29 September 2011

RH Sermon One

My comments for the High Holy Days 5772 will consist of three sets of ideas.  The first will be a particular, broad view of the contemporary state of Israel; the second will be a broad view about how we, as American Jews living in Brooklyn today can make change in the lives of ourselves and others in very practical ways; and the third set of ideas will revolve around the notion that the American Jewish in the present and future will increasingly center itself on ideas of pluralism, diversity of Jewish expression on the religious and cultural spectrum, and exemplify the "open-tent" values of both in-reach and out-reach.  Welcoming guests into a deeper relationship with and understanding of Jewish life and civilization.

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RH Sermon One

This hot, muggy September weather calls to mind one of the qualities I love about walking around Tel Aviv this time of year.  In the way that the senses can transport one back in time to a place of meaning, tonight we find the atmosphere in which we welcome the New Year to be similar to a late summer night in Israel's largest city, where I went on several occasions recently, to try to understand the motivations and issues at play in the famous "tent-city" protests we've been reading about in the Israeli and American media.  There gathered were young and old; from different nations of the broad Jewish world--Ashkenazi and Mizrachi; the Left, Center and Right of the Israeli political spectrum; and, in what may surprise people, Arab Israeli citizens as well--all united in the catchphrase of the movement for fair housing and decent wages, העם דורש צדק חברתי--the People Demand Social Justice.

In speaking to many of these individuals, it became abundantly clear that they were attempting to create a new narrative for the Israeli present that wasn't going to be bound by the tried and true dynamics of the frustratingly slow and dysfunctional, grim parameters of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  That is to say, a narrative that turns people off; that eliminates hope; and that, despite occupying the world stage at the United Nations last week, knocking from the stage virtually any other world issue except this one--no small feat for two small peoples.  I had this uneasy feeling last week when walking near the U.N.--a feeling that much of the world was thinking, "Can't you two guys figure out how to grow up and solve your problems?  We all have to sit around and watch this argument again?"

Jewish guilt or self-conscious awareness?  The world has a point.

And yet.  And yet Israel's existential reality is at stake.  It's miraculous existence after two-thousand years of Jewish exile is threatened on at least two fronts--a potentially destabilized Arab world, whose path forward is not yet clear in the wake of the Arab Spring; and what social scientists are debating as the "ticking time bomb" of Israeli demography:  the dissolution of an Israeli population's majority in the Land of Israel due to rising Arab birthrates and steady Jewish birthrates.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, goes one argument, is in fact being played out on the stage of greater, broader, reality.

Since Zionism came into being in the late 19th century and argued that the Jewish people ought to return to its historical homeland en masse after a nearly two-thousand year exile, Land, Language and Nation were to be reunited as a statement of values about the future of the Jewish people.  To revive and rescue a people, scattered throughout the Diaspora, through the revolutionary means of a re-born, modern Hebrew language; to re-claim and re-inhabit the ancient cities and towns of from which we were expelled; and to constitute a state like all other states, but ours to be deeply rooted in values of Jewish life and civilization.  העם--the People--returning to their land is a shift of radical proportions.  It would mean setting up economies and systems of government that would be explicit expressions of Jewish values culled from our sacred texts, our rich and diverse history, and the engagement with the countless cultures among which we have lived.

Similarly, our own congregation, nearing its 150th year of existence, came into being as an expression of American Jewish aspirations for redeeming the Jewish people here in America--not as a majority culture, however, but as a minority culture among many--e pluribus unum--from the many, one.  Whereas in the broader context of American life, Jews would accommodate and adapt to a greater whole, Zionists were seeking a different values-based aspiration of being the majority culture that navigated the dynamic of minority cultures adapting to it.

As American Jews are forever conscious of the ways in which Judaism adapts itself to the values of the host nation in the Diaspora, Israeli Jews are forever conscious of the responsibility of what it means to be that host nation.  Foreign workers in Tel Aviv; debates and negotiations between labor and business owners; the religious and cultural significance of a mandated "day of rest" each week; the national language of discourse; and the classical tropes of a people's narrative, from food to music to how we organize time:  these are the parameters of Jewish responsibility.  It should never cease to amaze us what has actually been accomplished in the past hundred years despite not resolving basic border and security issues with its neighbors.

