Thursday, September 27, 2012

Baby food and the terrormoms

A terrormom email list I’m on has just spewed up the usual assortment of strident opinions about baby food. “Making your own is better, easier, cheaper, more nutritious, more varied.” “Only lazy people use premade.” We currently use a mix of premade and homemade, and we’re perfectly comfortable with that. Here’s some responses I didn’t send to the list:

Rational point: When you make your own food, plastic containers can leach small amounts of various chemicals into the food. Consider using glass containers if you want a more inert container.

As the terrormoms would put it: When you make your own food and put it in a plastic container for storage, you might as well be injecting your child with cancer. Use a glass container, or your child will probably die.

Rational point: Freezing food can reduce some nutritional value of the food. Include a mix of fresh foods along with the frozen foods.

As the terrormoms would put it: When you make your own food and freeze it for later use, it’s no better than your child eating styrofoam. I love my child, so I would never freeze her food.

Rational point: If you trust the baby food manufacturer, they may have better quality control over their sources than what you pick out at the supermarket. For example, you probably don’t test the rice you buy for arsenic levels.

As the terrormoms would put it: Foods from the supermarket are full of arsenic! I only grow my own ingredients, in dirt that has never been near a road or a house, using only filtered water. I make my child’s yogurt myself at home, using milk from my own organic cows and hand-selected bacterial cultures from my own skin. Our aquaculture setup actively filters out all contaminants, and we feed the fish nothing but proteins we have synthesized in our own home lab. After final inspection in a level-4 biohazard lab, the food is carefully pipetted into our child’s mouth in a slightly pressurized environment to ensure that no food spills onto external surfaces before being consumed. Because unlike you, I care about my child.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


Leader: Rabotai n’varech.

Everyone, let us bless.

All assembled: Y’hi shem Adonai m’vorach mei’atah v’ad olam.

May the name of Adonai be blessed now and forever.

In the 1787 haggadah, the start of the grace after meals, or birkat hamazon, is much shorter than today’s standard beginning. The preliminary Psalm 126 is not there, nor is this opening exchange between the leader and the no-longer-hungry assemblage.

(Aside: no better time than the afternoon during the Yom Kippur fast to take a look at the grace after meals, right?)

In the Rishon Transliterated Haggadah, the first word rabotai is translated here as gentlemen, though elsewhere that haggadah translates rabotai as rabbis. Gentlemen is the modern usage of rabotai, as in givrotai v’rabotai, ladies and gentlemen. Given the extent of this barech section, to be followed immediately by the lengthy hallel section, it would not be wrong to think of this call back to liturgy following the Passover feast as “Gentlemen, (re)start your engines.”

I like the echo of rabotai to rabbis in the sense of teachers, because we are all following the seder’s mandate to teach our children about Passover, so we are all teachers at that table. But unless we want to make that explicit, we are left with the question of how to translate rabotai. Rabotai is a term of respect, as is gentlemen, but those are gendered. Friends is more casual, and is certainly appropriate if you change rabotai to chaverai. Y’all is a touch regional. The intent is to say hey, everybody, to get people to focus. Rabotai, everyone.

N’varech, let us bless.

The response is Psalm 113:2. It starts y’hi shem Adonai m’vorach, may the name of Adonai be blessed. There’s been a comprehensive shift during my lifetime from translating Adonai as Lord to simply using the word/term/name Adonai in place in translations. It’s one of the changes I welcomed quickly and easily.

While the passive voice is often best avoided, one important reason to use the passive here is because we are hoping for eternal praise for God, not that we personally always be here to do the praising. As “may we bless the name of Adonai now and forever,” it could come across as wishing for too much for ourselves, as well as distracting from the focus on God. We could say “blessed be the name of Adonai” instead, or a more interesting “May the name of Adonai be in blessings.” It can be easy to say we are thankful in a general way without paying attention to the source of what we are thankful for. This phrase says that thankfulness should be explicitly directed to God. And I’m interested in the idea of saying we want the name of Adonai to be in (our) blessings because it implies that we are still seeking to know the name of God.

