Archive for: September, 2010

Lowly Grad and the Magic Beans

Sep 26 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

You had seen him several times skulking around your poster, furiously scribbling notes. Every time he came by you recognized his pointy beard and short stature. Once he pulled out a ruler and started measuring your error bars, another time he took out his camera and took a snapshot of your poster. And every time you couldn't read his name tag, it was flipped over, or covered by his jacket. Who was this guy?

It was your first big meeting and you were excited to be presenting your hot new results. It would have been better if your advisor had come, but he had to stay behind to finish his grant proposal. After the poster session as you were leaving with the awkward and enormous poster tube you saw him again, and this time he looked like he wanted to talk.

"I saw you stop by my poster several times, do you have any questions?"

He tugged on his beard and asked "Is it for sale?"

"For sale? My poster?"

"Yes, I'd like to buy it."

"Who are you?"

"I'm the poster buyer."

"Why do you want to buy my poster?"

"Because that's what I do. I pay very well."

You think, what the hell, I can get some extra cash and not have to lug this thing back home. "OK, let's do it." The poster buyer takes your poster and pulls something out of his pocket, handing it to you.

"What's this?"

"Payment."

"But these are only three beans, what's the deal here, dude?"

"Ah", says the poster buyer, "not just beans – magic beans. I thought you were hoping to get your project published in one of those fancy Glamour Journals?"

"Yes…"

"Well, these beans will help you do that."

And before you have a chance to object, the poster buyer and your poster are gone.

When you return home you tell your advisor about the whole incident. "FOOL!!" He yells. "You don't know who this guy was, he could be a competitor, or one of our 'science enemies'. He's totally going to scoop your project, you are totally screwed, you'll NEVER get it published, you will now take 14 years to complete your PhD! I hope that he at least paid you well…". Sheepishly, you say "Well he gave me these magic beans… he said they would help get my paper published in a fancy journal." Your advisor gives you a despondent look and walks away laughing maniacally, shaking his head. Totally in the dumps, you walk home and you bitterly toss the stupid beans in your front yard before you get to your apartment. You spend the night eating Doritos and drinking heavily and fall asleep in the couch.

"Dude, you gotta check this out. Dude wake the fuck up!" You open your eyes, your head pounding, to see your housemate shaking you awake.

"What?! Leave me alone!"

"The seeds, the ones I thought were pot seeds you threw in the front yard…they're not pot seeds."

"I know, they're magic beans. Now let me go back to sleep."

"Take a look, look out the window!"

You figure that looking out the window is the only way to get rid of your housemate and as you look, you are totally astonished at what you see. The beans had grown into a giant bean stalk, twisting and curling all the way up to the clouds. "Holy crap! I'm going to climb that thing." And after quickly dressing you run out and climb the giant beanstalk.

The beanstalk is much taller than you thought, and after 3 hours of climbing, you reach a large sign: "NO TRESPASSING. This is the laboratory of the Head Honcho,  funded by NSH, NIS, DDT, CIA, PDQ, ABC, DoF, QED and the Willy Wonka Foundation. Unauthorized lowly grads are not permitted beyond this point, because your science ain't shit compared to the stuff we do in here!" Ignoring the sign you press on, until you reach a large, warehouse-like room. In it are hundreds of ashen-looking grad students and postdocs working away in endlessly long lab benches, pipetting, running gels, imaging cells. And wandering around are large goons with whips, with tee shirts that say "Lab Manager", ensuring everyone works harder, faster. At the end of each bench there are large bins, connected to chutes and you recognize the names of the various Glamour Journals in the labels to each chute: Journal of Sexy Science, Trendy Topics in Nature, etc. And a continuous stream of grad and postdocs are wandering over to the bins, one after another, and dropping in their manuscripts, watching them be whisked away through the corresponding chutes. After a while you realize that there's this strange, wonderful music in the background. It's like nothing you have ever heard before, a warm sensation fills your body, what is that?! You decide to pull over a postdoc wandering to the bins and you ask her "What is this strange music?"

