Live the Questions

Words of Torah, funny anecdotes about my students, rants about education policy, and observations on politics, progressive Judaism, activism, and culture will all make appearances on this blog. Each post will end with a question for the reader; please respond if you feel moved.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Make me feel good, rock 'n roll band, I'm your biggest fan

Stories from General Anna and Ruby K's California adventure

Saturday and Sunday:

The first day of our trip was harrowing, but in the end, our persistence was rewarded.

When we arrived at JFK for our flight, the airport was a madhouse. Folks whose flights had been cancelled for the past three days due to the winter storm + teachers and NYC students on the first day of vacation = mass chaos. It was somewhat like one of the movies I show for my course on genocide where a huge mass of refugees, their worldly possessions on their backs, are all desperately trying to escape their war-torn country. Except these were people trying to go skiing or to the Bahamas.

We did make our flight, which was held for an hour due to the chaos. As we were sprinting through the terminal towards our gate, I heard the faint strains of Chariots of Fire. During the flight we played an interactive trivia game with other passengers (on our touch screens). Ruby and I dominated several rounds, duking it out for first place, when some interloper from seat 31A joined the game and beat us both with his knowedge of obscure geographical locations.

When we arrived, we got our rental car and zipped North (that was my first "I'm not in Kansas anymore" moment; great views driving up the peninsula on 101) to my friend Teo's house, picked him up, and headed over to Golden Gate Park to meet my friend from college and her fiance. The weather was unseasonably warm-- in the high 60's-- and bright and sunny. We sat on the gorgeous lawn outside of the Conservatory of Flowers and then took a walk through Golden Gate park, past primeval--looking groves and ponds, a mini-rave with lots of stoned college students, the new Asian art museum, and a really cool fire-dancing performance which was accompanied by a fantastic drumming circle. Very California. We joked that we'd seen it all and could go home now. My college buddy is a professional ballroom dancer, and her fiance works at Google, so we enjoyed hearing about their respective professions (for very different reasons).

We returned to Teo's awesome apartment on Haight Street. He's not quite in Haight-Ashbury, but pretty close, and his apartment has a balcony with a great view of the cute gingerbread houses that dot the city. We put our bags down and relaxed for a minute or two before heading out in Teo's Prius (Priuses are so cool!) to Fisherman's Wharf for some seafood. We walked around Fisherman's Wharf, trying to settle on a restaurant and tourist-watching, and then ate at The Blue Mermaid.

Sunday we slept in and waited for Ruby's lost suitcase to arrive, which it finally did. Then, we were off to Haight Ashbury for brunch (mmmmm... banana walnut pancakes) and a trip to Amoeba, the largest independent record store I've ever been in. It had a fantastic selection, and we browsed and left with quite a nice stack of exciting new music. I strolled around the area, which is (predicably) filled with funky clothing stores, tattoo parlors, coffee shops, head shops, and other "countercultural" spots. It feels a little sad to me that the hippie counterculture has now become a mass marketing scheme for tourists, but if you don't think about it then it's still fun.

We drove down Lombard street (Teo is an intrepid driver and the hills do not phase him) and over to Coit Tower, which sits atop a hill overlooking the bay, both bridges, Alcatraz, Treasure Island, etc. It has phenomenal views as well as a whole set of communist WPA murals of various California industries on the bottom. We snapped lots of photos of the city. The weather has been fantastic so far, so we've been really lucky. We also walked over to Telegraph Hill in search of the famous parrots, but they had gone to roost elsewhere. The flowers are in full bloom, especially cherry blossoms, so just walking around the greenery was beautiful.

I insisted on a stop at Pier 39 to listen to the sea lions barking at each other. They had a photo exhibit showing how the local marine mammal folks save injured or sick sea lions. Although it's sad that they need these elaborate rescue schemes, it was pretty cool to see how it is done.

Then, we met up with a group of Ruby's college friends for dinner in Chinatown. It is the beginning of the lunar new year of the boar, so there were random firecracker blasts at various points, but other than that dinner was uneventful but yummy. I got to browse the poetry section at the City Lights bookstore and bought a few volumes of poety, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "Coney Island of the Mind" since it is his store, after all. Amiri Baraka is doing a reading there tomorrow, and I was a bit sad that we are missing it.

Monday and Tuesday:

The past two days have consisted mostly of looking at really beautiful views. We've taken two rolls of film in two days...