Psalm 113:2 continues mei’atah v’ad olam, now and forever. We start our barech by setting a very large context. We do this because it should always be done, everywhere and always. That phrase “everywhere and always” captures the dual time and place meanings of olam. In the prayerbooks when I was growing up, olam in prayers was simply translated as world. It became more common to translate it as universe, and the new conservative machzor we used last night translates olam as time and space: melech haolam, ruler of time and space. A little astrophysics to ground us or to lift our spirits. But we don’t just want Adonai’s name to be in blessings everywhere and always; we want to bless Adonai ourselves, right now! Now and forever.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Dangerous crib from Baby Cache and Munire

We discovered yesterday that there’s a dangerous aspect of the crib design in the Baby Cache Uptown crib. This defective crib is made by Munire and sold by Babies R Us. I don’t expect them to be selling unsafe cribs.

The front and back corner posts of the crib flare outwards toward the top. The slats are mostly straight, which means most of the openings are consistent. On the sides of the crib, the front slat is contoured to match the outward flare of the corner post. This is the slat with the green arrow pointing at it below.

The hazard is in the back slat on the sides. That back slat is perfectly straight, but the back corner post flares outwards. This creates a wedge-shaped opening instead of a consistent opening. This dangerous opening is highlighted by a red arrow in the photo below.

Yesterday afternoon, David was lying on his back in the crib, put his foot through the wedge-shaped opening near the top where the opening is wider, kicked his leg downwards, and got caught by the narrowing opening. He couldn't push or pull his leg free, he was hurt by having his leg jammed between these two pieces of wood, blood flow was being cut off, and fortunately he started screaming. I came and lifted his leg free, and made sure his leg just looked badly bruised and not broken.

David spent the next hour in complete terror of his crib. We worked so hard to pick out this crib. We read a ton of reviews, checked out the manufacturer’s reputation, checked the certifications, and spent a lot of money on a crib that we thought would keep our son safe. And now we’ve discovered that Babies R Us sold us a crib with a serious design flaw.

A standard bumper won’t prevent this, even if we were willing to use a bumper against the recommendations of our pediatrician.

Babies risk getting their legs and arms caught in crib openings when they put their hands or feet through and twist at various angles, but the openings are not usually tapered in a way that will vastly increase the risk of serious injury. This particular design flaw looks like it makes an injury more likely and makes it much harder for the baby to get his arm or leg free on his own.

For the moment, we’ve tied on some fabric vertically to completely block the problematic openings. I’m considering blocking the opening with wood, if I can be certain that I won’t create any worse risks in attempting to solve this one.

I am angry at Babies R Us, angry at Munire who makes the Baby Cache line of furniture for Babies R Us, and angry at the CPSC and JPMA for not having design guidelines that prevent this obvious danger in crib design. It wasn’t obvious to me until I saw it happen, but I’m not a safety expert. I depend on experts to do their jobs right, and they failed here.

I’m trying to focus on reporting the problem and finding a solution we can implement. I don’t want to think of this as a Crib of Death or a Danger Crib.

Update 1: Our experience matches the report of this Baby Cache Uptown Lifetime Crib - Natural being unsafe at

Update 2 after a number of phone calls

Munire’s first response was that the federal government requires them to have this tapered opening in their side panel, which is obvious nonsense. The other component of their first response was that they have no interest in making their cribs safer than the minimum required by federal standards. That’s a repulsive attitude for a crib manufacturer. Angela at Munire (Baby Cache) kept interrupting me and then hung up on me.

The CPSC took an incident report, but they don’t have a good system for cross-referencing reports in their database. That makes it hard for them to compile accurate numbers about how many problems are reported for a particular crib. I was able to find several other reports about this exact crib, two of which precisely describe this problem with tapered openings.

The JPMA was helpful and friendly, and someone there is looking into whether this crib meets the crib standards. They are an industry association, but the people I talked to there seem to care about safety and talked to me about my concerns. They’re talking to folks on the ASTM subcommittee that sets the crib standards, so they’re my best hope for having a positive impact beyond my immediate problem.

