28 December 2011


It's an unwritten rule, among the many more than six hundred and thirteen commandments God gave the Jewish people, that the Jew must eat Chinese food on Christmas Eve.  Not one to ever have found the ambient surroundings of Christmas to be particularly alienating--this year's lights and displays in my hometown of Milwaukee have been particularly festive and beautiful in that tasteful, conservative Midwestern way (including, by the way, an extraordinary Christmas "tree" made of Noguchi lamps inside the living room window of a mid-century suburban living-room.)

So it was that we ventured down to Brady Street to eat at the Emperor of China, a Milwaukee favorite and apparently, one such enclave of secular Jewish culture on the Rebel Cousin's birthday.  That wait was an intolerable ninety minutes and so while we contemplated our broader fate, decided to order "to go," and wait for our meal at the corner tavern, the Roman Coin.  Lit handsomely by two Blatz signs on either corner and home, for the night, to three guys at the bar, a friendly mutt named Miles, and a gracious owner, Terri, we settled in.  I had a microbrew from Amherst, Wisconsin, outside Madison, the kids had soft-drinks, and with a deck of cards, we were good to go.

The food took forever, but allowed us enough time to meet one gentleman who grew up on a farm in Sheboygan and who now worked in the city; learned that the Roman Coin has an used bowling lane in its basement, and were treated to one of the warmest receptions we have ever received.

Jimmy, the owner and host over at Emperor of China, kept kicking the ball down the field on the readiness of our evening repast, at one point rather philosophically proclaiming to me while making a small, tight circular cranking motion above his wrist that I should "be patient, for time moves slowly."  I felt like Jason Alexander's "George" in Seinfeld's famous Chinese restaurant sketch.

Back at the bar, a Harley pulled up, fully regaled with decorative lights; that caused quite a stir among the girls, who are already well-trained to identify this classic mode of transportation for the peculiarly patriotic.  In addition, I walked straight into my mother, staring down my eleven year old and accusing her of bluffing at a critical juncture of a rousing and competitive game of "B.S."  The corner of her mother turned up in knowing smile, a glance around the table, and then, gently, the pronouncement:  "Bullshit," she panned.  Roars of laughter.

I headed back to the restaurant.  And engaged Jimmy at a whole new level.  I, the Jew, great-grandson of immigrants.  He, the more recent arrival (yet, admittedly, my elder.)

"What's your name?"


"What's your real name?"


"Where are you from in China?"

Like my mother back at cards, in the bar, he looks left, looks right and says with a smile, "Formosa," using the name given to the island by the Portugese, but embraced by the non-Communist loyalists of post-revolution China.

"Time moves slowly" took on a whole new meaning.

He, the patient exile, serving his nation's food to another nation, exiled as well.  Yet each enjoying--flourishing in fact--in a place both call home.

24 December 2011

What We Say to One Another

The admission of guilt causes Joseph to week alone; and when he emerges, after this brief emotional interlude, he continues to play the game of chess with his brothers.  Revenge, it seems, continues to feed the mighty river of sibling rivalry among the brothers.

Brought together in the midst of a famine, supplicating themselves for assistance and food from the very brother they left for dead, Joseph knows who they are but they don't realize who he is.  He is thus, to the delight of the reader, able to dangle their confessions on a rope, allowing them to hang over the very pit of despair into which he was once tossed and left for dead.  It should not be lost on us that he asks to detain Shimon, who isn't exactly identified as the brother who leads to conspiracy to feign Joseph's "murder," but is nevertheless a character who hangs over the narrative of Jacob's sons as the leader of the band of vengeful killers of the sons of Shechem, retribution for the rape and capture of their sister Dina.  Horrifying dilemmas in a dangerous region.  Joseph, an assimilated diaspora court Jew in Egypt; Jacob, his father, barely able to contain his sons, dying and fearful of losing his youngest Benjamin, nearing the end in famine ravaged Canaan; and the brothers, unwittingly negotiating with the very brother they've long-presumed dead, pawns in his own game.

The language of the brothers' confession here at this juncture in Genesis 42 mirrors eerily the language of their first attack on Joseph in Genesis 37.

Genesis 37.19:  And they said one to another: 'Behold, this dreamer cometh/וַיֹּאמְרוּ, אִישׁ אֶל-אָחִיו:  הִנֵּה, בַּעַל הַחֲלֹמוֹת הַלָּזֶה--בָּא.

