glory" that surrounded the Jews wandering in the wilderness after the exodus; harvest, with its seasonal conclusions; and a hearkening to Messianic times, when it's said all will sit in harmony in a giant succa made from the skin of the Leviathan (whatever that is).

Now, constructing all this can be time-consuming, and the finished product to many seems plenty weird.  One time my father-in-law set up his succa in the front yard of his Santa Monica apartment building.  In his enthusiasm for the mitzvah (commandment) to spend as much time as possible, one night he'd brought his sleeping bag and was snoozing happily when suddenly he was awakened by a hulking form with a foul odor who entered the succa and proceded to take some blankets and pillows and settle in.  Startled, my father-in-law asked what was going on.  The inebriated, smelly homeless fellow who was making himself at home replied, "Whatsa matter man?  There's room in here for another one!"

Perhaps the most memorable succa we've constructed here in the Great Northwest was the one with skakh that an accommodating tree-trimming company spared from their shredder upon our request.  As our family and guests, totalling 12, began enjoying our first meal under the fragrant boughs, we started noticing small orange items falling on our table, our hair, and into our soup.  The items moved, wriggling in our bowls: The foliage was infested with worms.  Group scream.

"Fractured Bubble," winner at Sukkah City
I can even write about the strange customs of this holiday because of the reassuring fact that apparently it has now gone mainstream, as in Midtown Manhattan, New York.  Last week, in Union Square, artists and architects from around the world constructed their unique visions of innovative sukkot, all built according to Jewish law.  The non-profit group Reboot announced in May they'd give $10,000 each to selected competitors to erect their sukkot; 600 entrants from 48 countries responded. A dozen concepts were built, displayed September 19-20, and a winner, determined by 17,000 spectators' votes, was announced by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.  The victor, "Fractured Bubble" by New York architects Henry Grosman and Babak Bryan, remains on display throughout the holiday's entire 8 days.  It got coverage in the New York Times and New York Magazine and a raft of Jewish publications; all the finalists move to the New York Center for Architecture for exhibit.

So maybe our peculiar Jewish observance is now chic.  It's called "the time of our rejoicing," and I do look forward to it every year, with family gathering and special adventures mounting ladders to perch large fir branches across a wooden roof frame.  We decorate our succa with tin-foil chains made by our children when they were small; visible through a window (impervious to inevitable Northwest rain) is the rainbow construction-paper chain little hands made 15 years ago. Colored lights, fake grape clusters, apples and pears evoke the harvest theme; posters, including the Jewish historical figures we invite into the succa as "guests" and the agricultural species of Israel, were used by my husband in his sukkot before we were married a quarter-century ago. My clever innovation was to take apart plastic Target dorm doorway hangers and use them as garlands; the bright stars and circles and other shiny foil garlands make our succa sparkle.

Maybe we're eccentric, in this Skype and YouTube age, to cling to ancient traditions, but somehow sitting outside in our coats in this transitional season joins us to our fellow Jews, across time and around the world, and that's a connection you just can't get from a website. Tonight's the last chance we'll have to eat our warm homemade challah bread dipped in honey in our succa; it's somehow melancholy to come inside and resume normal life where each family member goes to a different room or a different house and we put away our sweet reminders of continuity for another year.

Here's what it was like to tour around Sukkah City in New York's Union Square:

Monday, September 20, 2010

The difference between anti-immigrant sentiment in the US and Europe

I saw the front-page story in the NY Times today about the indignation Salt Lake City's Mormon newspaper, The Deseret News, garnered by taking an unofficial pro-Hispanic immigrants position.  Then I flipped a few more pages and saw that in Sweden, anti-immigration candidates won parliamentary seats for the first time--joining anti-immigration party successes in neighboring Denmark and Norway.  Mounting anti-Muslim sentiment in both France and Germany detailed in another NY Times piece today is being used by both Sarkozy and Merkel to shore political support.

What is going on here? Is the world in a nativist explosion?

I think there are two separate waves of feeling sweeping the world, one in Europe and another in America, though they share an important commonality.