On Monday, we drove down to Monterey through rolling hills and farmland out of a Steinbeck novel. It is fantastic to see fields stretched out as far as the eye can see. We stopped in Gilroy, the garlic capital of California, to buy some garlic-themed products, including a garlic lolipop, which we have not tried yet.

We met up with NH3 and his wife J at their home and then drove downtown to the Monterey aquarium, where we marveled at the luminescent jellyfish, the giant, deformed-looking sunfish, and very wise-looking sturgeon. I even got a "guide to environmentally sound fish consumption" so now I know what to eat and what not to eat. Click here to see the guide-- it's great!

Then, we drove the scenic drive (it is actually called that) down the edge of the bay, stopping to ooh and ahh at huge cypress trees strategically placed at dramatic points on craggy seaside rocks. It was great to have the time to catch up with NH3 and J. NH3 is finishing up his thesis research on underwater submarine detection technology (it's pretty cool--something to do with focusing sound waves to do echolocation/ radar with them) and then moving back to Newport RI in the fall. They also have a very cute puppy, so we had a great time playing with him and taking turns trying to tire him out (it was impossible, however). As befits a Navy Puppy, he is extremely well-trained and has been a star student at puppy obedience school.

Tuesday morning, we headed out fairly early and drove into Big Sur on Highway 1. Of course, the views are absolutely phenomenal-- just breathtaking the entire way-- and we had to train ourselves not to stop at every single turnout to get out and take photos. We still have probably 20 pictures that are variations on the amazing coastline scenes.

We stopped at Andrew Morel state park and took a lovely short hike down to the beach area. We passed through a grove of cedar trees (they smelled good) and first noticed one, then, two monarch butterflies-- then, the whole grove exploded with butterflies! They were apparently roosting there on their migratory path. The beach was gorgeous and we just stood around and looked at the view before heading back to the car.

We had lunch at Nepenthe, a restaurant with perhaps the most amazing view of any restaurant I've ever been in, and a name to match. (Nepenthe is the magical liquor that makes you forget all of your troubles and stresses.) Huge hawks kept soaring overhead as we ate our burgers.

Then, we drove on to Hearst Castle, the summer home of William Randolph Hearst. Wow. The guy owned tapestries that had belonged to Louis XVI, decorated his walls with 14th century gothic choirstalls, imported the fragments of an ancient Roman temple to make the facade for his outdoor swimming pool, used gold-encrusted tiles on the floor of his indoor swimming pool, had an indoor movie theater which seated 90 people, created his own zoo on the property, and owned 45 miles of the California coastline at one point. The castle consists of the three "bungalows" (2000 square feet each) and the main house. It was a marvel of excess. He jumbled everything he had together with no respect for period or context-- a 16th century Spanish painting next to an Art Deco statue, etc. But it was fun to see. No one should ever be that rich.

In the realm of simpler pleasures, we drove to a spot on the coast where hundreds of elephant seals, harbor seals, and sea lions all hang out. The elephant seals are humongous-- some over 2 tons! The most impressive thing was the noise they all made-- they barked, roared, squealed, screamed, sang, yodeled, and made other noises I really can't describe. Hundreds of seals all talking to each other all at once was deafening.

Then, we drove to Cayucos, a little beach town, and spent the night here at a great B&B. Since we are not spending anything on lodging the other nights, we decided to splurge a little bit and stayed at a lovely one-- which we got a great deal on since it is off-season. We had a suite to ourselves, with a balcony and everything. The suite was sweet.

Wednesday and Thursday:

Our friend W successfully defended his dissertation yesterday and in return received a T shirt that says, "Trust me: I'm a doctor."

We arrived in San Diego yesterday at around noon to meet up with W's family and friends before the defense. We all got to watch his presentation on his research on interluken 1-beta and how it interacts with cell membranes. It had lots of colorful diagrams of spirally-looking proteins. That's really about all I can tell you about the contents, but apparently it was good enough for a PhD. We had a little reception for him afterwards and met some of his colleagues from his department. Then, the whole family descended on a Mexcian restaurant and celebrated with margaritas and enchiladas.

The day before yesterday, we woke up, took a brief walk on the beach at Cayucos, and settled in for our longest drive yet. We drove to Santa Barbara and stopped there for lunch and a quick tour of the Mission, which is supposed to be one of the largest and most beautiful on the central coast. I was pleasantly surprised by the positive attention in their exhibits given to the talents and cultural heritage that the Chumash Indians had BEFORE the Spaniards arrived. As always, my favorite part of the cloister was the garden. The main church was painted in bright rainbow colors and patterns and smelled of incense from that morning's Ash Wednesday service.