Genesis 42.21:    וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל-אָחִיו, אֲבָל אֲשֵׁמִים אֲנַחְנוּ עַל-אָחִינוּ, אֲשֶׁר רָאִינוּ צָרַת נַפְשׁוֹ בְּהִתְחַנְנוֹ אֵלֵינוּ, וְלֹא שָׁמָעְנוּ; עַל-כֵּן בָּאָה אֵלֵינוּ, הַצָּרָה הַזֹּאת.  And they said one to another: 'We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us.'

וַיֹּאמְרוּ, אִישׁ אֶל-אָחִיו: And they said to one another.

In the first instance, we have recorded the brothers' mocking tone used as the weapon first wielded against Joseph.  His dreaming, his skill of elevation that brings him down the motivating factor for  his brothers' decision to speak "to one another" and conspire against Joseph.

In the second instance, they speak "to one another" in an admission of guilt, in their taking of responsibility for "the distress of his soul" when he sought them out, only to not be heard.  So that their sin is fundamentally one of neglect their brother's essence, his inner life, his very soul.

That this neglect was expressed in blood, smeared onto his coat in a shocking display of their pain and disdain over not only their brother's uniqueness but their father's celebration of it as well, is a powerful echoing the first sibling rivalry that resulted in murder, that of Cain and Abel.  Fitting, then, that at the first murder--Cain killing Abel--was preceded by a truncated dialogue not recorded by Torah, in Genesis 4.8, "And Cain said to his brother Abel..." but the text hangs empty, an elusive ellipsis that howls for meaning.

At least when people speak, in other words, even words of anger and harshness, there is something to work with and even repent for--not only one generation's sins but those inherited expressions from their familial past; silence, it seems, might be worse.  Repression, let's say, explodes onto future generations, only to eventually be brought into the open, spoken, and, in these weeks of the Joseph cycle, move to reconciliation.

Joseph and his family, therefore, model for us the organizing principle that family can be the laboratory for confrontation of our worst impulses and but most generous acts of forgiveness as well.

What we say to one another, not only once but over a lifetime, become the true narrative of our lives.

23 December 2011

Somewhere on Route 80

Moving west along Route 80 in the driving rain, we found a small diner near Zion, Pennsylvania on the Google Maps Android app.  But as our car moved down the muddy lane, called, eerily, Cemetery Lane, nothing but lonesome houses, illumined by Christmas lights and the slow burning cigarette of one man on a porch, appeared.  Suddenly, our the front bumper on our car started making the alarming frictions of plastic dragging on road, which, in fact what was happening.  We pulled up the road, pondered saying Kaddish for Fender, when the diner appeared, albeit not where the map said it would be.

I'm fairly certain we were the only Jews there.

A Santa Snow Globe salt and pepper shaker set; fries, salad, a few soft drinks; kindness and warmth from the staff at the diner who sent us to semi-trailer repair depot back at the intersection with Route 80, and we were on our way.

Inside a dank room, lit by the ignored screen of a blue television screen, sat two men ripped from the cast of "Blade Runner."  We negotiated what exactly the problem was, their immobile structures stuck to the chair, enjoying a wee bit the city kid showing up in their domain of refuge.  "Well, I'm not moving from this chair to you bring your car over here," one said.

"Do you expect me to drive it through your door?" I asked.

"I never said that," he countered.

"My car's outside," I said.

"So I guess I'll get up now," he said, then spit his tobacco right on the floor.

Placing a miner's light on his forehead, he and his partner climbed under our car, moved pieces of frayed plastic around, and rigged another piece of plastic to the bumper to hold it in place.

"That oughta do," he said, and rising, we shook hands.  He refused a tip.  I wished him a Merry Christmas.

22 December 2011

It's Worth It

While the 2 train rumbled through the tunnels from the Upper West Side back to Brooklyn, my fourteen year old daughter and I processed the homework for her history class in which she methodically, passionately and at times, incredulously, digested her assignment:  to play Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a classroom exercise about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

When she was a toddler, she was very precocious about pulling herself up to table height and moving about the room, smiling and babbling to anyone who would listen, eager to join the conversation that adults were having.  With similar amusement (and impatience) for the obstacles of obstinacy and having not made peace these last hundred years, she grabbed a hold of agreements, treaties, declarations and visions in order to filter them into what she understands to be Bibi's position on things.  Though I was moderately self-conscious of talking about the conflict aloud while riding the train, assailing commuters with our ardent dissection of various Zionist positions from the left, center and right, as well as various Palestinian and Arab national positions as they have evolved over the past century, my kid was anything but self-conscious.  She was downright incredulous at the inability of people who love a land so much to simply work it all out for the sake of peace.