"It's the Mojo Banjo, of course."

"The Mojo Banjo?"

"Yes, where the science mojo comes from."

"Science mojo?!"

"You silly, lowly grad, the science mojo is what makes your science tick. It's what makes it glamourous, and hot and sexy and trendy. It's what makes people want to listen to it and publish and fund it. It's the key to it all. Whithout science mojo, your science is bupkes! Nada! Zilch!"

"But my science is very interesting and groundbreaking, I'd like to think…"

"It doesn't matter, without the science mojo it's worth a handful of beans! "

"So how do I get some of this mojo?"

"Only the Head Honcho can make science mojo by playing the mojo banjo. And he never lets go of the mojo banjo, he even sleeps with it. Now if you will excuse me, I need to deposit this manuscript in the 'Hot Journal of Cell Science'  bin".

You know you need to get a hold of the Mojo Banjo and mesmerized you follow the music until you get to a large banquet hall. In it is a large table, full of people eating and laughing, almost drunk on the sounds of the mojo banjo. And you recognize among the guests prominent editors and grant reviewers and representatives from funding agencies. At the head of the table is the Head Honcho himself, playing the mojo banjo, his fingers flying across the strings. And everyone seems to be eating cotton candy, which is made by these gigantic machines. And the cotton candy looks delicious and you never had breakfast, so you decide to sneak in and taste some. It tastes wonderful! Nothing like regular cotton candy! After you taste it, you taste fame, and fortune and you feel important and powerful. And mixed with the sounds of the mojo banjo, you soon fall asleep under the table. When you wake, everyone has fallen asleep. The head honcho is slumped over, cotton candy stuck to his chin and the mojo banjo dangling from his hand. Carefully, you sneak close and snatch the mojo banjo and make a run for the exit. But the Head Honcho has been woken and angrily looks around, loudly exclaiming:

"Fee, fie, fo fudent! I smell the blood of a graduate student! Be he alive, or be he dandy, I'll grind his bones to make my cotton candy!"

And seeing you with his mojo banjo he begins to run towards you, his face beet red with ire, the room shaking as he does. You make a beeline for the beanstalk, running away from the Head Honcho you start the long climb down. But the Honcho is relentless, no matter how fast you climb down he seems to be catching up. And when you reach the bottom you can see him just a few feet away. So you have no choice, you begin to hit the base of the beanstalk with the mojo banjo until finally it topples over with a gigantic crash, crushing the Head Honcho. But the mojo banjo is destroyed! You will never get your glamour publication, your PhD WILL take 14 years!

"You did it!" exclaims a familiar voice. You turn to see the poster buyer, tugging his beard and cleaning his ear with a Q-tip.

"Did what?! I destroyed the mojo banjo. I'll never publish in a fancy journal, ever!"

"On the contrary, lowly grad, you have set science free! No longer will those in possession of the science mojo will be granted exclusive access to Glamour Journals. Papers will be judged purely on scientific merit and not trendiness. Grant reviewers will provide useful constructive feedback, ensuring all good grant proposals get funded. PhD's will be completed in no more that four years, graduate students and postdocs will be appreciated, and anyone showing a genuine interest in science will be reward with a faculty position. Because of you, lowly grad, a new era in science has been ushered! You are a hero!"

"Really?!"

"Yes, now get back to work, after all you are only a lowly grad and I understand you have a thesis committee meeting you need to prepare for…"


12 responses so far

Uninspired post brought on by a stuffy nose

Sep 25 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

The guy at the Korean restaurant told my wife that for sure those pickled serrano peppers would get rid of my cold. She had told him that I was sitting miserably in my office with a mean cold and asked for something spicy for me. So she came by with the pickled peppers, very spicy pork with kimchee, rice and extra kimchee. The pickled serranos were indeed intense, when combined with the spicy pork they practically blew my eyes out of my head, caused my nose to try and run away, made me sweat profusely and caused burning pain throughout my lips and tongue.  It was great!   People in my lab came running over to make sure I was OK. I have a pretty high-tolerance for spicy food, and if I thought that it was spicy it really must have been spicy. And it did clear my sinuses – and for a little while I felt like my cold was gone… until it wasn't.