Americans emotional about "sealing our borders" are at root anxious about Mexican and Central American immigrants' steep increase in cultural visibility.  And in truth, those who note a growing Hispanic influence are reacting to fact.  At 48.4 million population in 2009, Hispanics are the largest ethnic or race minority, according to census figures, double the 22 million of just nine years earlier.  Twenty six percent of all children under age 5--and 22% of all those under 18 in our country are Hispanic. Hispanic people comprise 47% of the population of New Mexico and 37% of the populations of California and Texas--and 16 percent of the United States population generally (far more than the 12% of our nation who are African-American). Twelve percent of all US residents speak Spanish in the home (half of those also speak English "very well.")
Whether Hispanics are citizens, legal or illegal immigrants is irrelevant to my point--which is that the daily American context increasingly includes Spanish, and ever-greater media attention goes to this significant segment of the population.  This, for many people, is an uncomfortable and undesirable change in their personal world.

I do not believe the discomfort comes from bigotry or prejudice against Spanish, Mexicans or Hispanic culture (though I'm sure there is some).  My observation is that it's a result of what seems a failure to fulfill the American bargain.

The bargain is:  Immigrants are welcome; we are a land of many peoples, combined to form our special "melting pot" in which hopeful volunteers invest their energies and sensitivities in a uniquely American milieu.  But the bargain holds that the national culture uses the language of English.  Immigrants are expected to learn it as well as adapt to this amalgamated culture--rather than have the establishment and surrounding culture cater to newcomers through a public face speaking other languages.

I hear citizens with an underlying annoyance, often voiced as, "My grandmother came here and had to learn English and how to get by--why don't they?"

It's a visceral reaction to phoning a store or insurance company or doctor's office, getting the already-annoying recorded triage and hearing an extra time-consuming command, "Para espanol, oprima dos."  It's not the specific language or culture or people that causes a reaction--the same would be true if the "language invading" were by another group.  It's that the basic American cultural experience, based in English, is gradually encroached upon and ceded to something different--and yes, foreign.

The European anti-immigrant response, from what I see, shares this discomfort with encroachment.  European nations, despite being physically close by today's standards, developed separate languages, traditions and customs, all subjects of fierce pride.  Station was determined more by birth--where and to whom--in contrast to the relatively recent American combining based on egalitarian striving.  Just as Americans resist losing our two-hundred-year-old identity, Europeans hold even more tightly to their longer histories, languages and cultures.

But Americans don't fear that Hispanics seek to replace their government with another, as a tenet of being Hispanic.  Muslim immigrants, however, bring with them a set of religiously-based values--including goals they hold immutable because they are commanded by God--to ultimately unseat existing governments and replace them with sharia law.  While Europeans need the labor Muslims provide, they worry that an acceptance of growing Muslim populations actually endangers not only their cultures, but their very existence.

Here in America, we're not threatened by an influx of Hispanics, and particularly new immigrants--we embrace them.  We need their labor because for the most part, Hispanic residents adhere to the same work ethic that built this nation, a willingness to take on any job punctually and reliably to earn a living, support a family and get ahead.  Overwhelmingly we understand and even share their religious perspective, and our cultures compatibly allow a government and God's laws to coexist rather than require imposition.

Values of Christianity that include respect for women are woven into the history and basis of America, and permeate the Mexican and Central American cultures of Hispanic immigrants.  America continually demonstrates openness to all--including anyone of Hispanic background--who adheres to the bargain, masters English, achieves and becomes successful.  The appointment of Justice Sonia Sotomayor was a recent reminder of the broadly-supportive American attitude toward those of Hispanic backgrounds.

Bottom line--big influxes of immigrants shifting language and media cause entrenched citizens to want to shut the gates and strengthen the original culture internally--here and in Europe.  But the kind of threat posed by unassimilated Hispanic immigrants to America and Muslim immigrants to Europe are wildly divergent in that the religious thrust of Islam is not only permeating but dangerous.

Friday, September 17, 2010

"Fat Talk" Campaign and Yom Kippur: Watch What You Say

"Fat Talk" is just one destructive manifestation of our culture's imposed obsession with food and size.  And its approving amusement with unrestrained mouthing-off.

In today's mail was a magazine sent by my daughter's sorority.  She graduated in June and her dad and I decided to give her the gift of a "lifelong" membership. So the Delta Delta Delta Trident publication arrives in our mailbox monthly, and when I finally give it to her, usually becomes instant recycling.  Today I flipped through the pages, as I often do, regretting that I'd never even considered joining a sorority at UCLA, because in the tumultuous years I was an undergrad, such things were eschewed as "too establishment" and "materialistic." And then something caught my eye.

