How's it going?  

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People ask me what I'm doing and how I'm doing in Stern, and my first reply is always in the form of a huge smile -- because I'm doing great. Since classes started again after Sukkot, there has been so much going on that I barely have time to breathe. In addition to the six classes I am taking this semester, I signed up for a whole load of clubs and events and activities, filling up almost every free minute of every day. It only caught up to me now during midterms, when I have a few subjects to study for and a couple of papers to write (one of which will be six pages long) and 100-page readings on topics such as "Time, Work Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism" and "The World the Slaves Made." Those long readings will eventually translate into long papers to write. But despite the length of my to-do list, I am having the time of my life right now.

Juniors and seniors always seem surprised when, in reply to their questions, I say that my freshman year is going great so far and I'm loving it. They also seem surprised that I actually know what I'm going for -- English major, art history minor. I, on the other hand, am always surprised to hear that many students don't yet know what they would like to major in. I would have thought that the direction you want to take career-wise would influence which college you choose, since different colleges have different strengths and weaknesses, but oh well. I suppose they will eventually know what they're doing. (But there are always those people who never really know and end up going back and forth between different fields.)

Apart from academics, I have been having a lot of fun in Stern getting involved in all these amazing clubs and going to various events. I just became a board member of the Creative Writing and Poetry Club, which had its first event of the year earlier this month -- a discussion on Shakespeare and Milton as dissidents. Future events might include readings, workshops, and poetry slams, so it's going to be absolutely awesome! I am also involved in the Stern College Dramatics Society's production of Pirates of Penzance, which is going to be a blast. The result is that I often come home late, since I commute. The benefit of commuting is that I have 40 uninterrupted minutes each way in which to do homework, reading assignments, and studying for exams.

Aside from that, I am going to start writing for Stern's official student paper, The Observer. Actually, there is a deadline coming up right after midterms so I might want to start writing. And speaking of The Observer, I was mentioned on the front page of the October issue since I was one of the Dean's Scholars who received a free laptop at orientation.

Just in case everything else I'm doing now is not enough, I am also in the process of becoming a docent at the Yeshiva University Museum on West 16th, so I hope to see some of you. I went to the YU Museum this past summer to see the Braginsky collection, which was on display for a limited time and is unfortunately no longer there. It was kind of surreal and so incredibly meaningful. One of the manuscripts on display was a handwritten one by the Vilna Gaon, and I could not tear myself away from it. The exhibits at the YU Museum change all the time, so there is always something new to see. As a docent, every time there is a new exhibit I will have to attend a training and get to learn all about it, so that should be fun!

Yesterday, the art club had a scavenger hunt at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although I had been there many times over the past few years, this was a completely different experience because instead of focusing on one gallery at a time and examining each piece of art separately or lingering by the ones I found the most interesting, we were hurrying through all the galleries and covering most of the museum. We were going back and forth between the modern art, European art, Egyptian, and Greek and Roman and trying to find the answers to all the scavenger hunt clues in our booklets. That definitely gave me a new perspective on the Met, so it was fun.

Oh, and YU has a Russian club! I was actually pretty surprised at how many Russian students there are in Stern. I absolutely love those "whoa-are-you-Russian-too?" moments that I've been experiencing a lot lately. Even one of the ladies working in the caf is Russian! She actually complimented me on my Russian.

By the way, Stern is having an open house on November 14th, so anyone applying to college for next year should definitely come! I want to write up a post about Stern and my experiences here so far for prospective students, so look out for that. :] And meanwhile, if you have any questions you can feel free to comment below or to send me an email at myinkstainedhands [AT] gmail [DOT] com.

Paganini XXI Century: Music Under New York  

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On a cold day back in January, my friends and I were returning from a fun shopping trip in Manhattan and finding our path through the subway to our train line when we heard music nearby and saw a crowd of people standing, observing something. We came closer and saw a man performing, which is a pretty regular sight for people who are used to the NYC train stations. If you take the train regularly here, you will see a wide variety of performers of all ages, races, and nationalities, playing different genres of music. I usually only stop for a minute or two before going to catch my train, but since we were not yet ready to leave the city and go back to our regular lives, we stayed for a few minutes and watched, all agreeing that he was a great performer. He was dancing and playing on an electric violin, the sound vibrating all throughout the station, and a lot of people stopped to watch. We eventually left and took our train back to Brooklyn, and that was that. More than half a year passed, and I had pretty much forgotten all about it.

Last week, as I was swiping my MetroCard at the 34th Street Herald Square station on my way home after college, I heard the sounds of loud electric music right next to the turnstiles. I looked over and realized that it was the same performer that we had seen in January, so I stopped to watch and to listen. He had a sign with his name and website as well as a poster behind him with the name of his project, and when I came home I decided to take a look at his website.

His name is Michael Shulman, and he is originally from Russia but came to New York to pursue his musical dreams. What's interesting (and he mentions it in the biography on his website) is that the Soviet Union banned rock and metal during the Communist era, and that is precisely the type of music Michael Shulman was inspired by. His project is called Paganini XXI Century, symbolizing the combination of classical elements and modern influences. Check out his biography and music on his website. If you want to see him play, he has a schedule on his website of when he is in different subway stations in NY. It seems he mostly plays at Union Square and Herald Square though.