What was particularly enlightening and inspiring about the tent-city protests this summer was the degree to which Israelis across the spectrum had gathered en masse--during the larger rallies a proportional equivalent in the United States would translate into a 10-12 million person rally (the greatest in our history)--as a statement of values.  And not what people refer to as the stereotypical values of "survival" or a nation under threat; not the blood and sacrifice of past generations for our benefit; but something Old-New:  העם דורש צדק חברתי--the People Demand Social Justice.

Justice--the word itself evocative of the call in Deuteronomy in which we are commanded to pursue the creation of our society as the Divine mandate for building a just society.  Or, as social commentators might say today, a "return to Traditional Values."

It was greatly inspiring to walk the streets this summer in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; to hear the People debating their future; to see the citizenship not bury its head in despair over the border disputes that took center stage at the U.N. but instead to demand that the future would be redeemed by a return to Zionism's roots and reminding themselves that a nation founded on just values ought to return to those values from time to time in order to renew its covenant with its values, its history, its narrative, its God.

We were once at home and the Babylonians sent us into Exile.  We were once at home and the Romans sent us into Exile.  We were once at home and the Crusades sent us into Exile.  But the late nineteenth and early twentieth century sought to overturn the assumptions of the prior two thousand years by returning the Jewish people not only to its Land and Language, but to its National Narrative of Values:  העם דורש צדק חברתי--the People Demand Social Justice.

Whereas the classic trope had been righteous suffering in Exile, this new idea was meant to liberate us from a narrative that restricted our development as a People.  Isaac willfully being bound to the altar, as we read in Torah passage for Rosh Hashanah is no more.  Rather, the Sages offer a different view.  When Abraham and Isaac and the two servants head toward Mount Moriah for the binding of Isaac, Abraham asks them what they see.  "We see a vast desert, a wasteland; dry, hot, dangerous," say the servants.  Isaac describes a mountain aglow with light, radiant with possibility and blessing.  "You stay here," Abraham says to the servants.  And he proceeds to the future with Isaac.

In this reading, the sacrifice of Isaac is not one of morose suffering but is an offering forward, a light onto the future, the fire of possibility.

Moses at the Burning Bush had a similar revelation; Akiva at the well, too, saw that nature bore truths that the more discerning minds could apprehend for the betterment of the self and the society; similarly, Isaac represents for us the ever-regenerating possibility of a Jewish future built on the values of Justice for All, in the same way that our American founders wrought such a vision for those seeking refuge and home on these shores as well.

This year I will lead a trip to Israel for our congregation and I invite you to join me at this critically important time for our people.  I invite you to see first hand the amazing and heroic work being done on a daily basis in the Land of Israel--areas of conflict where peace is being made; areas of dislocation where healing is done; ancient and contemporary history; border crossings of dispute; art, culture and some of the best food you'll ever eat.

In all my adult years, I've only become increasingly convinced that those who stay away from Israel run the risk of drawing the conclusion that Abraham's servants drew--in seeing only a difficult desert, one misses the mountain aglow with light and possibility.

In this New Year, may we see possibility and blessing; fulfillment and peace.

לשנה טובה
לשנה של שלום


23 September 2011

Mere Mortals

Well, one week has come and gone at the United Nations and so far the world hasn't come to an end.  That's not to say a nearly incomprehensibly large amount of time, effort, patience, sleeplessness, brinksmanship and massive national security resources have not been brought to bear on the mediation of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.  Witnessing diplomacy up close as we all have; managing fears and expectations; mitigating hysteria and diminishing violence where possible; and hoping against despair that a solution can be reached, we have passed one leg of the journey with many, many more miles to go.

So far we seem to be following a script of pre-determined chess moves; and as the sun heads west and Shabbat begins, each side has staked out its territory.   And so into the breach will now step the most powerful nations of the world.  We will see what they are able to achieve.