I'm working on a book dealing with how our society causes obesity, and the mag touted a whole campaign called "Fat Talk Free Week," upcoming on October 18.  A peel-and-stick reading "Friends don't let Friends Fat talk" was on a postcard inserted in the binding, with a pledge to eliminate fat talk from conversations and "focus on health, not weight or size." "Fat Talk Free Week," explained the card, "is an international, 5-day body activism campaign to draw attention to body image issues and the damaging impact of the 'thin ideal' on women in society."

To that I say:  Brava.

Certainly pressure to match some unrealistic thin ideal oppresses women and leads not only to eating disorders, depression and self-loathing, but it's also a fundamental reason why men and women override their bodies' natural hunger and satiation cues, eat all manner of weird diets, and ultimately increase their likelihood of obesity.  Equally damaging is the lowering of discourse, the increase in rudeness and insensitivity; the decline of kindness--both publicly and privately.

But it may not be a coincidence that I happened to see this article today, just hours before the self-reflective Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.  On that most solemn and elevated day in the entire calendar, serious Jews take a frank look at their transgressions and repent.  During services, congregants repeat a laundry list of sins, admitting to their shortcomings.  Perhaps the most-mentioned type of error, described in many permutations, is the misuse of speech; mostly for disrespect.

We strike our chests with our fists, confessing to God, "For the sin we've sinned against you with the utterance of the lips..." including "with harsh speech," "through insincere confession of the mouth,""through foolish speech of the mouth," "through defilement of the lips," "through talk that is evil," "with the speech of our lips without thought," "by gossip-mongering," and a bunch of others that imply improper blabbing.  "Fat talk" is, I'm sure, included.

Now, what exactly is "fat talk"?  "Fat Talk describes all of the statements made in everyday conversation that reinforce the thin ideal and contribute to women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies," explains the campaign's Facebook page. "Examples of fat talk include: 'I’m so fat,' 'Do I look fat in this?' 'I need to lose 10 pounds' and 'She’s too fat to be wearing that swimsuit.'” It continues, "Statements that are considered fat talk don’t necessarily have to be negative; they can seem positive yet reinforce the need to be thin. E.g., 'You look great! Have you lost weight?'"

In other words, anything that references fat, that suggests that thin is better.

Getting sorority girls to refrain from mentioning fat for five days is sure to be...impossible.  But it's a worthy effort.  Anything that increases consciousness about one's words and their potential impact can improve not only the kindness climate, but mind-sets internally, as each speaker assesses--even for a split second--her own relationship to those words.

And I suppose that's why Yom Kippur is such a revered and awesome (truly!) holiday.  It's no fun; actually, I (unwisely) dread it: no food or drink, long stretches of standing in synagogue, seemingly endless recitations, and focus on stuff I'd rather avoid.  Even the melodies for chanting the verses sound dirge-like, reminding us that God is really keeping track of our misdeeds, even though we prefer to think of Him as that merciful guy who knows that in our hearts, we mean well.  We may, but we still chose to do what was easy, what was self-serving, rather than what was right and proper.

The Jewish term for unacceptable speech is "lushon ha ra," Hebrew for "evil language," but actually pertaining to anything negative spoken about other people, even if true.  (There's a harsher term for untrue chatter.)  We see the power of speech constantly; and indeed man is defined as above animals by virtue of his power to speak, to shape sounds into intelligible communication that can convey abstracts, plans, history.  No wonder our greatest vulnerability comes in what we say.

As a therapist, I've often told clients that there are three levels of significance for ideas.  If we merely imagine them in our minds, they exist but have no substance.  When we utter them to another, we bring them into our world, we transfer them via sound waves that are a level higher than our mental cognition.  When we write them, however, our ideas become concrete; they can exist permanently.  That's why writing a note has more consequence than merely saying something.  And speaking has more weight than just a thought.

All three cases, though, involve words giving form to a desire, a feeling, a creative essence.  Fat talk is bad; it affects others even if unintentionally.  Fat-thinking, too, has an impact.  As does any kind of negative formulation, any kind of criticism of another person.