When the crib standards were last updated, limb entrapments were an all-too-common problem with cribs (12% of reported injuries from cribs), leading to bruises and fractures. And nobody could figure out what to change in the standards to reduce limb entrapments, so they made no changes. I have an idea: don’t allow tapered openings. That won’t solve many limb entrapments, but it should reduce the total number.

Munire’s second response (from someone higher up than Angela) was that this crib has been discontinued, all of their cribs are JPMA certified and therefore safe, and that there’s absolutely nothing they could possibly do to improve safety as long as they meet federal standards. That attitude makes my skin crawl. They also want to replace the crib with a different model (Kensington) which they say is much better made.

Munire’s advertising for the Uptown crib says that it’s made from solid maple. On the phone, they say that the Uptown crib uses veneers. Munire’s advertising for the Kensington crib says that it’s made from a mix of solid wood and veneers. On the phone, they say that the Kensington crib uses just solid wood. Munire appears to be working hard to make sure customers can’t trust them. If I can’t fix the crib we have, I’d rather buy a crib from a different manufacturer.

Let’s move to Michigan

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Don’t panic

My rabbi talked in his sermon on Erev Rosh Hashanah about our unfortunate tendency to set aside what is important for what is urgent. We do not allocate our time well. (My mission to understand my worker’s comp policy is like that, an urgent but unimportant problem into which I’ve now sunk far too many hours.)

This sparked a couple of follow-on thoughts. In a crisis, the important and the urgent are identical. It’s also generally clear what the important and urgent needs are. Fire? Call the fire department and get everyone outside. Responding to a crisis can be easy and satisfying, in part because we don’t have to make a choice between the important and the urgent.

But in much of our lives, the urgent is not actually important. Yet when the urgent is presented as a crisis, or when we respond to the urgent as if it is a crisis, we are pretending that the urgent is also important. And we make the wrong choices.

If we are constantly presented with one crisis after another, we should adopt the best practices of professional crisis responders. Doctors don’t run in the halls. EMTs don’t run with patients on a stretcher. Police officers don’t dash through the doors of the bank being robbed. Tech support checks for the obvious problems first. They know that the best approach is to remain calm and steady, assess the situation, and respond in a measured and rational way. The problem is that we don’t all have their training, so we naturally respond to a crisis in panic mode. We drop everything to reply to a client, to reboot the server, to look at the page proofs, to order more widgets.

My most successful days include planning what I’m going to do with my time. Sometimes (ok, often) I set aside larger important work because I am not prepared to face it, or because I prefer the easy sense of accomplishment from completing smaller tasks. I can make more progress on larger tasks by breaking them down into smaller tasks, but that doesn’t always fool me into believing that completing step 17 out of 50 is really an accomplishment. If I’m not going to tackle the important work, I might as well tackle the urgent. The importance of the planning is that it allows me to remember that the urgent work is not the important work, and prevent the urgent work from seeming like a crisis.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Worker’s comp makes my head hurt

I had a nice simple worker’s comp policy, just covering me and one clerical employee. The premium was on the order of $200/year, almost none of which was actual risk. But it wasn’t worth worrying about at that rate. Then I hired a nanny for the summer and added her to the policy. And suddenly my agent couldn’t figure out anything, my underwriter turned out to be a very unpleasant person to talk to, and the audit division of the insurance company claimed they could fix most things at the end of the year but not little headaches like expense constants.

You don’t want to read the rest of this note unless you like thinking about worker’s comp. I resent having to think about it at all, particularly on Rosh Hashanah, but I needed to figure this out before we formally hired a part-time nanny for the fall today. So here’s what I’ve learned recently.

If you hire a domestic worker for less than 16 hours per week, you do not need to buy worker’s comp for that person. Source: Is this true even if you have a worker’s comp policy covering other workers? What if there is a week at 20 hours, but most weeks are less than 16 hours and the average is less than 16 hours? Is it based on the highest week or the average week? If average, over what span of time? Can I hire one individual as a domestic worker for 15 hours per week and a clerical worker for 15 hours per week, and only cover them for their 15 hours as a clerical worker? (Assuming that the time split is documented well.)