Speaking loudly over the clanging of wheels on tracks and the pumped-up volume of another rider's playing Angry Birds on her brand new iPad, my kid betrayed not a single molecule of self-consciousness or trepidation about publicly weighing in on this grave matter of international fascination and exasperation.  On more than one occasion, with a bemused smile, she pronounced certain statements and actions "ridiculous" and "pathetic" from a variety of corners of the region.  Her confidence in taking this all on was insanely admirable.  With such certitude and moral straightness, she pronounced, oblivious to equally admiring onlookers:  "If Sadat and Rabin were willing to die for the cause of peace, why was Arafat such a coward?"

Her words hung heavy in the thick, surrounding air of the subway car:  Jews, blowing a hole in the holiday cheer with an inter-generational seminar on why people fight for a small sliver of land.


The first time we took our kids to Israel, they already knew all about it.  Its food, its language, its geography, its peoples.  The first time she and her sisters came back from the food stand at the Emek Refaim pool, having successfully ordered their late afternoon snack in Hebrew, we knew they were hooked.  Her oral histories of the intricacies of the locker-room hygiene habits of the old Russian ladies are real gut-busters.  You should hear them sometime.  In the four times that she's already been before the age of fourteen, she had begun to develop her own relationship to the place.  Afterall, a normal kid has no concept of the big picture:  it's the small stuff that matters.  The free grape leaves at the food stand; the flower salesman with one leg; lemonade with crushed mint leaves; all those damn cats.  As her child's focus on the immediate and the pleasurable makes room for the navigation of context, the geo-political dimension to things, and, alas, the daring, the achievement, and the folly of leadership, I take stock of this gift, this birthright, we've given.

Dear child:  We've asked you to fall in love with a place that will drive you crazy--but like all great loves, it's worth it.

She rolls her eyes; smiles; and like the small diplomat she was as a baby, pulls herself up to the adult table to begin to help clean up a mess of someone else's doing.

16 December 2011

We Need Stronger Editorials

As expected, the response to this week's horrifying events in Israel from the New York based, mainstream Jewish press has been tepid.

The Jewish Week published an editorial, A Time of Zealots, the reviews a few quotes from IDF generals and Prime Minister Netanyahu who is quoted as saying, “We need to stop this now.  This is something small that could become something larger and bad. We will stop it now.”

How?  When?  With what force and consequences?  Expansions to Settlements continue; appropriation of Palestinian lands are a daily occurrence, creating knots of diplomatic impasse that equal Palestinian leadership's ridiculous refusal to talk peace. 

The Forward has said virtually nothing so far.  If it's there but buried behind several clicks, its lost its force.  Front and center please.  Now.

This is gravely disappointing.

What we ought to expect to hear from the Prime Minister of Israel is one, that attacking the Israel Defense Forces is a total perversion of Zionist values and those who do so--and the Yeshiva heads who whip these young hooligans into a frenzy--will be jailed for treason; and two, burning mosques is the exact equivalent of what Jews experienced when their synagogues were burned throughout Europe, necessitating Zionism in the first place.  Such violence and vandalism is totally abhorrent everything we know about Judaism and Jewish life.

The language needs to be unequivocal; strong; and consistent.  It needs to be the mantra of leadership and ought to be written, in bold letters, by the editors of Jewish newspapers throughout the Diaspora. 

Jews don't behave this way.  Period.

15 December 2011

No More Silence

dan pagis, 1930-1986
This week I read a quote about the tragic shooting and killing of NYPD officer Peter Fogoski from someone who observed about his killer, Lamont Pride, "In a split second, he decided to pull the trigger."  The final death blow of ultimate responsibility, a moment some killers wish they could take back forever; and a moment for some killers in which they show no remorse; and always, for the victim, a moment of silence for the passing of an unarticulated and unjust verdict:  end-of-life.

Every death unique; each end the same.  And the immediate moment of its execution--planned or spontaneous--weighs heavily, paradoxically, in wordless suspension.