To my Jewish friends, may you be sealed for a good year.  To everyone, may we all become a little more conscious of our words, be they any size.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Looking at Imperfections

In the midst of the most solemn ten days of the Jewish calendar--the time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, when only fervent prayers, giving charity and repentance can affect God's plan for us over the coming year--newspapers remind us that most everybody else is still obsessed with the superficial and mundane.  Like whether space between front teeth is the latest rage in sexy looks.

OK, that and New York's Fashion Week, which seems to be just as important as politics, natural disasters and financial crises.

But the front page story in the Wall Street Journal about gap-toothed models being the new fad because their frontal lapse gives them "authenticity" did bring a close-mouthed smirk.  How about the authenticity of really yellow teeth?  Or the authenticity of wrinkles?  "I think people want to see something different, something off," said a casting director choosing models for designers. The editor of W Magazine said younger generations eschew the photoshopped perfection of the digital age: "It's a love for the imperfect and the authentic," he opined.

The article goes on to talk about various models and celebrities with spaces between their front teeth--most of whom are otherwise perfect.  Admittedly, embracing dental abnormalities consoles me, since my parents could not afford orthodontia, and, though my front incisors are solidly together, my lower teeth are staggered and my canines only fashionable with the popularity of Twilight.

With snaggle-teeth trendy, I can now focus on less apparent but more serious imperfections.  Like recalling and righting the many affronts and missteps in my behavior over the past year.  Like incorporating more uplifting and giving activities in my daily routine; not just promising to do them and conveniently allowing other "urgent" events to intervene.  Like developing discipline so that I maximize productivity instead of succumbing to easy and undemanding stuff, like internet browsing and email.

Models' smile-styles and the Ten Days of Repentance form the ideal juxtaposition. Makes me grin--gap-teeth or no.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Music of Life for the Jewish New Year 5771

This eve of the Jewish New Year 5771--that's five thousand, seven hundred seventy-one years since Adam spoke--is an emotionally precarious time.

In Jewish terms, it's just moments before God evaluates our behavior and decides whether or not we're worthy of another year--and if so, what type of year it will be.

In personal terms, it's a transitional period for me, with children newly launched and no more excuses for procrastination on writing projects. Time to clear out the clutter, the kids' toys, the stacks of fading construction paper and notebooks that now only remind me of past Septembers.  Time to clarify directions, re-invent, and engage.

More immediately, it's pressure to bake eight round challahs (loaves of egg bread) for our celebrations, cook five formal meals for twelve (there are six sit-down gatherings over the next three days, but we're invited to friends' for one of them), prepare for the arrival of my daughter and soon, my son, on their school holiday breaks, finalize the guest lists and go into full holiday-entertaining mode.

I'm really not ready.

So, I asked my husband, who is a connoisseur of classical music, for help.  It's a near-secret that he has been obsessed with classical music since well before middle school.  He asked for specific record albums for his bar mitzvah gifts.  Instead of carrying photos of his parents and siblings in his pre-teen wallet, he carried portraits of the classical masters.

And he memorized music.  Play four notes of any classical piece and he can instantly recite the composer, the opus number, the key, the conductor, the year composed and the record label and date of release.  Obscure composer? No problem.  Not only will he spell and pronounce his name, complete with umlauts, but provide a short biography--embellished, if you choose, with histories of illegitimate children and venereal diseases.

What I asked for was some "happy music."  I needed encouragement; I needed optimism; I needed something external and catchy and instantly accessible.  My request made him smile ear-to-ear.

What is it about music that connects to the soul, that can provide "happy" with just a succession of tones?  Similarly, a series of sounds can bring tears and melancholy, recreate memories, or provide the stuff of fantasy flight.  Rosh Hashana and the Jewish holidays include liturgy with distinctive tunes that are heavy, as weighty as the decision of who will live and who will die.  We're inspired to repent, all right--hearing those melodies feels like a hammer about to crash down, at times.

This is balanced with the strong, shrill blare of the ram's horn shofar, the symbolic sound of this time of year.  When God gave the ten commandments, the sound of the shofar stirred the hearts of the Jews with an understanding of the importance of the moment; similarly, we feel that same piercing, emotional force when the ram's horn is blown in the synagogue.  Babies stop crying; nobody moves; the visceral grip eliminates verbal thoughts.

Such is the power of a single sound.  Equally affecting is the human construction of sounds into phrases, with syncopation and rhythm and harmony.  Give me "happy music" to make this transition into productivity, into dedication and appreciation and repentance.  Music to motivate gratitude and ongoing enjoyment; attention not to take one moment for granted.