I love really, really, butt-kicking spicy food. When I first met my wife her spice tolerance was quite wimpy, so we had to undergo intensive spice training. She's been addicted ever since. We've had to be more gradual in spice training the kids. They used to love spicy food when they were littler, but now not so much, which is strange, although I've started to sneak in chili peppers here or there in what I cook, and try and have salsa on the table every day. When I was a kid in Mexico, it was really common to eat spicy candy - mango lollipops covered in chile powder, spicy tamarind pulp in about 1232 different configurations, gum covered in spice, and even just little packets of chile powder and sugar. So my kids better get with the program.

As part of my spice kick, I grow hot peppers every year and this year I have a bumper crop of habaneros, and since these should be used sparingly, I'm going to have a ton left over. So, I'm going to pickle them. Here's how:

Wash peppers well, and slice into rounds.

Wash and slice an onion.

Wash and slice some carrots and maybe some cauliflower into small chunks.

Put veggies in clean (but not necessarily sterilized) jars with a few picking spices.

Fill jars one-third of the way up with white vinegar.

Boil water and add keep adding salt until solution is saturated. Add hot brine to jars to full up remaining space.

Close jars and let cool.

Keep in fridge for about 2 weeks and eat!

You can store them for about 3 months in the refrigerator. And you can use any kind of pepper.

Enjoy!

6 responses so far

Dirty World

Sep 23 2010 Published by under Maps

ResearchBlogging.org

Check out this map generated by Aaron van Donkelaar at Dalhousie University. It uses NASA satellite imagery to calculate the amount of air pollution throughout the world. More specifically, it is looking at levels of fine particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter (PM-2.5). These are particles that are small enough to go deep in the lungs and cause health problems. Usually these are monitored with surface-based monitoring systems, but many developing countries don't have such systems in place. The authors of this study used satellite measurements taken between 2001-2006 and computer modeling to calculate the surface levels of PM-2.5 throughout the world.

Notice the huge area of pollution in North Africa, the Sahara and South Asia. This is where about 80% of the world's population lives, so the health impact is potentially great. Much of the particulate matter comes from unfiltered coal-burning plants, automobiles and agricultural burning. However not all of it is man-made. In the Saharan desert many particles of mineral dust are picked up by strong winds.

Fig 1. Distribution of PM-2.5 throughout the world from satellite imagery taken between 2001- and 2006. Credit: A. van Donkelaar.

Further Reading
van Donkelaar, A., Martin, R., Brauer, M., Kahn, R., Levy, R., Verduzco, C., & Villeneuve, P. (2010). Global Estimates of Ambient Fine Particulate Matter Concentrations from Satellite-Based Aerosol Optical Depth: Development and Application Environmental Health Perspectives, 118 (6), 847-855 DOI: 10.1289/ehp.0901623

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Echo Chambers

Sep 22 2010 Published by under Scientific Practice

In the late 70's, French anthropologist Bruno Latour set off to do some interesting fieldwork. He spent time observing the daily rituals and customs of scientists in situ, in the laboratory of Roger Guillemin, discoverer of TRF, at the Salk Institute. The results of his anthropological study was a book called "Laboratory Life" which was published in 1979. It was one of the first descriptions of the day to day functioning of a science lab and of the act of doing science itself. Anyone that has worked in a lab will recognize the descriptions of laboratory dynamics, the role of funding in scientific research and in the selection of what scientific questions are considered important, the role of the PI's prestige in determining which data gets published where and how "believable" it is, how hypotheses sometimes become unspoken assumptions without any real data to back them up, and in general how scientific facts become constructed by the human enterprise of science. Latour's conclusion is somewhat extreme – that all scientific facts are socially constructed. I think most scientists would agree that this is not the case, that while many of the observations that Latour makes can influence scientific conclusions, in the end there is a real fact that is eventually shed light upon by the science and is continuously refined by the process of scientific consensus. Nevertheless, its a great book (a bit dry at times) that everyone should take a look at. However, there are some cases where scientific facts have been almost entirely socially constructed, and have even persisted for over a thousand years, despite large evidence to the contrary. One of my favorite examples relates to the structure and function of the human heart.