One thing I did hear this week that I can say we will not be counting on came from a young Lubavitcher man, who reported to me in passing that the "nations of the world now surrounding and threatening Israel" were best to be understood as the prophetic warnings issued more than 2500 hundred years ago (albeit about different nations, different kingdoms, different Jews and different enemies) but applied to our day as the dawn of the Apocalypse, presaging the coming of the Moshiach, in the form of no less than that kindly bearded fellow on the sides of trucks and vans, whose visage smiles and waves at you on our fair city's streets and whose emissaries ask, "Are you Jewish?"  Perhaps they should now add to the inquiry, "Care to try an Apocalypse?"

The problem with such End of Days thinking, of course, is that Jewish history teaches us that we've been on the verge of destruction so many times, Apocalyptic prophecies mean less than the quiet and not-so-quiet, dogged and heroic efforts we all can take to save ourselves from disaster when possible; but that when disaster does strike, God forbid, our formidable nature in national reconstruction is impossible to destroy. 

Change is coming--that much we know.  We don't know exactly when and we don't know at what pace it will arrive.  But the more we're engaged with rolled up sleeves, with hearts and minds ready to serve, come what what may, the better off we'll all be. 

Gods of the Apocalypse:  You guys sit this one out, thank you very much.  We mere mortals can take it from here.




22 September 2011

Reverse. Forward.

Now we're talking.

I remember the day in September 2009 when a large section of our Main Sanctuary ceiling fell in.  It was between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the timing was extraordinary.  While one was meant to be focused on our wounded souls in need of redemption, it became abundantly clear that we were a Jewish community in great need of also repairing the vessels that housed our collective souls.  And thus the work began.

In truth, it had begun, conceptually, a few weeks before.  One day, while sitting around on a hot August afternoon, someone on staff had offered that perhaps we were spending so much time repairing our old buildings, never seeming able to get ahead of the game. because we were dealing with a kind of mysterious curse.

You see, above the door posts of our Main Sanctuary, the name of the synagogue is written in Hebrew incorrectly--בית אלוחים--where it should read בית אלוהים--where the ח and ה are flipped.  A subtle distinction; but given the long-standing Jewish linguistic tradition of the Hebrew letter ה signifying God's sacred name, it struck many of us as a kind of mysterious act of aggression against God's sanctity.  That the ח is distinctly guttural, a rather primordially base clearing of the throat; whereas the ה is airy, breathy, ephemeral and, well, holy, seemed to bring the point home.  That this grammatical indiscretion was carved in stone in 1909, a hundred years earlier, had us obsessing one hot August day about what might come to be on 9-09-09 of our century, until a Hebrew school teacher invaded a staff meeting on that self-same day, dressed as a dinosaur, demanding that the time had come to "reverse the curse."

And so it came to be.  We had planned on inviting the Arcade Fire to come play in the Main Sanctuary but that didn't work out; and then we got busy with High Holy Days preparations; and then word came down that the anti-gay, anti-black, anti-Jewish, anti-human Westboro Baptists from Kansas were coming to Brooklyn.

However powerless we may have felt in the face of such a theatrical onslaught of hatred was reversed by the sense that the moment had called upon us to be decent, welcoming, and good.  And so as our plan for kindness was hatched, the ceiling fell.  It ought never cease to amaze us as to how precisely symmetrical life can be.

The ceiling open, the heavens nearer, was an opportunity to define and affirm; to redefine and reaffirm everything historically good and inspiringly aspirational about our nearly 150 year old community.  Generations gathered on our Sanctuary steps that Saturday morning to greet haters from Kansas; and the embarrassingly rich friendship and community of Brooklyn stood with us--Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Atheists; men, women, and children; young and old; straight and gay; and then and there, it was as if I could hear the ח etched to ה and bear witness to an old-new House of God emerge.