We drove on to Los Angeles, singing along on the way, and encountered some famous LA traffic. ( :We got to Santa Monica Pier by around 6pm and checked out the scene on the pier. The solar-powered rollercoaster was closed, much to my dismay, but we played games in the arcade for a few minutes (I won mad tickets at skee-ball) and then went to meet our friend M from the NHC. We met M at a fantastic Mexican restaurant where I had the best tamales I've had in a long time. My cousin J met us at the restaurant and we all caught up.

Ruby went off to see Houston Persons, a famous saxophonist, at a local jazz club, and I went with J to meet her boyfriend, who seemed cool in that chill California-style way. Ruby met up with us later that evening and we all chatted for a bit longer before we collapsed at J's.

Friday and Saturday:

We are getting gloomy because tomorrow we have to get back on a plane and return to the frozen north. Yesterday, we had a chance to check out Los Angeles. We hadn't yet met Ruby's friend's new fiance, who lives in the city of angels, so we arranged to have lunch in LA's farmer's market. While it bore no resemblance to an actual farmer's market (it was definitely the cleaned-up, fancy-schmancy Hollywood version) it offered many choices for food and a good place to meet up.

After scoping her out (and calling our friend to tell him that we approved) we walked over to the La Brea tar pits. According to the map I had, "Park La Brea" was in between the market and the tar pit museum, so I decided that it would be a lovely half hour walk through the park. Unfortunately, "Park La Brea" was an exclusive gated housing community, so we had to walk around the outside. Very LA.

The tar pits themselves were just smelly ponds, but the museum was very cool. They've found an incredible number and variety of fossils and preserved remains in the pits, and we got to see the skeletons of mammoths, sabretooth cats, giant sloths, camels, wolves, and all kinds of other crazy huge mammals that apparently used to roam southern California. One of my favorite parts of the museum was the lab and workroom, which had huge glass windows so that spectators could see the scientists cleaning and preserving the fossils. Ruby got very emotional about a diorama of a baby mammoth watching helplessly as its mother was sucked into the tar pit. It really made me happy that I wasn't alive when the sabretooth cats were hanging around.

Then, we drove up to Hollywood since neither of us had ever seen Grauman's Theater or the Walk of Fame. Frankly, we were underwhelmed. They were setting up the red carpet walk for the Academy Awards and it seemed like much ado about nothing. Other tourists were busy snapping photos of themselves walking on the red carpet. We did check out the foot and hand prints of our favorite actors. It was worth it to be able to say that we'd done it, but neither of us was impressed.

Then, we headed over to my friend JG's home for shabbat dinner with her and two other friends in town. She hosted us for a lovely and delicious dinner and we chatted about how to create incentives (especially monetary ones) for companies to do the right thing. JG is a social worker specializing in end-of-life and geriatric care, and I am always inspired by her work. We stayed up late catching up.

This morning, we headed back to San Diego-- our final long California drive-- and met up with Ruby's friend S. and her husband and new baby for lunch in Old Town San Diego, which is supposed to re-create the Mexican mission atmosphere of ...well... old San Diego. Then, we went with W&W (that was a lot of W's!) to the San Diego Zoo, and headed straight for the tapirs, much to my excitement. They were so cute! And they had a capybara as well. We enjoyed the well-designed zoo, and since we were there later in the afternoon, many of the animals were waking up from afternoon naps and getting active again.

Along with other friends of W&W's, we got food for dinner and sat at a picnic table at the beach to eat it. There were tons of stars out and the crashing of the waves was very relaxing, although we were freezing. ( : It was a good way to say goodbye to California...

