A Woman's Wit Among Other Things  

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Although I have complained about Jane Austen's happy endings in the past, she is, in fact, one of my most favorite authors and quite an inspiration to me. Her writing has transported me into other, more beautiful worlds and times. She was able to bring a smile to my face whenever I was feeling down, and there was something about her writing that always made me feel serene and at peace. In other words, I love and adore Jane Austen despite her happy endings.

The Morgan Library and Museum currently has an exhibition on Jane Austen titled A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy, open until March 14, 2010. It contains a collection of Jane Austen's letters to her sister Cassandra on display (she must have written at least 3000 letters of which 160 survived) as well as part of her handwritten manuscript of Lady Susan, which is apparently the only surviving complete draft of any of her novels and can also be viewed here. There were also some earlier printed editions of her novels and a few framed illustrations by different artists based on her books. The exhibit also strives to give the viewer a better understanding of the author's life and influences, including books she read, authors she admired, and the general philosophies of the time. It gives people a glimpse into the life of one of the greatest female writers so we can better understand the themes in her novels and her goal in writing.

The part that I found most fascinating was looking at her letters and handwritten manuscripts. For a huge Jane Austen fan, getting to see up close and personal the actual pieces of paper on which she wrote in her own handwriting was pretty awesome. Paper was expensive so her handwriting was quite small and cramped at times. When she ran out of space, she would often write either in the margins or upside down between lines! So her sister would have to first read the letter through one way and then flip it upside down. Another thing Jane would do if she had more to say was write vertically over the horizontal lines of the letter, which you can see here.

Her letters offered us a more personal glimpse into her everyday life, as she described parties she attended and dances she participated in. In a letter from 1804 to her sister Cassandra, Jane wrote that she danced quite a bit and would have danced some more if she had wanted to with a certain gentleman or with "a new odd looking Man who had been eyeing me for some time & at last without any introduction asked me if I meant to dance again." I loved that bit. Things like that make me feel more connected to her as a person, because I can just imagine it with the help of my own personal experiences.

In a 1799 letter to Cassandra, Jane gushed about a new cloak. On the side, she sketched the lace pattern on the cloak in perfect detail. You can see this letter here.

In an 1811 letter from London, Jane mentioned some of the things she had done recently, which included attending two Shakespeare plays -- Hamlet and Macbeth. Seriously, I can completely imagine being friends with this girl.

Overall, I loved this exhibition, and I encourage all Jane Austen fans to check it out before it closes on March 14th, 2010. The Morgan is located on Madison Avenue and 36th, only a few blocks from Herald Square or Stern College. Check here for their exact address and hours. The admission is quite cheap -- $12 for adults and $8 for students with current IDs. This price gives you access to pretty much all of the exhibitions currently on display at The Morgan. Currently, those include one called Rome After Raphael, which is a collection of pen and ink or chalk sketches and drawings by artists such as Raphael, Caravaggio, Parmigianino, etc. There are also many illuminated manuscripts on display, most notably those from the era of Catherine of Cleves. Oh, and make sure to visit the gift shop! It is the most delightful place. They have a big collection of books on art and books containing reproductions of specific artists' works. I started browsing as they were about to close at 6 PM, but I would like to return some day and look through them more closely.

Some of The Morgan's future exhibitions include Albrecht Durer (starting May 18, 2010) and Degas (starting September 24, 2010). I am looking forward to those.

Ink Stained Hands  

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I found this little piece from March 2008 in one of my notebooks, and I thought I might share it in honor of my reaching the 100 mark. It has also just been published on Teen Ink's website (Teen Ink is a magazine by teens and for teens), and if you are so inclined, you can vote for it here. One vote is allowed per day. Apparently, the more votes I get the higher my story will be ranked, so that sounds cool.