Reverend Daniel Meeter over at Old First invited us to worship in his space until our ceiling was fixed and next week, when Rosh Hashanah approaches, we will worship at Old First for the 3rd year in a row and, should our construction go well, for the last time.  Inspired by the hospitality we've been shown, the friendship between our communities has grown stronger; and we look forward with anticipation, to inviting Reverend Meeter to light a candle on our Hanukah Menorah when we return to our Main Sanctuary under a new roof this winter.

The enthusiasm for and veneration of our historic community; the depth of appreciation for our ever-evolving Jewish traditions in a century and a half of building Jewish life in Brooklyn; and the unrestrained optimism of new growth in membership--lifted upward by inspiring acts of generosity from our membership and those in the broader Jewish community who believe in what we're doing, made the raising of new scaffolding today a real blessing.  Several of us literally shouted with joy when the truck arrived to begin installing a new set of pipe and board to create the lift to the roof so that demolition and replacement could proceed in the weeks ahead.

How fitting that today a young man came by the synagogue at 2:45 to our afternoon service, in need of a minyan, to say Kaddish for a father who passed away in August.  Not fully literate in the Hebrew alef-bet but behaviorally rooted enough to know of his obligation to honor the blessing of his father's life with the ancient words of Kaddish, I listened, as one listens to a perfect symphony, of his distinguishing between ח and ה as an old-new language took hold, as his father's soul soared heavenward, as the curse of mourning was lifted, as new light filled his troubled soul.

Mincha ended at 3 pm on the nose; and as we've done each day for the last three weeks, we passed a tzedakah box, collecting dollars and coins for a future cause we'll soon support.  That the tzedakah box is a model of the very sanctuary we have committed ourselves to repairing was a symmetry that did not go unnoticed--especially today.




21 September 2011

"Lift up your hand"

I went looking for it and found it.

When does that ever happen?

Ambling through the mad press of human bodies exiting out onto the platforms of Grand Central Station, searching for the right cup of coffee before a morning teaching for board members of the JDC, making the correct and incisive decision to get my buzz at Aroma, the Israeli cafe on 42nd Street, a hyper-kinetic homage to the stuffed traffic scene of cops and private security forming a protective wall up toward the U.N. in preparation of President Obama's visit, I had a sense that something special might happen this morning.

The teaching was fun.  Energized.  I combined four texts I had never put together before--George Mosse diagnosing the end of Bildung in German Jewry; Franz Rosenzweig rebelling against said assimilationist utopias; Rabbi Akiva's decision to learn; and Ezra's mandate that Jews hear Torah.  It was a fortuitous alchemy.

Afterward I kibitzed with friends:  a mentor from my Hillel days; the mother of a bride I recently married; a philanthropic supporter arts and culture in Jerusalem.  A colleague from rabbinic school and I traded notes on pulpit work in the hallway of the hotel as trustees hustled off to their next morning sessions.  It all felt good.  

A man of few vices, I decided to celebrate the success of the lesson in the good old American way:  buying something.

So I took the local downtown in search of some hidden gem on a used bookstore shelf.  Emerging into the bright yellow light washing over the sidewalks of Union Square, a heroin addict caught between sitting and lying down, nodding somewhere between consciousness and the Pharaoh of Addiction to whom he was enslaved, kept missing the straw which sprung awkwardly from his can of Arizona Iced Tea.

Bummer.

I stepped around two cops who approached this poor soul, confident in their treatment of him, and stepped into the nearest bookstore.  Within moments, I found it:  the National Poetry Foundation's 1986 "Collected Poems of Samuel Menashe," a white, gray and black paperback.  Having recently bought online the Foundation's more recent hardcover edition of Menashe's work, more contemporarily designated as that of a "Neglected Master," I marveled at my luck.

For inside the front and back cover, besides writing a dedication in his own hand, the poet included his own versions, in deep blue ink, of his own poems.  And what's more, in several passages of the book, he amends his printed versions, often adding the letter "m" to emphasize a certain playfulness of sound, a vocal texture meant to ease the soaring ideas of his poetry to a soft and steady landing.

I couldn't believe it.