I realized yesterday that he was playing at 34th yet again (near Stern College), so I stopped by the train station just in time to hear him play the last three songs of the day. I was especially delighted to hear him playing Michael Jackson's songs, including Smooth Criminal, which he did an awesome job on. Here's a video I found on YouTube of him playing Michael Jackson's 'Thriller'.

Apparently, musicians who want to play in a subway system have to go through an audition process with MUNY -- Music Under New York, an MTA program. I learn something new every day...

In other interesting NYC subway news, I have a story for you. I was heading back home from college quite late yesterday (after 9 PM), and there was the usual search for an empty seat. As I was hurrying to a vacant spot, I saw another woman aiming for the same seat, so I stopped and backed away. She had done the same thing, and the two of us stood there asking each other to please sit (no, no, it's ok; no, go ahead; no, it's fine; are you sure?) until she finally sat down. She noticed that I was holding a French language book from college, and she remarked on it, asking me how much I know already. We somehow ended up talking for most of the ride, until she got off at her stop. In those 25 minutes, she told me part of her life's story -- places she's traveled, what she is doing here in New York now, her personal life and her struggles. She also pulled an envelope of photos from her bag and showed them to me proudly; they were of her time in England, her trip to Washington, etc. She is originally from Morocco and is now learning English, so I suppose she took this as an opportunity to practice the language. Either way, it was such an unexpected thing to experience in New York, where you pass by hundreds of people everyday without caring who they are or what they are doing. We wished each other good luck and all the best as she was getting off the train, and that was that. Just another moment in the life of a New Yorker.

Have I ever mentioned that I love New York?

Thoughts on Simchat Torah  

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In general, I am pretty thankful to G-d for having been born a girl. But there is one day a year that for some reason I always become intensely jealous of my male counterparts and wish I could switch places with them just for once. And that day is Simchat Torah.

In this day and age, women have many opportunities that were not available to them before. Perhaps these opportunities are not as complete or varied as the ones men receive, but it is nevertheless an improvement on the situation we had a century or two ago. One example that comes to mind (and it is an important one) is education, and if we are talking about it from a Jewish religious perspective, I can go even further by mentioning study of the Talmud. For a long time, Talmud study belonged solely to men. Boys would grow up immersed in it, while the most girls might get is hearing parts of it from their fathers and brothers at home. Even now, most Orthodox girls are not exposed to Gemara in a school setting, unless they attend a more 'modern' school. But at least those girls who truly want to learn it have the opportunity. They can choose to attend schools where such classes are being offered -- and it is not difficult to find such a school. Now that I'm Stern, I'm taking an Intro to Talmud class. There are plenty of further classes in Gemara, and Stern also has chavruta programs and night seder, so that any girl who is interested in it can learn. Of course, it is nearly impossible to catch up on all the material they could have covered if they had been learning it from childhood like boys do, but I suppose you can't have everything.

Another thing I experienced in Stern for the first time was an all-girls Kabbalat Shabbat, the welcoming of the Shabbat on Friday evening. It was so perfectly beautiful and spiritual -- the singing, the dancing. I had never seen anything like it before. There were no men so we were able to sing the Kabbalat Shabbat and be involved in ushering in the holy day.

Even the night of learning that is customary for men on Shavuot is now an option for girls too. Last Shavuot, I went with my friend to a lecture program organized by Ohr Naava for girls on Shavuot night. It was the most exhilirating feeling, being able to learn and be involved instead of just going to sleep like on any ordinary night. We returned home in the very early hours of the morning, satisfied and happy. There should be more programs and opportunities like that for girls, and I am looking forward to next Shavuot to see what it brings. Lectures, groups, perhaps private chavruta learning.

And that brings me to something I have not yet seen -- a Simchat Torah celebration where girls can do more than just look at the men dancing with the Torah scrolls. I don't mean an event where men and women mix and celebrate together, for I'm sure I can find that in non-Orthodox circles. I'm talking about an Orthodox environment that is in the spirit of the Torah and the holiness of the holiday, but where women can be active participants in the joy instead of merely sitting and passively watching the proceedings. Look at weddings -- there is celebration on both sides of the mechitza. Why can we not have a similar arrangement for holidays such as Simchat Torah? Are there places that do this perhaps and I am just not aware of it?

I always watch the dancing in shul on Simchat Torah and every year it makes me wish that just for one day I could be one of the guys and be on the other side of the barrier, dancing. That is why it always frustrates me when I see men who are somewhat lackluster in their 'simcha,' who -- instead of dancing with joy and looking like they mean it -- shuffle along as though they are fulfilling an obligation and just following the tide. I suppose that it is easy to take something like dancing on Simchat Torah for granted when you do the same thing year after year, but from my side of the shul, it's upsetting. It makes me happy though when I see men being enthusiastic about it and singing loudly and putting all their energy into the dancing as they dance before the Torah or hold it tightly themselves.

So I am thankful for Gemara, I am thankful for Kabbalat Shabbat, I am thankful for Shavuot. L'shana haba Simchat Torah?