Best story of the trip:
We were scheduled to leave SF for Monterey early on Monday morning so we could hang out with NH3 and his wife Monday afternoon. However, Ruby K decided that he wanted to return to Amoeba records to buy a couple of CDs for W&W, our San Diego hosts. When we arrived at Amoeba early Monday morning, it was closed.
Ruby poked his head into the door and motioned frantically to one of the clerks on the opening shift. The guy came over and asked, "Whaddaya want?" Ruby made his plea, insisting that he knew exactly which two CDs he wanted. The clerk looked skeptical, but asked, "Which two albums?" Ruby told him that he wanted The Coup's new record and another album. The clerk shrugged and walked toward the shelves, saying, "I'll see what I can do." At this point, another Amoeba worker scurried over to Ruby and said, "You know who that was, right?!?! That was The Coup's former guitarist!" Ruby got the CDs.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Thoughts on Systemic Change and Parshat Vayechi

This shabbat I was struck by the coincidence of two encounters, one with a fellow Department of Education colleague and one with the Torah portion. In Parshat Vayechi, Jacob blesses Joseph's sons Ephraim and Menashe. Joseph assumes that Jacob wants to give the "right-hand" or primary blessing to the elder son (Menashe) and positions his sons in front of his blind father so that Jacob's right hand will rest on Menashe's head. However, Jacob crosses his hands and lays his right hand on Ephraim's head, giving him the primary blessing. When Joseph tries to correct him, Jacob acknowledges that what he has done is unconventional, but that it's correct, and that he made a deliberate choice to bless Ephraim.

At shabbat lunch, I spent a good deal of time ranting about the New York City Department of Education with several other teachers and one DOE administrator. All of us complained of powerlessness in the face of such a huge bureaucratic system; we all griped about feeling that our hands are tied due to mandates that dictate our priorities, methods, instructional values, and materials, even when they run counter to what we understand to be solid educational choices. The most high-profile example, of course, is the growing emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing due to the No Child Left Behind legislation. What was most disturbing to me was that the DOE administrator had the exact same complaints as the teachers; he also felt totally powerless to make choices different than those dictated to him by legislation, the central DOE offices, etc.

All of this made me admire Jacob greatly. Old, infirm, and blind, he was presented with a situation in which the system of primogeniture had been literally laid out before him. He was expected to behave in a certain way, to uphold certain societal norms and priorities, and all he had to do was stretch out his hands right in front of him. The system "set him up." No one could have blamed him had he blessed Menashe with the right-hand blessing even if it had been destined for Ephraim.

But he didn't. He crossed his hands, and with that simple act, he bucked the system, transformed his grandsons' fates, and ensured that the future would turn out as he wanted it to, not the way that the system had ordained. Jacob took a seemingly-inevitable fulfillment of his obligation and transformed it into an active choice in which he was able to envision a new and different future. He did have to defend his decision against Joseph's questions (and implicit condescension toward his dying father), but his decision was ultimately upheld.

How many times are we presented with choices that we think have already been made for us, situations when we could easily abdicate our responsibility by saying, "That's just the way the system works. I can't do anything about it"? Let's hope that we can be encouraged by Jacob's example and cross our hands every once in a while. Let's hope that we can all find the strength to stop taking the system and our own powerlessness for granted and instead find the situations in which we can make a bold moral choices that affirm our visions of the world.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

What do Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and Arlo Guthrie have in common?

D’var Torah—Vayeshev 2006

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a leading 20th century theologian, commented that last week’s torah portion, this portion, and next week’s portion all prominently feature a mysterious “ish” or man. Last week in vayishlach we read about Jacob’s nighttime battle with a nameless ish. Next week, Joseph’s brothers, unaware of his true identity as they beg him for food, will refer to him as “the man.” This week, we read about another nameless “ish.” Jacob sends Joseph on his fatal errand to check on his brothers in Shchem, where Jacob thinks they are pasturing their flocks. When Joseph arrives in Shchem, they are nowhere to be found. While Joseph is wandering the fields searching, a man finds him. This conversation ensues:

The Man: What are you looking for?
Joseph: I’m looking for my brothers. Please tell me where they took their flocks.
The Man: They left. I heard them say that they were going to Dotan.

I would add to Rabbi Soloveichik’s drash that in this week’s parsha we also have a mysterious isha or woman, in addition to the ish. In order to obtain justice for herself and to continue her dead husband’s line, Tamar disguises herself as a cult prostitute and sits by the roadside. The Torah makes a point of telling us that when Judah sleeps with her, he has no idea who she is. When Judah’s friend returns with payment for the “isha,” she has disappeared. They are dumbfounded until Tamar appears in court and reveals her true identity.

So what are the connections between these figures?

First, they all represent encounters with an Other, a being or person assumed to be distant from the self, family, and community. In two of the cases, those of Joseph and of Tamar, the mysterious Other turns out to be a member of the family, an intimate part of the self. In the case of the ish who Jacob wrestles, we never really know his true identity—was he an angel? A manifestation of Jacob’s own psyche? Here we have the theme of the person who is seemingly an Other but is revealed to be intimately connected with the self.