My ink stained hands, pure white with smudged black puddles covering the fingertips, are the finest poetry I have ever beheld. They tell of far away mountains, impossible romances, the racing of the heart as it is exposed to the most beautiful work of art. They are witness to those many late hours spent dreaming, writing, creating, and being inspired as I inhale the intoxicating perfume of the ink. They caress the paper in imitation of the paintbrush that tenderly kisses the canvas before it. These black, dirty fingers glow in my eyes like the darkest obsidian, hinting to unexplored depths in its impenetrable darkness – to eternity.

I see midnight skies, the mysteries of their unattainable spheres bewitching me as I hold my breath. I see passion – brilliant, maddening, beautiful – in the intimate way the quill rests between my fingers, everything covered in ink.

There is beauty in that stain left behind by the completion of a beautiful verse, and there is poetry in the blemish covering my index finger like the most faultless rhyme. There is enchantment in the way the ink smoothly flows out, seductively posing on the lines of the paper. The very wind races, spurred on by the magic.

Its very blackness is the sunlight at dawn, rising to illuminate the world. It is the happiness that suffuses the heart, making life worth living. What drug can be so presumptuous as to claim to be more entrancing than the art of the writer or more exhilarating than the fragrance of that ink, set on paper in elaborate swirls and smeared all over my fingers in shapeless blotches? This is the immortality we so desperately seek and the bewitchment we have been dreaming of unraveling and possessing.

Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition  

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As I was walking from the train station a few months ago to the Broadhurst Theater on West 44th to see Hamlet, I noticed the Discovery Times Square Exposition advertising its new Titanic exhibit. Well, I finally saw it today.

The haunting line on the flyer I picked up reads, "After nearly a century... Titanic finally arrives in NYC." What a chilling introduction! Think about it.... The ship that set sail for New York from England in 1912 and sunk to the bottom of the ocean has finally reached its destination -- but only the artifacts lived to see New York.

As you enter the exhibit, you are given the 'boarding pass' of a person who was actually on the Titanic with his/her name, age, class, reason for voyage, and a passenger fact. You are told to hold onto this boarding pass and at the end of the exhibit see if 'your' passenger survived.

Various artifacts were on display throughout the exhibit, and some of them were identified as belonging to certain people. Rooms on the Titanic were replicated, as were certain corridors and the grand staircase (where you could take a picture). The Titanic was apparently the most luxurious ship made, and that becomes quite obvious as you see the pictures of the dining halls and the replicas of the first class rooms and the grand staircase. Something about that makes the tragedy even more tragic -- kind of like a last supper, when you look at the culmination.

Artifacts included perfume bottles (some of which contained perfumes that still had a scent), champagne bottles with champagne still inside, mirrors and hairbrushes, pocket watches and wristwatches, toothpaste jars, floor tiles, china plates and cups, playing cards, traditional straight razors and modern Gillette safety razor blades, wax stamps, etc. There were matching pants and a vest on display which had been preserved because they were in a leather suitcase, and since leather is tanned, it repels microorganisms and prevents water damage. According to a display hanging on the wall, there are no conservation techniques to preserve the ship itself, and it is being consumed by iron-eating microbes and will implode and collapse on itself within 40 to 90 years.

We often hear stories about people who were saved in tragedies such as 9/11 because they happened not to be there at that time on that day, even though they normally would have been there. Well, the stories about some of the Titanic victims were the opposite. There were people who were supposed to be on different ships, and some were even supposed to leave up to a week later, but certain circumstances forced them to switch to the Titanic last minute. One such passenger, Edgar Samuel Andrew, wrote in a letter before the voyage that he would rather be on a different ship and sail some other day, and added, "I wish the Titanic were lying at the bottom of the ocean." Little did he know that a few days later, that is exactly where it would be, and he would perish with it.

Two days before they were scheduled to land in New York, some of the First Class passengers made a gala dinner in honor of the captain, to congratulate him for a safe crossing. Little did they know....

Near the end of the exhibit, there were lists of all the survivors and victims in first class, second class, third class, and the crew. The woman whose boarding pass I held -- Miss Ellen Hocking -- survived, along with her mother. But it seems as if the rest of her accompanying family -- which included her aunt, brother, sister, and 3-year-old and 10-month-old cousins -- did not.