Here is a partial list of my "happy music" from the expert.  Perhaps some piece from this list will add to your excitement and earnestness about the new year.  May it be one of health and sweetness and soaring song.

Brahms: Serenade #1 In D, Op. 11 - 1. Allegro Molto 12:57 Yoel Levi: Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Brahms: Serenade #1 In D, Op. 11 - 6. Rondo: Allegro 5:30 Yoel Levi: Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Haydn: Symphony No. 88, IV. Finale: Allegro con spirito 3:28 Fritz Reiner: Chicago Symphony Orchestra Reiner - Haydn Symphones 101, 95, 88

Walking Tune 3:34 Percy Grainger, Music of Percy Grainger

Molly on the Shore 3:53 Percy Grainger; Music of Percy Grainger 

Grainger: Handel In The Strand 4:46 Kenneth Montgomery: Bournemouth Sinfonietta, Music of Percy Grainger

Dvořák: Symphony #6 In D, Op. 60, B 112 - 1. Allegro Non Tanto 12:37 Stephen Gunzenhauser: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra Dvořák: Complete Published Orchestral Works [Disc 5]

Dvořák: Symphony #6 In D, Op. 60, B 112 - 4. Finale: Allegro Con Spirito 10:41 Stephen Gunzenhauser: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra Dvořák: Complete Published Orchestral Works [Disc 5] 

Symphony No. 3 ("Espansiva") Carl Nielsen, FS60: 1. Allegro espansivo 10:38 Herbert Blomstedt: San Francisco Symphony Orchestra Symphonies 2 & 3 

Holst: Suite #1 In E Flat - March 3:12 Dallas Wind Symphony Holst: Suites #1 & 2, A Moorside Suite 

Holst: Suite #2 In F -Song Of The Blacksmith 1:20 Dallas Wind Symphony Holst: Suites #1 & 2, A Moorside Suite

Suite #2 in F: 4. Fantasia on the "Dargason" 3:21 Dallas Wind Symphony. Holst: Suites #1 & 2, A Moorside Suite

Rodeo - Buckaroo Holiday 7:19 Aaron Copland. Aaron Copland: Prairie Music - JoAnn Falletta, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Classical

Rodeo - Hoe Down 3:26 Aaron Copland. Aaron Copland: Prairie Music - JoAnn Falletta, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Classical

Rodrigo: Concierto Serenata - 1. Estudiantina 8:34 Enrique Bátiz: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Rodrigo Orchestral

Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Guitar Concerto #1 In D, Op. 99 - 1. Allegretto 6:26 Pepe Romero; Neville Marriner: Academy Of St. Martin In The Fields Villa-Lobos;Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Guitar Concertos

Wiren: Serenade - Marcia: Tempo Di Marcia, Molto Ritmico 4:48 Richard Studt: Bournemouth Sinfonietta Scandinavian String Music

Symphony No. 4 Op 90 - Allegro Vivace 10:30 Felix Mendelssohn Symphony# 4

Handel: Alexander's Feast - Harp Concerto In B Flat: Allegro Moderato 6:06 Maxine Eilander; Stephen Stubbs: Seattle Baroque Orchestra Handel's Harp

Beethoven: Symphony #1 In C, Op. 21 - 4. Finale: Adagio, Allegro Molto E Vivace 5:16 David Zinman & The Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich Beethoven: Symphonies [Disc 1]

Beethoven: Symphony #2 In D, Op. 36 - 4. Allegro Con Brio 6:13 David Zinman & The Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich Beethoven: Symphonies [Disc 1]

Bach: Jauchzet Gott In Allen Lande, BWV 51 4:32 Helmuth Müller-Brühl: Cologne Chamber Orchestra, Dresden Chamber Choir Favourite Bach Arias & Choruses

Mendelssohn: Piano Concerto #1 In G Minor, Op. 25 - 3. Presto 6:09 Rudolf Serkin; Eugene Ormandy: Philadelphia Orchestra Mendelssohn: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 and Violin Concerto, Op. 64.