In the second century C.E. the Roman physician Galen wrote what became the seminal medical text for the next thousand years or so. In it he described the human heart as the source of the body's heat and described the heart as having two chambers, the right was associated with the liver and contained "nutritive blood" which was made by the liver and consumed by the different organs. The left chamber was involved in making vital spirits which were distributed to organs by arteries. Both the left and the right chambers were supposed to be connected by tiny pores in the heart's septum where both types of humors could mix. It's not clear to me how Galen drew these conclusions about the structure opf the heart. Although he never did dissect human hearts, he did dissect hearts of multiple animals, and its pretty obvious in these that, like human hearts, they have four chambers. Maybe he was trying to fit the evidence to his prevailing world view. Galen's book was translated into multiple languages and went unquestioned in medical circles for centuries. Even Avicenna, the famous medieval Persian physician deferred to Galen when it came to the structure and function of the heart, and any evidence of pulmonary circulation or the fact that the heart actually had four chambers was usually ignored because it contradicted the accepted cannon, and Galen's "facts" just propagated from textbook to textbook.

Fig 1. Galen's conception of the heart and blood.

It wasn't until the Renaissance when the practice of studying human anatomy from direct observation (rather than from texts) became popular. Yet even then, some anatomical drawings, allegedly drawn from real life still show the heart with two chambers and pores in the septum. Take a look at this drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci. For the most part it's an anatomically accurate description of the heart and organs. But look at the heart – it has two chambers and tiny pores in the septum. Again deference to authority still seemed more important than actual observation.

Fig 2. Anatomical drawing of the heart by Leonardo Da Vinci. Notice the two-chambered heart and the pores in the septum.

Finally in 1543 Andreas Vesalius published one of the first modern anatomy texts, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, in which all anatomical descriptions were drawn from real cadavers, and where it is recognized that the heart has four chambers and no septal pores. This is a beautiful and compelling book. My university library has an original copy of this book which is bound in human skin. It's a wild and creepy experience to leaf through it.

Despite a revised anatomical picture of the heart, there was still confusion about its function. This was settled about 100 years later when English physician William Harvey published his seminal study on blood circulation. Harvey started from modern anatomical views of the heart and performed a series of comparative experiments in hearts of various animals, and concluded that the heart was actually pumping blood. He further measured the capacity of the heart and multiplied it by the heart rate and figured that there was no way that the liver and heart could produce so much blood to be consumed by the organs in a single day. Thus, he proposed that blood actually circulated from the lungs to the heart to the body, then back to the heart and again to the lungs. He showed that blood vessels had valves which would ensure unidirectional circulation. This he demonstrated by a variety of simple experiments, one which you can do yourself. Right now! So: 1) Find a vein on your arm or back of your hand. 2) Press on it with a finger on the end closer to your body,  use another finger to squeeze the blood out. You will see that as soon as you do this it will fill up immediately. 3) Press now on the side of the vein closer to your fingertips. Squeeze the blood out. You will see that the vein remains empty until you release your other finger and then fills up. This is because venous blood blood flows towards the heart, as opposed to the Galenic view that both types of blood flow to the organs to be consumed.

Fig 2. Harvey's little vein experiment. From "De Motu Cordis".

Thus with actual observation, an integrative scientific approach and demonstrable experiments, as well as information from the latest literature, Harvey was able to overturn a thousand year-old "fact". It's not that he he had fancy new equipment not available to Galen, but rather lived in a time where a scientific world view was prevalent. And it was just a matter of time. If he hadn't resolved the discrepancy between theory and data, someone else would have.