This 16-hour limit is based on:
“The provisions of this chapter shall remain elective as to employers of seasonal or casual or part-time domestic servants. For the purpose of this paragraph, a part-time domestic servant is one who works in the employ of the employer less than sixteen hours per week.”

That suggests that a summer nanny, for example, would not need to be covered by worker’s comp even if they were full-time for that summer. But I haven’t yet found the definition of seasonal, let alone checked out case law on it. (And really, how much time am I going to put into this?)

The WCRIB of Massachusetts has out-of-date worker’s comp rates on their website in many places. For current rates, these are the best links I’ve found so far:

The expense constant is $159 for an earned standard premium of less than $200, $250 for an earned standard premium of $200 to less than $1000, and $338 for an earned standard premium of $1000 or more. Does the earned standard premium mean the calculated premium before any class code minimum premiums are applied? For example, class 0913 has a per capita premium of $188 for the year, but a minimum premium of $252. If that’s your only employee, is the expense constant $159 or $250? According to Basic Manual Rule VI-F-4 “The Admiralty or Federal Employers’ Liability Act Special Minimum Premium and the Classification Minimum Premium are not included in Subject Premium or Standard Premium.” So if the classification minimum premium is not included in the standard premium, then the expense constant based on the standard premium should be $159 in this example.

The expense constant for a domestic worker in a private residence is supposed to be $64 per worker, different from the threshhold-based expense constant in the paragraph above. Is the expense constant prorated for short-term employment? For my situation, it should not matter since I have a standard expense constant of either $159 or $250, and Basic Manual Rule XIV-G says “If a policy is written with both per capita and remuneration based exposure, only the larger of the per capita and standard expense constants is charged.” The standard expense constant is clearly higher than the per capita expense constant, so only the standard expense constant should apply. Updated: I had thought that this rule meant I should compare the per capita expense constant with the non-per-capita expense constant, but WCRIB says that the standard expense constant is calculated based on all premiums including per capita. At $64 per full-time domestic worker, I think the only way that the per capita expense constant would be higher if you also have payroll-based premiums is if you have four or more full-time domestic workers.

Is the expense constant added to your premium before or after the class code minimum premiums are calculated? My past experience says that it’s before, and Basic Manual Rule VI-E-4 says before as well.

A per capita rate is supposed to be prorated by the amount of time of actual employment. My insurance company audit department says that prorating means either half-year or full-year, rounded up. Is that right? Is the class code minimum premium also prorated? Basic Manual Rule XIV-E-3 says “Each pro rata charge shall be based on the period of employment but shall not be less than 25% of the per capita charge.” That’s not a very helpful answer, though it strongly suggests that the prorating should at least be done by 25% chunks rather than 50% chunks.

As a sole proprietor, I can elect to be covered by my worker’s comp policy. My income is presumed to be $41,300 for purposes of this coverage, so my calculated premium as an 8810 clerical worker would be $37.17 for the year. Hey, look, an easy one! There’s a few extra dollars for the terrorism surcharge (yes, there’s a terrorism surcharge), so it winds up costing about $40 as long as it doesn’t tip me over to the next higher expense constant.

Update after the annual audit, February 2013:

The state says that for a domestic worker who works 27% of the year (counting by days), the premium should be prorated to 27%. Travelers Insurance says that the prorating is 50% (initial estimate). Or 95% (first audit correction). Or 90% (second audit correction). Actually, they aren’t sure. They’re willing to go along with 27% since the state has given specific direction about my particular policy, but their computer is not willing. So it’s a manual override to 27%, with a note saying that they have no idea why their computer is giving different answers. And their annual audit procedure had no way to even document the start and end dates for the domestic worker.

And Travelers Insurance appears to believe that if the expense constant was ever calculated to be $250, even if that calculation was wrong, it should not be corrected to $159. So on a policy that should calculate out to $300, they charged $500, grudgingly corrected it to $495, and were dragged kicking and screaming to $390. To be fair, they did warn me last summer that they would have trouble with the expense constant at the time of the audit. But since it worked in their favor, they didn’t see the problem with waiting.