When Cain rises up to kill Abel, we don't know what Cain said before he took his brother's life.  Either Torah chooses not to preserve the statement or it has been lost to orality, to redaction and remembrance or lack thereof.  It's absence fills the grief filled moment of humankind's first murder:

ויאמר קין אל הבל אחיו...ויהיבהיותם בשדה ויקם קין אל הבל אחיו ויהרגהו And Cain said to his brother Abel...and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.

The Sages are left to fill this gap in the text with their interpretive musings, ultimately concluding that sexual rivalry, economics and religious difference are at the source of most human conflicts.  Sex, money and God.  The same crippling jealousies very time.

Cain's silence, the silence of the killer, draws the curtain down on this ancient story, couching humankind's first murder in the murky, territorial waters of an allusive motivation, leaving us, the reader, to attempt to penetrate the human psyche from its very beginnings, to open up the process of examining motivations for our most profound jealousies and hatreds, ultimately, one would hope, in an effort to contain them.

When Joseph enters the narrative, the favored son, the ostentatious dreamer, his brothers' articulate quite clearly why they hate him.  " 'Do you mean to reign over us?  Do you mean to rule us?'  And they hated him even more for his talk about his dreams."  And when it comes time to do away with him, while some articulate killing him, others intercede, moderate the response, channel their destruction, if you will, with Reuben distinguishing himself by arguing that they not commit murder but merely sell Joseph into slavery and rid themselves, temporarily, of his annoying ways.

Over the next several weeks, this drama will play itself and reach its famous climax of the brothers reunification and reconciliation for past hatreds, a rare moment of redemption in a land soaked with blood.

These stories come to mind especially this week, when it appears that there is in the Land of Israel an uncontrolled urge toward hatred that has lost its ability to contain itself.  From a tear-gas canister shot into the face of a Palestinian protester and taking his life, to a Settler attack on IDF soldiers followed by today's horrifying news that another mosque has been attacked, graffitied and burned, should have us deeply concerned about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ability to keep a lid on the boiling rages of a dangerous, rebellious, and treasonous segment of his population. 

I would expect the national leadership of American Jewry to get itself into a room and to formulate as clear an articulation as it possibly can to the Prime Minister of Israel and his government that the lack of the rule of law, the unabated violent religious fervor of certain segments of the Settler movement inebriated in its devotion to God and Land, and the outright refusal to arrest, jail, try and sentence those found to have carried out such egregious acts of hatred and war against Palestinians, Israelis on the political left, and the IDF--the backbone of the nation since its founding--will spell the catastrophic end for Israel.

The time for grandstanding is over.

I expect the national bodies of major American Jewish organizations to make their concern clearly heard and to demand immediate steps taken or risk losing permanently an already tenuous support that American Jews share with the Israeli government.

I stick my neck out every single day, defending Israel against its haters, detractors, and anti-Semites.  And I recognize, with great humility, the sacrifices made by Israelis every single moment of every single day, living in a hostile and unstable region.

But tear-gas canisters shot in the face of protesters; attacks on IDF posts; and the burning of houses of worship are categorically amoral and indefensible.  Prime Minister Netanyahu speaks a good English--he should fill the void of silence with words of condemnation and actions to make things better.

14 December 2011

Other Systems

Willem de Kooning, "Excavation," 1950
One hot May afternoon in 1991, during my first year in New York, I got mixed up on the trains and wound up in Harlem, where, upon exiting the station below, I came upon a busy street scene and seemed to be the only white guy around.  A man instantly approached me and said, "I have two things to say to you.  One:  today is Malcolm X's birthday.  And two, you're in the wrong neighborhood."  What I should have said was, "How do you know?" but instead I am sure I gave my best 'concerned' look and he laughed, saying, "I don't think I'll kill you today but I would suggest you cross the street over there and head back to where you think you should be going."   

This little story of being messed with came to mind this week as I tore through Frederico Garcia Lorca's "Poet in New York," the Spanish poet's famous recollection his year in the city, 1929-1930.  A surrealist masterpiece; and twinning it with a Sunday walk through the de Kooning retrospective at the MOMA gave the reading, if you will (and you better) a gloss that I really appreciated.  Whereas de Kooning was still painting representationally some time after Lorca had left the city and been executed by Spanish Nationalist forces, one could feel the pressure of abstraction and at times surrealism begin to emerge, echoing a literary force that had led the way.