But such is faith.  Sometimes one must admit that there are guiding forces beyond us.  And he knew it himself--because this is what he wrote in the back of the book:
Dominion

Stare at the sea
you on your chair
sinking in sand,
Command the waves
to stand like cliffs
Lift up your hand.



20 September 2011

Israel, Palestine and the U.N.

The way I'm talking about the U.N. vote for Palestinian statehood in my work here in Brooklyn is to set it into two distinct contexts.

The first context is that both Palestinian and Israeli leadership have missed numerous opportunities to break from the tried and true and failed policies of past decades and move in a new direction of dialogue, direct talks, and difficult decisions over an agreement, the borders of which have long been known.  There were hints in the last few years that both Netanyahu and Abbas might demonstrate a willingness to do so but both relied upon the default of fearing their more fundamentalist coalition partners, thus failing to move forward.  Ultimately, people and nations have to be responsible for their own actions and in this context, with continued Israeli Settlement growth on one hand and an intransigent Palestinian refusal to talk on the other hand, has led us into this looming, dangerous cul de sac of inactivity.

The second context is even more dangerous.  Anthony Shadid points out something in yesterday's Times that not enough people have been paying attention to, justifiably distracted by Iran's nuclear ambitions:  namely, the newly emerging alliance between Turkey and Egypt has the potential to pose a greater danger, with Turkey's leadership speaking openly of a New Ottoman Empire.  Given the frighteningly violent reactions in Egypt, Syria, and Yemen in the last few days; the continued intransigence and destructiveness in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan; and the ongoing threats looming from Iran and from Lebanon, the idea of a new empire converging upon Israel cannot be ignored as Jewish paranoia. 

Some on the Left in our neighborhood don't like to hear this and prefer to rely upon the idea that fundamentally, all these Arab states are mad at Israel for the occupation.  And while the occupation plays a huge role in the alienation of Israel from the Arab states, there is a deeply unsettling development afoot, which is that the surrounding powers are at times beginning to articulate a world-view with Israel no longer on the map and Palestinian statehood, however necessary and justified, can have the appearance of looking more like a strategic step in the direction of Israel's eradication.

And yet.  And yet Israel must step forward to make peace with the Palestinians, as painful and as difficult as that may be.   In relative terms, there is more to gain from an alliance of moderate Israelis and Palestinians creating a vibrant democratic partnership in the face of increasingly fanaticism.  With all the necessary risks, the alternative is worse.

However, I align myself with those who are arguing that this week's plan for appealing to the U.N. for statehood is not the right time or place.   Jeffrey Goldberg is here very helpful and instructive.  The only benefit of this certain failed effort will be renewed negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians which will, once and for all, hopefully, lead to peace.

19 September 2011

Mincha and the Apple

"King David said to the prophet Gad, 'I am in deep distress.  Let us fall into the hands of the Eternal, for great is God's compassion:  but let me not fall into the hands of mortals.'"

So begins Tahanun, the weekday prayer of supplication and forgiveness we recite in the morning and afternoon, reminding ourselves that there is a always an opportunity for self-examination, for appraisal and the seeking of forgiveness for how we may offend or sin against others, ourselves, and God.

Our prayers today ended quietly, thoughtfully transitioning from Tahanun to Aleynu with no Kaddish since we lacked a Minyan. 

If I were to say a controversy erupted I'd be exaggerating but nonetheless I must report that a dispute, albeit minor, arose over the beneficent provenance of the Massachusetts Apple v. the Hudson Valley Apple and so soon after these peaceful pre-vespers, the few of us lingering in the small synagogue were locked into a wordless, gestureless battle of regional pride over this fruity globule--and curses!  no one was even mentioning Wisconsin!

Who knew Mincha could be so stressful!  Come on, God, I fumed internally.  You used to settle disputes among Sages--wherefore art thou?

But only an abyss, a valley, a core of silence.  From whence the Divine Apple?  The Land of Kennedy, Cuomo or La Follette?  I didn't know what to do.  So I walked down to the Korean deli and bought a Fuji Apple--it was the most Zen thing I could think of at that point. 

Religion--ha!  We syncretists, all!