Bizarrely, Travelers Insurance is perfectly willing to apologize for any inconvenience, or for the processing delay, or for the hold time, but not for repeated overbilling. And despite having been through this in painful detail with them, I have no idea what they would try to charge me next year for the identical coverage.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Memento mori

I most recently wrote about 9/11 over a year ago. What I could not say in that post was that 6 hours before we saw the quilt, we found out we had been matched to adopt a baby, the baby who is now yelling downstairs. Life goes on, even as we remember the past.

I have friends who chose to marry on 9/11 a few years after the event to create new memories and associations for the date. Thank you to them for doing that, and for reminding me of it last night.

My state rep now was a sophomore in high school in 2001. My nation’s president now was a state senator in 2001. And 47 million people in our country today were not yet born in 2001. You and I remember, but they cannot. 9/11 is our national yahrzeit, but cannot remain so forever.

I want to remember the dead, and appreciate being alive. We owe them that.

Thoughts on translating the haggadah

I remember when I first started noticing that the English in the prayerbook did not match the Hebrew. I had thought I could find the words I knew in Hebrew, match them up with the English words, and start to learn the other Hebrew words. But the translations didn’t work that way, as translations often don’t. Some parts were close translations, but other parts wandered off apparently using the Hebrew simply as inspiration.

A close translation is important in many contexts: when studying the original language, when translating for a patient or doctor in a medical context, when translating in a courtroom or in a legal setting. But people differ as to how much poetic license they might want a translator to take in other contexts. A word for word translation is unlikely to capture rhythms and internal rhymes, cannot replicate wordplay and word associations, and will inevitably remove, change, and add nuances and emphases. All of these things affect the reader’s understanding of the text, but then no two readers understand a text identically anyway.

For the Passover haggadah, I’m looking for a translation of each passage that captures the primary intent of the passage, and I don’t believe the primary intent of any passage in the haggadah is to confuse or alienate the reader. The haggadah is explicitly intended for a broad audience, including children. The haggadah is the only Jewish text some people ever encounter, the only Jewish text some people ever read aloud, and the only Jewish text many people are ever asked to explain or discuss.

There cannot be a single ideal translation. But we can choose among translations which make sense to us now and which still honor the primary intent of the original language. Whatever we decide that intent is.

The good news is that no haggadah has to stand alone. No haggadah has to pretend to ask or answer all questions. Vardibidian can have his annotated haggadah with good commentary, and Shmuel can have his haggadah that tries as carefully as possible to replicate the nuances of the original Hebrew, and Lisa can have her haggadah with good transliterations, and the world’s shelves are large enough for all of these and thousands more. For those of us who care, we can find several best haggadot, each with different strengths and weaknesses, and the best ones for us will each be different.

I want to make a haggadah which can be of good service to many different readers in the moment at the seder table, including participants who are uncommitted, uncertain, untrained, or concerned about feeling unwelcome. The seder can be a positive experience for those participants as well, and the haggadah should help make it so.

Monday, September 10, 2012

A book for a friend


• • •

Will you tell me 
the story of what 

One night a fire happened at
our house. Fires are dangerous,
so we all went outside.

• • •

Firefighters came with lots of
firetrucks and hoses,
and they put the fire out.

• • •

Fires can happen anywhere,
but remember that we are all safe.
We will make sure we are ready in case
another fire does happen somewhere.

• • •

We will make sure we know how to go
outside, because the best thing to do if
a fire happens is to go outside.

Firefighters will always come and
put the fire out. The most important
question firefighters ask is whether
everyone is out of the building.

• • •

For a while, we won’t live at
our old home. Carpenters and
plumbers and electricians are
fixing our old home.

The house will be very noisy
and dirty while that is happening,
so we will stay somewhere else!

• • •

We may live with our friends. We
may live with your cousins or
grandparents. We may live in a hotel,
or in an apartment, or in a house.

No matter where we live,
you will have a place to sleep
and we will be together as a family.

• • •

We probably
will not live in
an underwater cave
with an octopus!

That would be very wet,
and the octopus might not have
enough beds for all of us.

• • •

What will I wear?