Seeing all the people there checking those lists to see if 'their' passengers survived made it so much more real, as did seeing all those little artifacts that once upon a time belonged to somebody -- mirrors that were once held by the women, razors that were once used by the men, the china on which they ate as they awaited the day when they would arrive in New York, and so on.

The souvenir shop was actually selling tiny pieces of coal from the actual wreck of the Titanic. I was more tempted by that than by any of the other souvenirs. I am fascinated by history, and that was an opportunity to own a little piece of it. But I needed the money for other things, so I did not buy it. I suppose I can at least know that I once had the opportunity to own a piece of history.

This exhibit made it come alive for people who might otherwise not have understood the enormity of the tragedy. Events sometimes get lost in history and risk becoming just another piece of information and the people involved become mere statistics. I would definitely recommend that people go see this exhibit while it is still open (but please leave the kids at home, especially if you know that they will disturb the other visitors). This exhibit closes on February 28th, so if you are interested, now is the time.

I would also like to take this chance to thank my parents for agreeing to sponsor this little trip and my school for making this all possible by giving us a day off.

Mishpatim: the Written Torah as Notes on a Lesson  

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I presented a lesson on Parshat Mishpatim today to a class of tenth graders, based on Rashi, Ramban, and Rav Hirsch. I thought I might share with my readers part of what I said about Rav Hirsch's commentary.

Most of Parshat Mishpatim focuses on halakha – it contains over 50 of the 613 mitzvot, and most of them are simply listed one after the other. They do not take up a lot of space – only one sentence, or even just a few words, and sometimes it is a bit hard to understand what exactly a mitzvah entails, because what is written here is so brief and lacks detail.

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in his introduction to Mishpatim, explains that what we read here in the Written Torah – Torah she’b’ktav – does not contain all of halakha. When you read through the verses of the Torah, you are not getting all of Jewish law – that we can only get with the help of the Oral Torah – Torah she’ba’al peh. And not only is the written Torah incomplete without the oral Torah, but Rav Hirsch even states that the primary source of halakha is in the teachings of the Oral Torah. According to him, the written Torah – the actual pesukim that we read – are not the main part of Torah. We follow halakha based on our tradition – based on the Oral Torah that was passed on through the generations, which was ultimately put into writing in the Talmud. That is where we get the Law from. And the Written Torah is used to help the memory or when there are doubts about the halakha.

We see in the Torah itself that Bnei Yisrael already got the Torah and lived by it for forty years before Moshe gave them the actual book of the Torah right before his death. So they already knew the Torah – they knew everything that was told to them at the time of Mt. Sinai, which is why all the details did not have to be actually written in the Torah.

That is why, the written Torah was not meant to be used as a primary source for halakha. It was meant to be used by those who already knew halakha well, to help renew their memories. And also, it was meant to be used as a reference by those who taught halakha to a new generation, in order to confirm the teachings of the Oral Torah, so that students would find it easier to remember in their heads the halakha because they not only heard it from their Rabbanim, but they also had it written down right in front of them.

Rav Hirsh actually gives a brilliant parable to the relationship between the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. And this is something that all students can relate to. When you are a student and you sit in school for about eight hours on average every day, you have many different classes a day and different subjects. So the teacher is standing there in front of the classroom, speaking to you, giving over information and knowledge, and what do you do if you want to remember what she says so you can later get it right on the test or – better yet – use it for life? You take notes! Now, most people do not write down every single word the teacher says. (Some people don’t even write a single word the teacher says, relying instead on their friends’ notes, but that’s a separate issue.) So you listen to what the teacher is saying, and you write the general ideas. Might there be things that you are missing, especially if the teacher is going fast? Yes; definitely!

If the teacher is telling you a story in connection with the lesson, you probably won’t write the entire story down, but you might write a few key words or jot down "story about ___", and when you later look over your notes and see those few words or one sentence, you will remember the entire story. But what about a girl who is not in class that day and later copies your notes? Will she be able to know the entire story based on the few words you wrote down as a reminder to yourself? No; she won’t. It will be up to you to explain it to her.