This is obviously an extreme case where deference to authority distorts scientific facts. But in reality this occurs all the time in more subtle ways in modern scientific practice. Part of learning to do science is to be able to identify these types of biases and avoid them as much as possible.

Further Reading

Bruno Latour (1986, 2d Ed.), "Laboratory Life: The construction of scientific facts".

Andreas Vesalius (1543). "De humani corporis fabrica". (click link for browsable version!)

William Harvey (1628). "De motu cordis" (On the motion of the heart and blood).


3 responses so far

Tentacles!

Sep 22 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

So we're spreading out our tentacles! Recently I was asked by the nice folks at LabSpaces to contribute to their science blogs. I was quite excited by the offer, and agreed to cross-post some of my favorite science-y material from Take it to the Bridge on the LabSpaces site. What does this mean? It means that Take it to the Bridge will still remain here, so if you are a regular reader you don't need to do anything different, I'll continue posting here as I have in the past. But some of the material that appears here will also show up in LabSpaces. This will allow me to further disseminate some of my favorite science pieces to a wider readership, and hopefully to attract new visitors to my little WordPress blog.

Why didn't I move the whole blog over to LabSpaces? I sort of felt that moving the whole thing would inhibit me from writing too many non-science posts and basically from acting like myself. Plus I really like the WordPress platform. It really provides a nice, clutter-free, stable writing environment which has made blogging a lot of fun.

So don't go anywhere! Take it to the Bridge is still here, and you can look forward to more hopefully interesting posts. Also, I'm looking forward to interacting with the folks over at LabSpaces.

Fig 1. Spreading our tentacles.

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¡Rumba buena y guaguancó!

Sep 20 2010 Published by under Hot Pants! Haaah!

This weekend I spent a whole day doing actual labwork, a rare occurrence. A student had left the lab and the reviewers of her paper wanted more experiments. Since most of my current lab crew is newish or absorbed in other projects, I figured that the fastest way to turn the paper around was for me to do the experiments myself. I was actually pretty excited –most people in my lab have families to tend to, and thus there's usually no one around on weekends– which means I had the lab to myself and could blast music while I worked. I had a lot of fun listening to The Clash, Coltrane and Monk at Carnegie Hall (awesome recording), and Celia Cruz ¡Aaaazúcar! And I got a ton done.

I think that listening to music is key to doing good bench work. It passes the time and you actually get to sit and listen to music. When I was a grad student, my lab had very eclectic musical tastes. One grad student she only seemed to like Bon Jovi, another he ranged in tastes from 70's stadium rock (e.g. Rush) to Hawaiian slack-key guitar and bluegrass. My PhD advisor had a thing for Tori Amos and some band named Veruca Salt (like my favorite character in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). The British postdoc was always blasting some type of techno/rave music and the German postdoc liked Pink Floyd and some new-agey sounding thing that I never figured out what it was. I was on a Latin Jazz kick, and of course JamesBrown. Hot pants! Haah! The unspoken rule was that whoever got there first in the morning could play whatever they wanted until someone else would commandeer the lab stereo when the person left the room. While not everybody liked everyone else's music, we all expanded our musical horizons and tolerated whatever. But there was always music on and things were more or less groovy. There was occasionally some trouble though. Once, the Bon Jovi-lovin' student got into a kerfuffle with the older Russian technician. The student kept accusing the technician of coming in early in the morning and hiding the power cord of the stereo. The technician said that she did not want to listen to any more of this "jungle music." Apparently after she retired they found a bunch of power cords hidden away in a drawer.