You will wear clothes, even if they are
different clothes! Friends and other
kind people will give us shirts, and
pants, and socks, and shoes, and hats,
and all the other clothes you need.

• • •

Some of your clothes are fine,
and just need to be cleaned.
That may take some time,
because there is a lot of cleaning to do.

• • •

Some of your toys were damaged
and can’t be fixed. Many of your toys
are too dirty to play with right now.
A few of your toys will come back
after they are cleaned.

• • •

We will find new toys to play with.

Some of the new toys we find
will be just like your old toys,
and some will be new!

• • •

We will read all sorts of new books!
We will read books from the library
and books that friends give us to read.
And we will look for other copies of
your favorite books, even if it takes
a while to find them.

• • •

Some of our books are fine,
and just need to be cleaned.
That may take some time,
because there is a lot of cleaning to do!

• • •

Will I still see my friends?

Yes! You will still see your friends at the
playground, or at daycare, or at school.
You will go to visit your friends at their
homes, and your friends will come visit
us wherever we are living.

• • •

Your friends may ask you questions
about what happened. It’s ok to talk
about the fire and how you feel.

• • •

Will you still sing me a song 
or tell me a story before I go to sleep?

Yes! Wherever we are, we will sing you
a song or tell you a story before you go
to sleep. We still have our voices,
and we still have each other.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Primary today

The only contested race around here (other than Governor's Council, meh) is South Middlesex Register of Deeds. 6 candidates, three of whom are tempting to vote for.

NOT Antonelli. What a disgrace.

Maryann Heuston is supported by the current Register, who is well-liked and well-respected. But she sent out a mailer saying nothing except that every local politician in the area supports her, with not a single reason as to why. That’s insulting. On the bright side, the Registry seems to work ok, and she has the background to build on that. As long as you think an 8-year backlog in record processing in one area is ok given that everything else basically works well, vote for Maryann Heuston. She has huge support in the political arena. To me, that’s a negative.

Maria Curtatone sent out the best political mailer I’ve seen for any race. Detailed, specific, great. She wants to make things work better, and also reduce the nepotism. (She’s the sister of Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, if you’re wondering.)

Tiz Doto also looks great. More emphasis on eliminating corruption, nepotism, and favoritism. Also wants to make things work better. Seems to be campaigning less hard than Maria, but also less local to me which can affect appearances. He has the most well-rounded experience of working with the registry, as an attorney, realtor, and title guy. I got his mailer very late, after I had already decided to vote for Maria.

I hope Maria or Tiz wins. I won’t be surprised or upset when Maryann does.

UPDATE: Maria won! Tiz came in last, which is better than siphoning more votes from Maria, I suppose. I hope Tiz is not too discouraged. I think some percentage of the electorate would have been happy to vote for him if Maria had not been in the race.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The four haggadot

Our tradition speaks of four types of haggadot: one which is wise, one which is wicked, one which is simple, and one which does not even know how to ask a question.

The wise haggadah, what are its features? It has commentary and encourages discussion. It is easy to read and eager to expand our understanding. This haggadah should be embraced as a study partner and celebrated as a resource both for the wise child and for the well-learned seder.

The wicked haggadah, what are its features? It alienates the seder participants, defies understanding, and encourages rifts in the community. This haggadah should be studied but never used.

The simple haggadah, what are its features? It allows us to focus on the most important components of the seder, and introduces new participants to the joy of celebrating Passover. This haggadah should be used but never studied.

As for the haggadah which does not even know how to ask a question? This is the haggadah which phrases its commentary in absolutist terms, which encourages compliance over discussion, and which therefore cannot expand our understanding. This haggadah should be neither studied nor used.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Four non-literal children, part 2

From The Wandering Is Over Haggadah:
Note: licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution‐ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Feel free to share, adapt and change the content. Please be sure and credit and the Jewish Women’s Archive (

As we tell the story, we think about it from all angles. Our tradition speaks of four different types of children who might react differently to the Passover seder. It is our job to make our story accessible to all the members of our community, so we think about how we might best reach each type of child:

What does the wise child say? The wise child asks, What are the testimonies and laws which God commanded you?
You must teach this child the rules of observing the holiday of Passover.
What does the wicked child say? The wicked child asks, What does this service mean to you?
To you and not to himself! Because he takes himself out of the community and misses the point, set this child’s teeth on edge and say to him:
“It is because of what God did for me in taking me out of Egypt.”
Me, not him. Had that child been there, he would have been left behind.