Second, in the case of the ish and isha in this portion, both of the interactions are perfunctory encounters in which the person is objectified. The man in the field at Shchem is just that—some guy who gave Joseph directions. To Judah, Tamar is just some kedesha, a cult prostitute, he meets along the roadside. The ish or isha is just an object, someone of use to the main character, but, at first glance, not significant as an individual.

However, these two incidents are intimately connected to some of the grandest and most crucial events in Jewish history—the Exodus from Egypt and the establishment of the Davidic Kingdom. Peretz, one of the twins born from the union of Judah and Tamar, becomes one of the ancestors of King David, and therefore of the messiah as well; according to traditional accounts, the messiah will be “ben Partzi.” So Tamar’s actions result in the birth of King David and the establishment of the Israelite kingdom.

How does some guy in the field giving directions relate to the Exodus from Egypt? Well, to explain that I’ll have to retell a dvar torah that I heard from one of the great rabbis of our generation, Arlo Guthrie, at a concert. Guthrie pointed out that the Exodus really all leads back to that man standing in the field. Had Joseph given up on finding his brothers and just headed back to Jacob, the story of the Jewish people would have been very different. Joseph never would have been sold into slavery by his brothers, never would have gone down to Egypt, never would have brought his family there, and thus the Jews would never have been enslaved in order to be redeemed. And, as Guthrie said at the concert, it was all due to one man standing in a field saying, “They went that way.” Joseph himself emphasizes that every step was part of God’s plan; when his brothers apologize to him for selling him into slavery, he tells them, “Even though you meant harm to me, God meant it for good, to achieve his present end, the survival of many people.”

Traditional commentaries pick up on the importance of this figure. Rashi, the 11th century French commentator, states that the man is actually the angel Gabriel, while Midrash Rabbah on Genesis says that Joseph actually encountered three angels, based on the fact that the word ish is repeated three times in that passage, thus drawing a connection between the men who announce Isaac’s birth to Abraham and Sarah and Joseph’s encounter in the field.

What is an angel anyway, and why is it important to the rabbis to designate that this man standing in the field is actually an angel? First, the rabbis are responding to some curious details in the text. Note that Joseph does not ask the man “can you tell me where my brothers are?” but rather “tell me where my brothers are” and that the man does not have to ask who Joseph’s brothers are or what they look like—he knows. That seems to indicate some supernatural funky stuff going on.

However, I also think that if we consider the connection between all of the mysterious Others in these parshiot—all of the “ish”es and the isha, that in their insistence on identifying this man in the field as an angel, the rabbis are actually saying something about the possibility for humans to be messengers of God and instruments for bringing about God’s will.

The most common Biblical term for angel is malach, which comes from the root for messenger—a messenger of God. So by definition, an angel is someone acting as God’s messenger. Here’s where Rabbi Guthrie comes in. That random guy in the field, nameless and mildly helpful, actually ends up having a dramatic effect on the destiny of the Jewish people. His small gesture of kindness, giving directions to a lost stranger, becomes a key part of a chain of events that results in the fulfillment of God’s plan.

It often seems Pollyanna-ish and overly idealistic to believe that we have the power to be a force for positive change in the world. This story does not deny the fact that we are all tiny cogs within our society, and that our ability to make direct, sweeping change is limited. It does not overestimate our power. Instead, it reminds us that the long-term, distant consequences of our actions may be more powerful and more significant than we could ever dream.

This story also pushes us to recognize the innate possibility for power in those people we encounter in our daily lives—the checkout clerk, the person next to us on the subway. It cautions us not to see them merely in relation to ourselves, but rather as potential world-changers and great deed-dooers.

Here we have two seemingly random encounters with a nameless other, and both turn out to be crucial events in determining the history of the Jewish people. In both cases, the Other is actually a malach, a messenger of God, an instrument of God’s will in the world. So here’s a double blessing for this week: First, may we be able to recognize that the person, the ish or isha, who we encounter in a seemingly meaningless, day-to-day way, may actually be a malach. Secondly, may we be able to understand the ways in which we ourselves, despite our seeming insignificance, can be malachim.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Ann Richards z'l