Language predating image in this instance pleased me for a few reasons, not the least of which was that New York itself is such an overwhelming deluge of images--exhausting, relentless, disparate, maddening images--that it was with no small amount of pride that the Word, the radicalized image the Jewish people used to smash the idols of physically crafted, humanly rendered representation, came first.

My loneliness as a Jew among those beautiful de Koonings, my existential grief at forever being aware of the worship of the image (not just in our society but at all times) while knowing that truth is found in image's absence, was validated.

In "Blind Panorama of New York" Lorca wrote, "True grief that keeps things awake is a small infinite burn in the innocent eyes of other systems."  I know that innocent burn.  It was validated by teachers, parents, friends, musicians, sculptors, painters and authors throughout my life, those who also have sought comfort in their grief at a world-imperfect, weighted down by its guilt of just not getting it right; a darkness illumined by the slow burn of the flame that leads from grief to redemption--the other system.

Watching de Kooning go from representation to abstract expression was not unlike what the children of Israel must have felt at Sinai, being made to excavate the very souls with which they approached the mountain, and rid them of their adherence to the false gods of representation, as beautiful and alluring as they were.  Even the words had the potential to be a dangerous representation, an approximation at best, for what ought to be truly known and understood.

There I sat on Sunday, in front of this remarkably intoxicating painting called "Excavation," aware of the roiling waters of my very soul, yet again pierced by the wake of genius.  And then, the memory of a hot day in May 1991:  "I don't think I'll kill you today but I would suggest you cross the street over there and head back to where you think you should be going."

Better Lorca:  "New York of filth, New York of wires and death.  What angel do you carry hidden in your cheek?  What perfect voice will speak the truths of wheat?  Who the terrible dreams of your stained anemones?"

Perfect beauty is everywhere--from the perceived, threatening reality of a street corner encounter to the abstract expressed in a cool, crowded gallery on a Sunday afternoon.

"A small infinite burn in the innocent eyes of other systems."

Mincha Minyan: Update

Death has a pesky way of intruding upon life.

What are you going to do?

Our Mincha Minyan, which started in the Fall and didn't always get ten participants is now averaging twelve to fifteen men and women.  That's because one of our staff members experienced the death of his father two weeks ago and since this staff member is observant, he asked that we make sure there's a minyan each day of ten people so that he can fulfill the obligation of saying Kaddish with ten people present (what the mitzvah requires for observant Jews.)

We have regularly been populated by Shul staff and an occasional CBE member who quietly but dutifully show up each day at 2.30 pm for a brief service, allowing our colleague to recite the ancient Aramaic words that have bound our people--strengthening them in their grief while allowing them to recite the affirming words of God's existence--for generations.

If you're around CBE any Monday through Thursday at 2.30 pm, please join us in the Chapel. 

11 December 2011

The Distorted Sequence

Aristotle's Poetics 5:6
"Defective Plots"

Of simple plots and actions, the episodic ones are the worst.  By the episodic plot, I mean the one in which the sequence of episodes is neither necessary nor probable.  Second-rate poets compose plots of this kind of their own accord; good poets do so on account of the actors--in writing pieces for competitive display they draw out the plot beyond its potential, and are often forced to distort the sequence.

This is a whole philosophy in some aspects of Jewish life today, a well-heeled practice for more than a decade.  Since the mid-1990s, much of the venture capital of Jewish life has been invested in creating "one-off" Jewish experiences, in order to light the spark of interest in (especially) young Jews.  The goal:  a good time.  The hoped for result?  A return customer.  One might make the mistake of blaming our increased deficit of attention, caused by our gadgets and desire for the immediacy of connection to everything and everyone.  Aristotle reminds us that an episodic way of thinking pre-dates the very tools of immediacy that exacerbate the long-practiced human propensity for the "one-off," or, as the kids like to say today, the "random."

Episodic:  from the Greek.  On the way.  By the by.  While you're on the way to this, why not do that?

Of interest, Aristotle's argument contrasts with Jacob's experience while fleeing his brother Esau.  Exhausted and traumatized, he rests on the desert floor, sleeps upon a rock, and dreams of angels going up and down a ladder.  When he arises he exclaims, "God was in this place and I didn't know it."  One could argue that without least expecting it, Jacob discovers that God is present.