What does the simple child say? The simple child asks, What is this? To this child, answer plainly:
“With a strong hand God took us out of Egypt, where we were slaves.”

What about the child who doesn’t know how to ask a question? Help this child ask. Start telling the story:
“It is because of what God did for me in taking me out of Egypt.”
I like a lot of aspects of this translation. The language is clean and simple. None of the children are gendered except the wicked child. The wise child’s question is nicely simplified, though I’d still change the final word of that question to “us.” There’s a good introduction which explains our obligation to reach out to everyone. The types of children are not actually enumerated at the beginning, which is a step towards realizing that the children of the haggadah are oversimplified archetypes, not categories into which we should slot our own children.

Enumerating the children at the beginning better hews to a repeating pattern in the haggadah: a complete statement is made, and then is expanded upon. Adding something along the lines of the final sentence of the first paragraph above really completes the first paragraph.

I’m less enamored of starting each child with a rhetorical question to the reader. I think it only works well for the fourth child.

Testimonies in the wise child’s question may refer to either the stone tablets given to Moses containing the ten commandments, or to the ark containing the tablets. Can you imagine a wise child asking “What are the ten commandments?” To me, testimonies is so much more commonly a Christian term that it is jarring in this context. I still want to remove the word, and I’m a bit surprised that it was retained in this translation. Lisa points out that this may be the only place in the haggadah which mentions the stone tablets. So much of the movie Exodus Book of Exodus is left out of the haggadah (most notably any mention of Moses) to encourage questions and to make us tell the rest of the story in our own words.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Four non-literal children

The story of the four children/sons from the Passover haggadah neatly encapsulates many challenges in translating the haggadah: how faithful to be to the original Hebrew, how far to go towards egalitarian language (does anyone really care if the wicked child is referred to as “he”?), how to refer to God, which phrases are direct quotations of Torah passages and which phrases are restatements, when to use first and second and third person, how to think about both the reader and the intended audience.

Here’s a translation from the Red Sea Haggadah, posted on Open Source Haggadah:

The Torah speaks of four kinds of children: The wise child, the wicked, the simple one, the one too young to know to ask.
The wise child asks: "What mean the testimonies, and the statutes, and the judgments, which the Lord our God hath commanded you?" (Deuteronomy 6:20) To that one, you explain all the laws of Passover, down to the very last detail about the Afikoman.
The wicked child asks: "What mean you by this service?" (Exodus 12:26) By saying "you," and not "we" or "me," he excludes himself from the group, and denies God. Answer that child plainly: "This is done because of that which the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt." (Exodus 13:8) For me, not for you: had you been there in Egypt, you would not have been redeemed.
The simple child asks: "What is this?" Answer that one: "By strength of hand the Lord brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage." (Exodus 13:14)
Of the child too young to ask, it is written: "And thou shalt show thy son in that day, saying, This is done because of that which the Lord did unto me when I came forth out of Egypt." (Exodus 13:8)
Two questions leap out: (1) Why is the wise child not rebuked for saying “you,” when the wicked child is rebuked for saying “you”? (2) Why do the wicked child and the child too young to ask deserve the same answer? I prefer to change both the wise child’s question and the answer to the young child to the inclusive “us” and avoid those questions on an initial reading.

The Union Haggadah from 1923 begins:
By a fitting answer to the questions of each of the four types of the sons of Israel, does the Torah explain the meaning of this night's celebration.
I hate this translation. While the four children are still types rather than individuals, they are now the only types. And the answers to come are mere beginnings, not actual explanations.

From 1787:
Blessed is the Creator, blessed is he, blessed is he who gave the law to his people Israel, blessed is he whose law expresseth of these four different sorts of children. The wise, the wicked, the simple, and one not having the capacity of asking.