And that, according to Rav Hirsch, is the relationship between the Oral Torah and the Written Torah. The Oral Torah is the lesson, and the Written Torah – the Chumash – are the notes taken on the lesson. So the people who were at the lesson only need some notes in order to remember the whole lesson. But for those who did not hear the lesson, those notes are not of much use. Those notes will not be able to give them as thorough an understanding of the lesson as if they had been there. And if they try to understand the whole lesson and put it together in their minds based on those brief notes, they will of course make quite a few mistakes. They won’t understand parts of it, they will think other parts are useless, and so on.
And that is why we need the Oral Torah, which is a more accurate representation of the lesson than the brief notes that are written down in the pesukim.

One of the things that people sometimes ask is, “Where does it say that in the Torah?” If they don’t want to follow a certain halakha or they want to find a way around it, they say, “Show me where it says that in this Chumash. It does not say anywhere that I can’t do these things that the Rabbis are telling me not to do! If you find me where it says I have to do that, then I’ll do it! Why should I do it if it’s not in the Torah?”

If you understand what Rav Hirsch wrote, you will understand why that is a wrong attitude. A person cannot just decide to only follow what is written straight out in the Torah, because a) the Written Torah is not the primary source of halakha, and b) the Written Torah is just like notes on a lesson; it does not contain everything. You need the oral tradition in order to know what the halakha is. Therefore, a person cannot say that because a certain halakha comes from the Oral Torah, it is any less important than something that is written straight out in the Chumash – because it is every bit as important.

It says in Shemot 24:7 (Parshat Mishpatim) the following:

ויקח ספר הברית ויקרא באזני העם ויאמרו כל אשר דבר ה' נעשה ונשמע

Moshe took the Sefer HaBrit and read it to the nation, and they said, “All that Hashem speaks, we will do and we will listen.”

When we were children, we always learned that the Jews first said that they will do and then said they will listen because they wanted to show that they were accepting the Torah unconditionally – they agreed to follow everything G-d would tell them, even before they knew what it was.

Rav Hirsch, however, explains this differently. He says that “na’ase” refers to the Written Torah, and “nishma” refers to the Oral Torah. So the Jews were agreeing to not only do what is written in the Torah, but also to follow all that G-d has told them. They accepted upon themselves to follow the oral tradition as well, so that they could serve Hashem completely – because without the Oral Torah, our avodat Hashem would be incomplete. We need it. Both parts of the Torah are important, and we need to learn from each of them.

Winter Wonderland  

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What can be better than waking up at 11:30 AM after a wonderful full nine hours of sleep, knowing that you do not have to get up right away, and looking out the window to see a beautiful world covered in snow, white and peaceful?

Now this is what I call winter.

It looks as if it would be such fun to run around and jump in that snow and have a snowball fight, but with whom? Anyone here in Flatbush up for that?

Meanwhile, I am diligently working on all my homework and assignments. Yes, I am using my day off from school to work on all those things.... I am preparing a parsha lesson for this Friday on Parshat Mishpatim (parts of which I would like to share on my blog once I am done), doing Pirkei Avot homework, reading and taking notes on three chapters of a book on Jewish history (in Hebrew), completing a homework sheet on the 1920s in America, finding topics for my speech for class, and so on. If at any time somebody wants to introduce some more fun into that schedule, you are more than welcome to do so.

The Big 1-0-0  

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When I began this blog in April of 2009, I was not sure how far it would go. But now, after less than a year, here I am with my 100th post!

A huge thank you to my readers and to those who comment. Feedback is always appreciated, and I love when my posts provoke a discussion. I have no problem just writing everything with pen and paper, but when I know that I have an audience here, it encourages me to share more of my thoughts and ideas in hopes that it will be helpful, informative, interesting, or entertaining to someone. So thank you for being my audience.

I suppose that the next goal is to reach 200!