18 September 2011

"We Now See Through"

(Samuel Menashe, photo by Martin Duffy)
I have a growing ambivalence with this form of communication as our culture tumbles ever further into the illuminated abyss of wired Identity Devices (Id Gone Wild).  Since at least two distinct time units of my day are devoted to walking the dog and monitoring his own rather generous downloads, I am acutely aware over these last several years of early morning and late night relief walks, how increasingly disconnected we fellow citizens are from one another.  We find our way less by street lights and more by our Glowing Manual Digitrons, skating along, faces lit like benevolent ghouls, ears plugged and eyes drawn like oily magnets to metallic pools of immediacy.  One guy in the neighborhood who also walks his dog in the darkness has recently graduated from an iPhone to an iPad for these shadowy jaunts, the "diameter of the bomb" ominously widening.

Sitting in front of the screen, being radiated at, has left me clamoring like a drunk for the clear water glass of poetry.

On our drive up to Maine over Labor Day Weekend, we stopped in Portsmouth, New Hampshire for a look at the transporter bridge, the harbor, and a quick lunch.  In a local bookstore, I decided to stick to verse and there encountered two poets--Meg Kearney and Jack Gilbert. Kearney's words about life, sex, drinking, divorce and death dig wells wear tears and laughter are stored.  I bought her book, "Home by Now," which won the 2010 L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award for Poetry.  Whereas Kearney stays close to home, Gilbert sets his sights higher, beyond mere local rooftops, though winds up deep in the earth just as well.  I bought his "Refusing Heaven," which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry.

Returning home from Maine I remembered that Samuel Menashe had died and remembering to remember I picked up his "New and Selected Poems" published by the Library of America.  I will shamefully admit that Menashe, as old and venerated as he was, was a discovery for me.  And perhaps as such, proof that death is a relative idea.  His words, his voice, his playfulness is so startlingly alive.

Over the course of the last couple weeks, I've taken Menashe on my walks with the dog.  Black letters on a small page, like the beasts footsteps on a sidewalk square, we trod along.  The rhythm of one sniffs and nudges life along, drawing attention to a turn in the wind, a chipmunk hidden in the ivy, a warbler alighting, briefly, before moving on; while the other creature, his body now in the ground but his soul on fire, the book, warm in my hands. 

Thank God for these poets, for these pages, for these words:  who on these walks are read aloud by one who seeks to banish into darkness the radium paths of information seekers, blind to deep knowing.  Ah, but in that darkness, ink blotted into lettered form, truth speaks:

Leavetaking
Dusk of the year
Nightfalling leaves
More than we knew
Abounded on trees
We now see through.
--Samuel Menashe (1925-2011)

16 September 2011

New Mincha Service, Daily, 2:45

One of the more spiritually comforting practices of living in Jerusalem each summer is that most of my daily prayer options (all?) are essentially Traditional, or what we might denominationally refer to as "orthodox."  Those such labels, I find, are becoming increasingly meaningless.

Anyway, while for the majority of the year my practice in New York is solitary daily morning prayer and an occasional evening communal prayer (kaddish minyans, Hebrew school, the like) it's the Afternoon service--Mincha/מנחה that often gets short-schrift.  Americans are hardly a siesta culture--we tend to save our rest time for the gym or the bar at the end of the day and it has become clearer to me over the years that a brief respite, a spiritual moment, if you will, can be beneficial to one's mental health.

So returning in August I determined to establish a Mincha Minyan at CBE each afternoon, Monday through Thursday at 2:45 pm in the Chapel.  All are welcome.

Yesterday was the end of our second week and we made a minyan for a congregant whose mother died over the summer.  As our prayers ascended in harmony at Aleynu, the congregant remained standing, and prepared to memorialize the soul of the woman who brought her into the world.  And since she was the one in mourning and we have cast this daily ritual in a kind of traditional format, all others praying were then seated.

The drama of standing to be seen, with our hearts and eyes on her with love and support as she praised God and sanctified life in the face of her grief was a powerful reminder for each of us, in the middle of our busy preparations for the High Holy Days, of why we do what we do.