This is an important spiritual idea.  It means that one can experience spiritual enlightenment even when we are not looking for it.  And as Jacob's predicament demonstrates, we can find the presence of the Divine when we are desperate, in flight, running away not only from an external threat but from ourselves.  There is truth and comfort in this.

On the other hand, as we might know from the story, Jacob has a long way to go.  He must continue to grow, to plow into the motivations and inherent contradictions of this very being before he can emerge whole, and years later, face his brother again (with no small amount of fear and dread) before realizing that reconciliation is possible.

That is to say, let's not over-inflate the episodic.  It may light a spark; it may not.  In either case, one must conclude that with or without the occasionally fortuitous occurrence of what we might call a "Jewish good time," we are left with the hard slog of work, or, in Jewish language, עבודה.

עבודה  a word connotative of work; worship; and devotion to the Source of All Life. 

With regard to this notion of sequence, it's important for us to acknowledge that there is a sequence to the Jewish narrative--from creation to redemption; from the beginning and origins of all time to the final realization of the strived for perfection of a just world at peace. 

And so, therefore: on occasion, "good poets do so on account of the actors--in writing pieces for competitive display they draw out the plot beyond its potential, and are often forced to distort the sequence."

People do good work out there, creating "episodic" Jewish experiences.  What would be an interesting conversation would be around the question of the degree to which such experiences "distort the sequence" of the narrative.

Is the narrative whole?  If not, what of it does remain?  Do we all agree on its general principles?

Despite my own increasing distaste for the "episodic," these essential questions still disturb my sleep.

09 December 2011

Give J Street a Seat at the UC Berkeley JSU

Way back in ancient history--like 1987--I spoke at a campus rally in Madison in favor of a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians.  I worked for the Hillel at the University of Wisconsin at the time and while not all the students on the student board at the Hillel were happy with my stance, they respected the need to represent my Zionism with one of its central ideas going back to its foundations in the late 19th century, namely: that an accommodation would ultimately be made between Jews and Arabs and that eventually, there would be two states for two people.

Most students had better things to do than go to a rally on the Library Mall but our principles matter, right?  So I spoke.  Passersby, foodcarts and their customers, a small band of those in favor of two states and their ideological opponents were all present.  The leader of the opposition shouted to me while I spoke that I was a "PLO Faggot."  Clearly this guy was upset.  And, to be sure, a bit unhinged.

Nevertheless, the nickname stuck and for a time, I was known in certain circles as the PLO Faggot, a name I rather enjoyed if only for its utter offensiveness.  It somehow exposed for others the weird and desperate ludicrousness of what would surely be an historical inevitability (two states, that is) and though it certainly didn't help me with girls in any way (a primary if not co-existent philosophical concern among most undergraduates that I hung around with) the moniker indicated that I had taken a punch for the cause.

This kind of political, rhetorical ugliness exists in many forms, usually used to paint a canvas in whatever color the demon is presumed to wear.  Later in my career, during my seven years on campus as a Hillel director at NYU, I occasionally felt it my duty to speak up and throw my weight around (super welterweight to middleweight  in case you're wondering) for those willing to offend egregiously in order to get their point across.

Early in 1998, for instance, three gay Jewish students showed up in my office, wanting to start a gay Jewish club at NYU.  But the Hillel board opposed it.  So I made life miserable for them by publicly exposing their homophobia.  It was an easy fight, the opposition relented, and the necessary complications of a democratic Jewish life were the stronger for it.

So it ought to go at the University of California-Berkeley, whose Jewish Student Union recently decided to ban the participation of J-Street U, the campus arm of J-Street, the pro-peace, pro-Israel lobby group, from a seat at the table of Jewish leadership.

Hopefully (and very soon) the grown-ups in the room ought to force the students' hand and demonstrate that demonizing a pro-Israel group for advocating a two-state solution is what is not in the Jewish mainstream, before the Jewish mainstream gets too comfortable with the idea of censoring discourse about the future of the Jewish state.

Each year I convert several people to Judaism and when I ask their motivations they almost universally say, "In Judaism, you really get to argue and question things.  I feel so at home finally being able to do that." 

At home for the time being, yes, that's true.


07 December 2011

President & Senior Editor

When Dad graduated high school in June 1941, there would still be six months to Pearl Harbor Day.  He turned 18 that summer, started school in Madison, and then enlisted in the U.S. Army, Engineering and Maintenance, serving his country from 1942 until the end of the war in 1945.  He was never at Pearl Harbor--his training took him around the United States until he was shipped overseas in 1944, serving in France and the Philippines mostly, with some time in Japan after the war ended.