The wise saith, what mean these testimonies, statutes, and judgments, which the Lord our God hath commanded us? then thou shalt say unto him according to the Paschal, as it is ordered us.

The wicked saith, what mean you by this service? by which expression, he draweth himself from the community and denies the omnipotence. Then shalt thou say unto him, on this account did the Lord do this unto me, on my going out of Egypt, to me and not to thee, for hadest thou been there, thou wouldest not have been redeemed.

The simple saith, what is this? and thou shalt say unto him, by strength of the Lord he brought us out from Egypt the house of bondage.

And to him not in capacity of asking, thou must inculcate knowledge into him, as it is written, and thou shalt declare unto thy son, in that day, saying, this is done because of that which the Lord did unto me, when I came forth from Egypt.
This translation is a great place to start. I want children, not sons. I want to repeat “child” more, though, to keep this passage focused on responding to our children, even though the types of children can certainly reflect aspects of any adult.

The Torah speaks of four sorts of children: the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who cannot ask a question.

Then on to the children.

The wise child asks, “What are the meanings of these testimonies, statutes, and judgments, which the Lord our God has commanded us?” To that child we must explain all the laws of Passover, down to every detail of the Afikoman.

The wise child’s question is in contrast with the wicked child’s question in two ways: by whether the child is including himself in the community and by whether the child is acknowledging God.

Does the wise child’s question need to be so cumbersome? Testimonies? There has to be a better word to use there. We could echo the common “Ended is the Passover seder, according to custom, statute, and law” with What do these all mean, the customs, statutes, and laws which the Lord our God has commanded us? Or we could eliminate the direct question: The wise child asks about the meanings of all the customs, statutes, and laws of Passover which the Lord our God has commanded us. But then we don’t provide a direct example of how to ask. Should we divide up the wise child’s question into two questions, according to the two common translation options of what are they and what do they mean: What are these testimonies, statutes, and judgments, which the Lord our God has commanded us? What do they mean? 

The wicked child asks, “What do you mean by this service?” This child is excluding himself from his community and denying God. To that child you shall say, I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth from Egypt. For me and not for him; if he had been there, he would not have been redeemed.

Not with that attitude, young man. The response to the wicked child is harsh, hopefully untrue, and memorable. There are some great discussions about whether the best literal translation to start the response to the wicked child is “blunt his teeth” or “set his teeth on edge.” What I haven’t run into is discussion about a difference between carnivores and herbivores being sharp teeth vs. blunt teeth, and that blunting his teeth is therefore a way of excluding him from partaking of the Passover offering, the roasted lamb. The wicked child excludes himself from the community, and we in turn exclude him from full participation.

Small word choices matter. The child is excluding himself from [his/the/our] community. Each of these have different implications. I prefer “his” because a seder often includes participants who are not part of the Jewish community, and because it indicates that even when the child is excluding himself, the community does not actually stop being his community.

The simple child asks, “What is this?” Tell him, with a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, where we were slaves.

Out of Egypt, rather than forth from Egypt, because the simple answer starts with escaping slavery. Coming forth from Egypt implies the journey toward, whether it is toward freedom, toward Israel, or toward receiving the Torah. The Hebrew very nicely repeats “out of”: out of Egypt, out of the slave house. There are additional layers of meaning with that phrasing, saying that we were brought out of Egypt and out of the slave house, while directly equating Egypt with a slave house.

For the child who cannot ask a question, you must teach him, as it is written: And you shall show your child on that day, saying, we do this because of what the Lord did for us when we came forth from Egypt.

Show your child along with the words, because words may not be enough for a child who cannot ask a question. Reinforce the inclusive “we” as much as possible, both to reassure the child that he is included and to contrast with the exclusion of the wicked child.

If the same translation is used for the response to the wicked child and the silent child, then I’d want to put the wicked child after the silent child, and explain that the identical answer is because the wicked child’s question is no more meaningful than not asking a question at all. This is a softer way of dealing with the wicked child (and one I haven’t seen discussion of), though much less faithful to the traditional approach.