In my current lab things are very different. If you walk in there on any given day when folks are working it is eerily quiet. Everyone is doing their thing, listening to their own iPods with their earbuds on, oblivious to everyone else. My very first postdoc would blast Black Sabbath or play her guitar while doing electrophysiology, but other than that, now it's pretty quiet. I can see how listening to iPods solves the problem of deciding what music to play, but it also cuts down on conversation and you don't get to know yur labmates through their music. One weekend I walked in the lab and one of my postdocs was blasting Chinese pop music, complete with electric violins, heavy synthesizer and some guy belting it out in Chinese. Embarrassed, he quickly turned it off when he saw me. I kind of wished that he hadn't.

In any case, I leave you in the good hands of the lovely Celia Cruz:

2 responses so far

Squid

Sep 18 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

For those of you that were inspired by the recent talk about pencils, a new series of online columns debuted today at the New York Times. Artist and illustrator James McMullan will be writing a twelve part series called Line by Line on the basics of drawing. He will be covering everything from drawing a line to mastering perspective, complete with exercises and examples from art history. It looks like a really neat series and I'm really looking forward to it. So if you are wondering what to do with your new pencil, or just like drawing, head on over and take a look.

In the meantime here's a squid:

Figure 1. A squid.

2 responses so far

I do the best imitation of myself

Sep 15 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

A recently published article in The Scientist reminded me of a recent incident in my lab.  One of my students handed me a draft of her latest manuscript, and as I was looking through the Methods section I noticed that the text was virtually identical to the text in the methods section of a paper that she had just published. Word for word. At this point I explained that this technically was plagiarism and possibly violation of copyright and that she should alter the text somewhat. "But why?" she said, "The methods themselves are the exact same ones I used in my previous paper and anyway, how can I plagiarize my own work?"  She obviously has a good point. I know I've written about 28 different versions of my methods section and about as many versions of my opening paragraph. I mean, when you work in a given field you always cite the same references in your introduction and large chunks of your methods are identical. In how many ways can you describe the exact same experimental conditions? And yes, you could cite yourself, but it's nice to have a self-contained manuscript in which a reader does not have to look at your old papers in order to be able to understand it.

So why is it plagiarism? Because you are copying text of something that already has been published. And since most journals own the copyright to your manuscripts, re-using your own text verbatim is likely a copyright violation. It's a bit silly, but apparently that's the way it is and according to the article in The Scientist, papers have been retracted by journals because of this. My approach that I tell people in my lab is that it's OK to take the old methods and change them around a bit, but that the introduction should be written from scratch. They can read an old introduction and then replicate it by memory, and this is usually enough to make the two texts sufficiently different, but they should never cut and paste text form their old papers. Where I find a larger gray area is sharing text between grants and manuscripts. Is it OK to paste a particularly succinct and well-written paragraph from your latest manuscript into a new grant application? Likewise, could you lift a paragraph from a grant and put it in a manuscript? I would argue that the second is maybe OK, since the grant is not a published document, but that the first is somewhat more iffy. To be safe though, I usually just write things from scratch, and since I've written the same things so many times they always sounds similar... yet different.

What about you, readers, what is your view on self-plagiarism? Where do you draw the line in your own work?

12 responses so far

Expanding Diversity

Sep 15 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

For the last three summers I have run a small program to bring high-school students from underrepresented minority groups to my university for four weeks during the summer to take a course and work in my lab. All of these students have come from highly-underperforming school districts and have done really well and have been admitted into very good colleges. This program is the result of my "broader impacts" section of an NSF award I have, and I encourage other people to propose such programs when writing their grants (if you need some advice on designing such a program contact me). My university also runs a much larger program for undergraduates from underrepresented minority groups to do research during the summer in top labs throughout the country. Again this provides a great opportunity to a group of good students. I think these programs are laudable for their goal of trying to increase diversity in the sciences and for giving students from underrepresented groups a chance that they might not normally have.

