Idyll Banter and other Good Books

I just finished Idyll Banter a collection of newspaper columns by from the Burlington Vermont Free Press by bestselling author Chris Bohjalian. He's best know for hitting the Oprah lottery for his book "Midwives," but since 1989 he's been writing a column about small town Vermont Life.

It's full of small stories: the local schools visit to a cemetery on Veteran's Day; the sale of one of the town's last dairy herds; Bohjalian's misadventures in losing his septic tank and trying to clean a dead bat from his woodstove; the lessons he learned from a young boy with Down's syndrome, entitled "A person can learn alot from Ian Freeman"; and a host of small examples of the way people in Lincoln, Vermont, (population 975) depend on each other.

My favorites pieces are his suprising, O Henry-like stories on faith. "A fender bender with Baby Jesus" about Bohjalian's fears that he'll crash into the church's nativity scene stored in his garage--ends with this note--no one knows where the creche came from. It appeared in the church's front yard one Christmas, just a few days after the church burned down. And then there's the story of the passing of Ken Hallock, an 81 year old life long Red Sox fan.

Hallock lost faith in his beloved team, Bohjalian writes.

But he was aware without question that to root for the Red Sox--to root with knowledge and passion and patience--is to root as an act of faith. It is to love people who you know willl disappoint you, but to forgive them and love them just the same. It is to know people are human."

A couple of other recommendations.

"The Rebbe's Army" by Susan Fishkoff is a fascinating look at the world of the Chabad-Lubavich "schlichim" -- basically ultra observant Jewish missionaries, who seek not converts but "ba'alei teshuvah"-Jews who return to their faith and practice.

By getting non observant Jews to practice their faith--in putting on tefillin (small leather boxes containing bits of the torah, attached to leather straps used in prayer), to celebate Shabbot or keep kosher--the schlichim hope to hasten the coming of Mosiach (the messiah.)

Though Fishkoff says she disagrees with most of the Chabad Lubavich practices--women who have to wear wigs in public, sit in segregated seating, unable to speak in the synagogue; the veneration of their Rebbe, their belief that Jews has a superior, holy soul (and basically shunning contact with Gentiles) --she paints a mainly sympathetic picture.

Why? Because of the thousands of small kindnesses she saw them pay to their fellow Jews in the year she spent visiting schlichim from Alaska to Bangkok. She relates one in the book's foreward. She'd been visit a schlichim, Rabbi Feller, in Minneapolis for Shabbot, and was headed home. When she got to the airport, the only sandwiches available were ham sandwiches--something she would normally eat (being a non-observant Jews). But she felt that'd be a betrayal of the hospitality Feller and his family had shown her.

As she headed toward the plane--there was Feller, with a kosher bag lunch for her. His wife had sent him back with it. That small kindness shaped the way she sees Chabad's work

For me, Chabad will always be about a short, white bearded man, in a long black coat, running back to an airport terminal to hand me a brown paper bag with a kosher lunch inside, so I shouldn't be hungry on my flight" .

Is "The Rebbe's Army" completely unbiased journalism. No. But its still a remarkable look inside a community mostly closed to non Jews. And for that, Fishkoff deserves our thanks.

Still, "The Rebbe's Army" is probably best read as a set, with Stephen Bloom's Postville, as this website points out in interviews with Bloom and Fishkoff.

In Postville, Iowa, where a group of Lubachicher Jews move to open a kosher meat plant, it's the small slights--turning down an offer lemonade and cookies and chat with a local historian; ignoring the non-Jews they meet in the street; refusing to take part in the rituals of small town life like the volunteer fire deparment; or buying their appliances out of state instead of from local merchants that poisons many locals against them.

That's not to say the locals are innocent. Some of them vent the same idiotic comments about Hitler than got Marge Schott banned from baseball. But the isolationism and self-superiority of the Postville Lubavichers turn Bloom away from them--just as the hospitality of the schlichim drew Fischkoff to them.

You can find more about Bloom's book on Minnesota Public Radio



A couple of years ago, California youth pastors Mike Foster and Craig Gross had an idea. They were concerned about the growth of the porn industry, and wanted to do something about it.

So they started XXXchurch.com. With a catching marketing slogan, "The #1 Christian Porn Site," they launched the site at the annual Adult entertainment expo in Las Vegas. The idea of the site is simply--get people's attention and then help kick the porn habit.

They got their first big break when a LA Times reporter spotted them at the Adult Expo several years ago. They are back in the Times today with a story about anti-porn TV commercial they filmed with the help of adult filmaker
James DiGiorgio

He had met Foster and Gross at the 2003 Expo--he was showing some of his latest videos, they were talking to people and handing out Bibles. That conversation eventually led them to a studio outside LA, where DiGiorgio filmed their spot.

Surrounded by medieval-looking gear, a cage and hundreds of videotapes, they filmed the adventures of "Pete the Porno Puppet," who warns of the dangers of children discovering their parents' porn collection.

The footage has been edited into a 30-second public-service announcement, which will be aired in the Los Angeles and New York markets in April, as well as a longer, more risque director's cut that will be shown on XXXchurch.com's website.

DiGiorgio,raised Catholic but "no longer practices," told the Times he "enjoys his work but concedes he doesn't often tell people what he does for a living or call his mother and tell her about the scenes he shoots."

The Times reports that the commercial has gotten DiGiorgio into trouble.

In industry publications, he has been accused of careerism, as well as of being a turncoat for directing an anti-pornography ad, and he said he has lost work.

DiGiorgio, a father of two, said he believes the industry has to take responsibility.

"Porn's a commodity these days, like coffee beans and pork bellies," he said. "This stuff is not for kids, like liquor and cigarettes are not for kids. We have to take extraordinary steps to protect them from it. When they get to be adults, they can make their own decisions."

Gross and Foster have gotten criticism for their site, and for working with DiGiorgio. But they figure, if Jesus was around today, he might be spending less time hanging around in church and more time with sinners at the Adult Expo.


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