I invite you to drop by Mondays through Thursdays at 2:45 pm. 

15 September 2011

Tell It Like It Is

Why the hell is everyone so mad at Obama over Israel?  From where I sit, the bulk of my fury is toward Netanyahu and Abbas.

While it annoys me to no end that after his famous Cairo speech, Obama didn't get on a helicopter and fly directly to Jerusalem to demonstrate to Israelis his sensitivity to their concerns of an increasingly hostile and unstable Arab world, it is far more obvious that Netanyahu's obstructionism (diplomatic humiliations, recriminations about self-hating Jews in the White House, continued settlement expansion) and Abbas' refusal to talk and negotiate during the one meaningful settlement freeze Bibi actually did offer each adds up to a far greater crisis than any messianic hopes American Jews and the opportunistic Republican candidates can pin on the President.

Let me be clear:  Obama has disappointed me greatly.  The bold rhetorical candidate of 2008 has been far to conciliatory toward a Republican strategy of the scorched earth approach they have taken to his presidency.  He's never really gotten out in front to hammer away--relentlessly--at the total disaster he inherited domestically and internationally.  In trying to be nice and mature toward those who would not only stab him in the back but shoot him in the face, he has lost stature and credibility in the hearts and minds of his once adoring base.  Iraq and Afghanistan would likely see far greater U.S. casualties if we were fighting a war soldiered by the Selective Service; as it is, the President inherited a war-dead list of nearly 4000 U.S. soldiers that shows little sign of ending.  He wins praise among national security experts for his progress in the war on terror and rooted out Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders (an achievement that eluded his predecessor) and yet somehow he allows himself to be painted into the corner of the wimpy, evil, closeted Muslim Manchurian leader, bent on evil and America's destruction.  A few quips at the Press Dinner in DC shouldn't be his only well-publicized salvos of self-defense.

On the Congressional front, he had a year to take full advantage of a majority in his party being in charge.  But the lack of discipline among those in party's leadership, combined with the White House's inability to push through legislation before the Republican machine set to its paranoid fantasies and usual dark arts of conspiracy theories and wacky packages of voodoo economics, had him losing Congress and creating the outlandish scenario in which comical characters like Perry, Romney and Bachmann (with Palin in the wings) are setting the terms of debate.

The national debt was Bush's.  The stagnant economy was Bush's.  The rising rates of joblessness were Bush's.  The intractable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were Bush's.  And the Tea Party, as it so happens, is more extreme and mired in fantasy than the worst elements in Bush's White House.  But we're supposed to buy this hokum that this is all President Obama's fault?

This is ludicrous at best; potentially disastrous at worst.

And still, somehow, in the midst of it all, the President was supposed to do what no other American President had done--take the mediocrity of Abbas, barely capable of commanding a deeply divided Palestinian society and the most blatantly and diplomatically disrespectful Israeli Prime Minister in modern memory--somehow, in the midst of it all, he's supposed to get them to kiss and make up and build two states for two people?

And by the way, military and intelligence experts in Israeli nearly universally agree that Obama has *strengthened* the U.S. and Israel alliance.  And last week, when the true face of the Arab Spring rose up and attacked the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, Obama was immediately engaged in defense of Israel.  It's a sad statement of our rapidly diminishing collective attention spans that these kinds of facts die in a news cycle, only to be replaced by lies and hysteria.

So while journalists and experts wring their hands about Weiner's seat in Queens and the Jewish vote in the upcoming election, I will still pull the lever in November 2012 for President Obama.  He has disappointed me on a number of occasions; he has not fought hard enough for the middle class and he's stepped down from a daily engagement against the character assassins who are out to get him; he has missed opportunities.  He has a great sense of humor that unfortunately, he has not used enough to his advantage.  But the mess he inherited--including an Arab-Israeli conflict that has remained unresolved for one hundred years--will take decades to clean up.

He can start to win people back by telling the truth and yes, it's never too late, by getting on a plane, having a beer in Tel Aviv, and then going to the Prime Minister's house in Jerusalem and telling him like it is.