If you've read this far, you're ready to go listen. And be happy you can!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Misogynist and violent Islam, gaining hold, requires passionate opposition

Why isn't the poison gassing of Afghan girls simply for attending school generating international outrage? Blood tests have verified that a main ingredient of chemical weapons was the cause of the severe sicknesses suffered by hundreds of girls in two schools in Kabul this last week--just the latest in a series of nine poisonings spanning the last two years.  Many of the girls rushing to escape the scene fainted; some collapsed hours later.  Scores were hospitalized, requiring oxygen and intravenous drugs.

And yet, the still-ailing girls resolutely resume their educations. "One 12th grader, 18-year-old Khalida Bashir Ahmed, said she was determined to return to school even though she still felt dizzy; she still had a medical tube dangling from her right wrist," reports the New York Times. "As she recounted her ordeal, she fainted and fell to the ground."

The attacks were more than a week ago, but only now, with blood tests revealing the nerve gas ingredient organophosphates, earn any attention:  "Many local officials had dismissed the cases as episodes of mass hysteria provoked by acid and arson attacks on school girls by Taliban fighters and others who objected to their education," the article notes.  Those pesky Taliban.

Where are the feminists?  Where are those vocal for "women's rights" to abortions, who now seem painfully quiet about girls' rights to learn to read without biological attack?  It's not enough that the custom of female genital mutilation continues, affecting 140 million women worldwide, most in Africa, though The London Observer reported a few weeks ago that in England this very summer, 500-2,000 girls have undergone the horrifying procedure designed to preclude any sexual pleasure.

Muslim women are regularly beaten by husbands, with little international protest--and complicit support by local authorities.  "Wife beating in Islamic countries is more prevalent than one can imagine," writes Brigitte Gabriel in They Must Be Stopped: Why We Must Defeat Radical Islam and How We Can Do It.  Stories of "honor killings" abound internationally, and Muzzammil Hassan, the Muslim head of the "Bridges" TV outlet, formed to reconcile Muslim and American feeling, beheaded his wife last year in Orchard Park--a murder widely attributed to his religious bent.

And it seems things are getting worse.  "In a world where education for females was generally accepted only a generation or two ago, women are again being infantilized, writes journalist Jan Goodwin in The Price of Honor: Muslim Women Lift the Veil of Silence on the Islamic World.  "In the name of religion, they are being banned from traveling, working, studying, divorcing, voting, holding positions of power, in effect, from making their own decisions about major and minor aspects of their lives."

A page of discussion by an assortment of "moderate" Muslim thinkers in today's Wall St. Journal includes Akbar Ahmed's distinguishing Muslims into peaceful "mystics," "modernists" who want to fit in with present culture, and "literalists" who seek a throwback to "seventh-century Arabia," often employing violent tactics.  Mr. Ahmed, former Pakistani ambassador to Britain, doesn't quantify percentages in each group, but if, as many writers assert, just 10% of the total are the "literalists" who use violence in the name of heaven, there are millions willing to kill to oppress women and convert "infidels," including those of differing Muslim strains.

I suspect it's difficult for "progressive" American feminists to defend Muslim women while honoring the "diversity" of Islam.  Most Americans are taught that criticizing others' religions is taboo, and certainly post 9-11 there's a tiptoe-on-eggshells sensitivity about implying that Muslims' faith is in any way inferior to those who would not tolerate violence.  The right to placement of the Islamic Center within a couple of blocks of 9-11 Ground Zero is universally defended; only the propriety of doing so is questioned, on the basis of compassion for those who lost their lives to fervent Muslims who, at the time of their deed, screamed their motivation.

So, here we have a cluster of stories, as we do every day.  Girls gassed for attending school. Women mutilated and oppressed.  A discussion of "moderation" in this murderous religion.  On other days, we see suicide bombings of one Muslim sect to another, and uneasiness here about tolerating the proximity of potentially-threatening Muslims.  Meanwhile, around the world, Muslims celebrate whenever America is injured or embarrassed.

Daniel Pipes, after exhaustively analyzing studies to determine the quantity of Muslim extremists, concludes: "Negatively, 10-15 percent suggests that Islamists number about 150 million out of a billion plus Muslims – more than all the fascists and communists who ever lived. Positively, it implies that most Muslims can be swayed against Islamist totalitarianism."  Today's WSJ Opinion page on moderate Islam, however, suggests to me that "moderate" means "milquetoast" --and that some of the passion that motivates the extremists better spread to the Muslim masses, or that violent 10% will wreak havoc on our world.