For the most part, in these programs the definition of enhancing diversity in sciences and other academic fields means increasing participation of minorities (and women) within the sciences. However, I've started to think that this is a somewhat narrow view of what diversity should mean. In my view, the current rationale for providing programs to help minority students is that these students traditionally don't have access to the same type of educational resources as non-minorities do. This is due in part to the fact that many come from socioeconomically disadvantaged areas which simply do not have the same resources and academic support networks. Yet, there are several other people who also do not have access to these resources because they also come from socioeconomically disadvantaged areas, but just not happen to be from an underrepresented racial or ethnic minority group. I think it would make a lot of sense to expand our definition of diversity to include socioeconomic diversity, since this would be a way to reach a larger group of folks, rather than just using race or ethnicity as a criteria to define who is an "underrepresented group".

Let me give you an example. I do a fair bit of advising to undergraduates at my institution, both first-years and sophomores as well as ones majoring in my discipline. Many of them are first generation college students, meaning that they are the first in their family to go to college. Since this is a private university, the socioeconomic disparities between students can be huge, and some of these first generation college students have expressed concern that there is no support network for them. My university has gone through great lengths to establish mentoring, support and affinity groups for minority students, but nothing for these first generation students, who although they are not minorities, they have a lot more in common in therms of the college experience with the minority groups than with other non-minorities on campus. Some have mentioned that they have forgone the chance to do research over the summer because they cannot afford it and there are only a few special fellowship programs they can apply for. Likewise, volunteering in a lab during the semester is not an option because they need to use their spare time to work. This would over time limit the representation of this group in the sciences, and obviously they could benefit from more widely available programs.

Expanding the definition of diversity to include socioeconomic diversity is not as simple as it sounds. While it is relatively straightforward to assess racial or ethnic diversity in a given academic field, how do you asses socioeconomic diversity? Do you ask people their income? Presumably by the time someone gets a job, the socioeconomic discrepancies start to become less evident. So it is important to do this at the high-school and college levels, where opportunities can be provided to people who could benefit from them but who do not fit into the typical categories of an underrepresented minority.

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Erev Rosh Hashanah

Sep 08 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

Yesterday I was talking on the phone with my mother in Mexico who was telling me about her plans for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. She's planning a delicious dinner for 30+ close relatives. She is preparing some traditional dishes such as veal brisket and matzoh ball soup, as well as some Jewish-Mexican favorites such as gefilte fish a la Veracruzana and spicy pickles. Growing up, I considered these Jewish-Mexican dishes as regular food, but doctored up for the High Holidays by my grandmother. It wasn't until I moved to the United States and tried the blander, more "authentic" versions of jewish cooking that I realized how different and more Mexican (and better) the dishes I grew up with were. Food wasn't the only difference between Judaism in the US and in Mexico. In Mexico, the Jewish community has a large Sephardi and Ashkenazi contingencies. Many of the Sepharadi Jews arriving from Syria in the 1890's with a second large wave of Turkish and Ashkenazi Jews from eastern Europe in the early 20th century, my family included. Here, it seems like most Jews are of Ashkenazi descent, like my family, so I found a lot of similarities in the style of services at synagogues as well as shared foods and traditions. However I'm still not quite used to hearing Hebrew with an American accent as opposed to a Mexican accent, and at first it was strange attending synagogue here without metal detectors and armed guards at the doors, which are commonplace in almost all Latin American synagogues. I did find American judaism a lot more inclusive. In Mexico most synagogues are orthodox, not Hassidic orthodox, but just your plain orthodox. We attended the one conservative synagogue in Mexico City. In the United States it seems like conservative and reform synagogues are the norm and are much more inclusive of women clergy as well as of gay and interracial families.

I miss attending those huge holiday meals in Mexico. Since most people don't seem to move around much, what constitutes your immediate family can be upwards of 60 people, making for very large get-togethers. Maybe we'll get over there next year. For now, we're just having a small dinner with a few friends and lots of food – chicken with dried fruits, kasha varnishkes, kugel and of course lots of challah and apples with honey, pomegranates and a honey cake to ensure a happy, sweet new year. So here's wishing all of you (Jewish or not) a happy and healthy year 5771, and with a Mexican accent: ¡Shaná Tová!

5 responses so far

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