I'm no prophet but if he did that, these diminishing poll numbers would go through the roof.



09 September 2011

Achievable: The New Prose

Late last spring, during a particularly busy part of the year, I had to bow out of a class field trip to FDR's house in Hyde Park, a particular favorite venture in my kids' primary school education.  It allows me, in the course of day, to celebrate an American democracy that was vibrant and true for the grandfather they never met, my dad, just out of kindergarten when the market crashed in 1929 and a proud serviceman for his country's war against Hitler.

Here in New York, there is a genuine celebration of America's diverse democratic experiment--especially in the public schools--and building that bridge back in time to their late grandfather's cherished values engenders deep pride.  In his mind--and in the language he passed on to me--it was about FDR, the New Deal, and a country coming together to care for one another.  Sacrifice and unity were words not easily tossed about; there were foundational bedrocks of an optimistic democracy that he lived within--a reality, I think we will sadly agree, holds less weight today.

Some years ago, at a stoop sale soon after moving to Brooklyn, I bought an old picture of President Roosevelt that had appeared in the Daily News in the 1940s.  Faded, yellow and rapidly disintegrating, it was tucked into an old wooden frame, teetering on the verge of decay.  It's among the scattered icons in our apartment, meant to evoke a better time and in so doing, to convey to our children that descend from those who believe in better times that were and in better times yet to be.

Recently, my daughter suggested, as a kind of "make-up" for missing the trip to Hyde Park our own day-off journey there, as she put it, "to nose around the archives, you know, see what we find."  I know she dreams that in a random Ernie Pyle column she'll find a trace of the grandfather she never met; or when we see FDR's car she'll wink at me and remind me of what I told her about my dad's 72 Impala convertible; and in either case, she will have built that bridge toward me and together we would have crossed between the promise of the past and the exhilarating possibility of the present. 

Well, I'll be honest.  Tonight, amidst new terror alerts here in New York City, an energized start to a Packers season and a terrible Brewers drubbing at the hands of the Phillies, the President of the United States seized the practical initiative yet again and put forth a few ideas that could begin to set us on the right path toward making our country better than it's been in the past decade.  And I was really happy to see President Obama begin to push back in this way.  It wasn't FDR.  But the Republicans have everything to lose by opposing it.

Though we unfortunately do not live in an era where proposing a "New" New Deal is practicable, he spoke as strongly as one could of *doing* what is right to make America what it ought to be.  Given his virulently destructive opposition (pay attention, fellow citizens:  in last night's debate, Governor Perry again called social security a "horrendous lie" and denied the veracity of global warming) he offered up ideas--payroll tax cuts, support of infrastructure renewal, saving teachers' jobs, tax cuts for employers offering a living wage to workers--that begin to create, God willing, a narrative of shared responsibility and therefore, hope. 

The Audacity of Hope.  Remember that?  That was then.  The hatred and obstructionism toward the President has been greater toward him than at any other leader in our own lifetime.  While it's true that many of his supporters would have wished for more consistent "fight" over these past few years, it is also undeniable how religiously fanatic the opposition has been.  And in an era where the value of national unity (beyond Kid Rock singing in front of American flags prior to an NFL game) is not really shared but is mocked by its sheer destructive force, I was heartened to see our President methodically muscle his way back to the Though not an ideal set of solutions, our President tonight offered a way forward more achievable and therefore inspiring than anything we've seen since 2008.

Where inspiration is achievable if not visionary. 

For now, I'll take it. 

Sometimes--and now is one of those times--the mundane achievements, accumulated, brings us to a better place.

The New New Deals can wait for later.

But let's not kid ourselves.  While our current leaders muddle through, I'll take that trip to Hyde Park with a hope and a prayer for encouraging the next generation to dream and achieve great things for our country.  With more funding for the remarkable schools and educators that teach these kids, the sky's the limit.

Together, one with the other.  Their elders could learn a thing or two from how the youth deal with matters of substance and urgency.