Posts Tagged ‘Ruth Starkman’

שנה טובה ומתוקה! And finding live fish in Palo Alto.

Thursday, September 21st, 2017

Some time ago I posted about Stanford’s Ruth Starkman, and how a t-shirt totally changed my mind about being a public intellectual. Now she’s changing my mind about time. We’re not in 2017. As of today, we’re in 5778. Shanah tova!

She knows how to be a public intellectual, too.

Her post on Facebook: “Preparing for the New Year’s ritual of taschlich – where one throws bread to the fish, whose unblinking eyes represent the all-knowing universe, I thought of all the things for which I needed to ask forgiveness – a long list! I also looked at the 613 mitzvot to mediate on the good and sweet things I could do this coming year. I always loved the command to feed one’s animals, elders, and children before one eats. This year I’m working on finding modern ways not to muzzle an ox while it’s working. I especially like the command to praise the ox and anyone who works with you for a job well done. Working on this for 2017-8 and 5778. A good and sweet new and academic year to all שנה טובה ומתוקה.”

Many of the ancient customs for the Jewish holidays seem to be drawn from the harsher passages of Leviticus. “So I looked for things that could be humane and meaningful as Autumn quarter starts and I know that these are the ones that have to do with animals.”

Praise them. Praise them.

For example, “not to muzzle an ox while plowing.” Not an issue for most of us. However, Ruth says, “I’ve been combing through these every darn year since my bat mitzvah looking for ways to capture the spirit of the good deed.”

Well I have no problem feeding the cat I live with before I feed myself. He demands no less. And he demands very loudly. And I’m a vegetarian. Surely the first step in kindness is not eating them. But what to do about the fish?

The fish … no bread in the house except a stale piece of pita. Could I find a fish? Where would I go? Ruth offered a helpful comment on Facebook: “Gosh, I wish there were fish somewhere near Palo Alto I can only think of the Bay or the canal where we were, and someone had dumped goldfish. Nope they were not interested in our bread crumbs.” Even the fish turn up their wet little noses.

Food fussers.

I biked to Stanford, but although the fountains seemed to have chlorine, there were no fish to be found anywhere, not even fashionable oversize koi in ponds next to the expensive new buildings. The only fish I found were over ice at Whole Foods on Emerson, where I stopped to pick up a ripe avocado on the way home, as the sun was dropping towards the horizon.

Is there no hope for me? Ruth extended some hope: “Taschlich usually is this afternoon, but I’ve known many who try to get this in between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – it’s a time to acknowledge your weakness and ask for forgiveness, as well as a time to throw away grudges, which mangle the soul and shrink the heart.” For example, she said, “working on not grudging nor envying other’s great work,” she said, mulling over the photo at the top of this post, “but that’s hard when you have to post someone else’s round challah of sweet and plenty – the pic above is not mine – because my own challah turned out like a Rubik’s cube!”

It’s the small things that count. And Wikipedia agrees with her about the timing:

The ritual is performed at a large, natural body of flowing water (e.g., river, lake, sea, or ocean) on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, although it may be performed until Hoshana Rabbah. The penitent recites a Biblical passage and, optionally, additional prayers. Optionally, if the ritual is performed not on the Sabbath, small pieces of bread are thrown into the water.

How much time does that give me? About six or seven more days. But “large, natural body of flowing water”? With fish in it, too? Where does one find that in Palo Alto?

“How to be a public intellectual”? How a t-shirt totally changed my mind. Really.

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

It makes a kind of intuitive sense.

When I heard that Stanford was offering a course called “How to Be a Public Intellectual,” I was skeptical, to put it mildly. What presumption!  It reminded me of  all those leadership courses, which conceal the eternal quest for followers. Besides, how do you even begin to train people to be Susan Sontag or Michel Serres?

The t-shirt at right totally changed my mind.  Although I usually don’t go for the wittily self-ironic, this time I fell hard. I saw it and I had to have one. That brought me to the figurative doorstep of Prof. Dan Edelstein and lecturer Ruth Starkman, the powerhouses behind the course.

Dan explained to me the title of the course is meant to be “aspirational” only: “At heart, the goal of the class is to explore ways in which a liberal education can be used not only to pursue scholarly goals, but also to contribute in a knowledgeable fashion to public debates. We read a series of programmatic texts, starting with Montaigne, about what a liberal education should consist of; we also considered institutional factors – how can the University be designed to best deliver said education?” The course includes “reading some examples of public interventions by very well educated writers.”

Like?  Jean-Jacques Rousseau‘s Emile, W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, Julien Benda‘s Treason of the Intellectuals,  Allan Bloom‘s Closing of the American Mind, Clark Kerr‘s The Uses of the University, with Emerson and Adam Gopnik somewhere in the mix, too.

Here’s what the syllabus says: “Can education impart more than bookish learning? This is the question that critics have posed since the Renaissance. Through their reflections, these critics posited an alternative ideal of education that prepared the student for life outside the academy. Over the centuries, this ideal would evolve into what we would today call an ‘intellectual’ – but this modern concept only captures a part of what earlier writers thought learning could achieve. In this course, we will focus on how education can prepare students to engage in public debates, and the role that the university can play in public learning.”

Class over. Ruth seems pleased with the students: “They were a very interesting group, many first-generation Americans, all of whom want to pursue public policy and write for a larger public on a variety of issues like middle east politics, healthcare, the environment, education, minority outreach,” she said.

You are my inspiration.

You are my inspiration.

Oh, and the inspiration for the t-shirt image?  Dan told me it is the family dog, Teddy; the tiara belonged to his young daughter. “I didn’t had any role in designing the t-shirts, so I’m not sure how a tiara-ed keeshond came to stand for public intellectuals,” he confessed. I dunno. I think it makes an intuitive sort of sense. In any case, he brought Teddy to class a few times, so she’s part of the program. Kind of.

Ruth explained that the course was part of a program called “Education as Self-Fashioning” (I have issues with that title, too…), but what better way to “self-fashion” than, well, fashion. Naturally the students wanted a t-shirt, “so I made them one, but no one could agree which quote from Dan to include or if we should have one from the reading, so they left it a blank white slate. I gave a shirt to my student Rob Fischer, who’s at the New Yorker. We talked a lot about journalists as public intellectuals, which is why it’s an honor to give a literary journalist like you one, too.” I got the very last t-shirt. Size medium.

If Teddy makes the cut, who knows? I already have the t-shirt. Maybe someday I’ll be a public intellectual, too. Sontag, move over.