Hope there are motorcycles and nasty Republicans to berate in heaven! (No, actually, I'm pretty sure that nasty people of any political persuasion aren't supposed to end up in heaven.) While Ann Richards was not the first woman elected governor of Texas (Ma Furguson, 1924) she was the second, the most progressive, and certainly the most feisty. Outspoken and brave, she sponsored some controversial but ultimately successful programs, like the "Robin Hood" plan to make public school funding more equitable, and a substance abuse treatment plan in Texas prisons; she appointed record numbers of women and minorities to her administration. Before being governor, she was a junior high school teacher (which probably prepared her for dealing with badly-behaved members of the Texas legislature), raised four children, and won a battle with alcoholism. Apropos for a Texas woman, she was always perfectly coiffed. She was politically active up until last spring (when she was diagnosed with cancer) stumping for Dean and later Kerry during the last presidential election. Ann also had some of the best lines EVER, including the famous, "Ginger Rodgers had to do everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels!" and, of George H. W. Bush, "He was born with a silver foot in his mouth." Because she was governor of my home state when I was just becoming aware of politics, she's always the first image that comes to mind when someone says "governor of Texas." Thank God, because if Rick Perry came to mind, I'd probably go crazy. Ann, we'll miss you.
Great photo

Monday, August 21, 2006

Sometimes even the rabbi is at a loss...

I was tickled by this funny story from the Talmud. Anyone who has ever felt lost or uncomfortable when asked to do a ritual act in an unfamiliar community can identify. It also has a good moral at the end-- that observation and attention can get you out of many a tight spot.

This story is related when the rabbis are trying to figure out what the kiddush (blessing to sanctify the day done over a cup of wine) on shabbat day is supposed to comprise. Since the day is technically sanctified on Friday night, what is the purpose of the Saturday kiddush? What should you say? They basically decide that it just needs to consist of the one-sentence formulation "Baruch atah... borei pri hagafen" "Blessed are you. . . creator of the fruit of the vine." However, because this kiddush is so short (especially when compared to the Friday night kiddush) it is euphemistically called the "Great Kiddush."

This is my own translation and I tried to be literal except where it was absolutely necessary to add in [information you needed to understand the story].

Pesachim 106a
Rav Ashi happened to be in Machoza. They said to him, "Sir, make the Great Kiddush for us." They brought him [a cup of wine]. He thought [to himself], "What is the Great Kiddush?!?!? All of the blessings [i.e. for kiddush] begin with 'borei pri hagafen,' so I'll say that first. He said, " . . . borei pri hagafen" and he drew out the words [until] he saw an old man sit down and drink. He said to himself, "A wise man has eyes in his head." (a quote from Ecclesiastes)


Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Stuff that Should Be Self-Evident

Try reading the Declaration of Independence today. I promise that it will surprise you if you haven't read it since US history in high school-- or even if you read it last year. Plus, the language is beautiful.

The Declaration of Independence

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Over the river and through the woods . . .
In common parlance, the word "Talmudic" has come to connote reasoning or argumentation that is excessively arcane, esoteric, convoluted, hair-splitting, etc.
I just started a summer program in which I am studying Talmud every day, and my overwhelming sense is quite the opposite.
Just as a differential equations textbook would be arcane and esoteric to someone who had not studied some math, Talmud is certainly daunting and seemingly-irrelevant to those not engrossed in Jewish texts. Obviously, many sugyot (discussions) in the Talmud are also highly concerned with the specific details of observance or law, because that's the Gemara's basic job-- to explore what it means to live day-to-day while trying to follow the principles and rules established in the Mishnah.
In the past few days, I've really felt how folksy the Talmud is, how mundane-- how much the materials collected in the Talmud are a product of the everyday discussions and disagreements of a group of (albeit very intelligent and learned) guys.
For example, when a rabbi hasn't explicitly stated an opinion about a particular topic (or even sometimes when he has), the discussion sometimes tries to figure out what he thought by bringing anecdotes about him. One of my favorites from Friday was from a sugya about whether or not a "taste" from a plate that has been used for one type of food will transfer to different hot food that is later placed on that plate. The story tells that a rabbi goes to his grandfather's house (the grandfather also being a great rabbi). Grandpa rabbi's eyes hurt, so grandson rabbi prepares him an ointment in a bowl. Later, grandson rabbi brings grandpa rabbi stew in the same bowl (presumably after it's been washed) and Grandpa complains, "Even after all this time I can still taste the ointment!"
Doesn't this sound like your grandpa?
The Talmud is filled with little stories, petty arguments and ego plays, domestic dramas, and the details of day-to-day life... not "Talmudic" at all, in that sense...