Reading Adam Nagourney's fine piece about the final meeting of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association in today's Times, brought to mind the ritual I have of turning to this page in Dad's old yearbook--Shorewood High School's "Copperdome"--to contemplate the calm, optimistic and rather natty promise he exuded before the conflagration of the war seized his core, setting him on a course, I'm convinced, that he was never able to fully grab a hold of.

A loving father; a funny, charismatic guy, Dad was haunted by depression and demons that I've speculated over the years the war compounded rather than liberated him from.  In other words, some have critical experiences in their transitional late teens and early twenties that sets them on a course, that defines their time in the world, that creates if you will a sense of mission.  That didn't happen for Dad.  He didn't keep up with friends from the war; lost touch with the narratives that drove the rebuilding of this country upon their return from battle; and darkened, was in a way even diminished by the challenge of making a life after Roosevelt and Truman and the battle to save human civilization from a genocidal maniac and world fascism.

Skilled, brilliant and creative, he was senior editor of the Copperdome and a member of Quill and Scroll; but by the time he got back to school on the G.I. Bill, he never pursued his writing or journalism.  He instead moved slowly, toward a career as a Milwaukee ad man, moving up the chain in radio and early television, selling advertising for network affiliates in Milwaukee, Sacramento and Chicago, before coming back home in 1967.

Unlike the men of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, Dad kept his army career in a tattered cardboard box, had to be nudged to bring it out late on a Saturday night, prompted to tell what to me were his legendary stories--among them my personal favorite, waking up on a ship in the steam and fog to red lights flashing and the fear that an explosion had occurred.  His Detroit friend Joe Petrovich screaming, "Tony, the goddamn ship's on fire!  You grab the life-jackets, I'll grab the Schlitz!"

Joe was a skilled illustrator and one of my other favorite artifacts from those years was a V-Mail he drew for a letter Dad sent to Grandma:
Mind you--this is a letter sent to a mother who was a new American, my grandma having emigrated from Minsk in 1903 and settled on Walnut Street in Milwaukee, where she was educated and grew to marry a second generation Jew, my debonair and generously hearted Grandpa Charlie, one of a small number of Jews who graduated from the Marquette University medical school in 1924, the year Dad was born. 
My dad had that perfect blend of shtetl darkness and cynicism mixed with a pride in America's promise.  But at his own critical turning, he seemed to have broken the connection, substituting sports, the immediacy of the dollar, and a kind of making of an American family that was absent the redacting hand he demonstrated mastery of as senior editor of the Copperdome.  The story got away from him and we, his children, were left to write our own based on family and neighborhood experience, history, our own souls, and the small archive of evidence he left behind.

When Dad died, the U.S. Army sent us an American flag, along with a certificate signed by President Reagan, thanking him posthumously for his service to the country.  Dad wouldn't have liked that very much, having a low regard for the President's "abandonment of his New Deal roots."  (A row of his Roosevelt and Truman biographies sit on my shelf now, evidence of a man whose soul once burned for the betterment of his nation.)  All these years later, I piece together these mosaic tiles, forging a picture of man more complete as time continues in his absence, 28 years and counting.  Life after death.  The grandkids he never met know the words to his high school fight song.  These are important lessons to pass on.  That kind of thing.

I'm the President & Senior Editor of the Monas Siegel Bachman Survivors Association and I've decided to keep on holding meetings.

"Mine for Me and Yours for You"

As time marches on; as winter refuses to emerge; and as man and woman descend, rapidly, lovingly, into the shiny black universe of their handy manual digital satisfiers, I find myself, at the edge of the season that will not come to be, lost.  Lost in the greatly elusive transition from one season to the next; lost in the murky alienation of our devotion to portable connectivity and applied gamery that evokes our age; lost in the transition:  from me bumping into you to you sending me a message--in whatever form--to convey whatever it is you're feeling right now.

What can I say?

I want a car with leaded gas (tank filled), a paper map, an AM radio that plays faithful songs of love and death, promise and betrayal, and you, whoever you are, willing to pay attention to me, just long enough, to remind us both that we're actually flesh and blood, not some digital automaton conjured by the corporate hoo-doos of ATTVERIZONSPRINTMOBILE in order to maximize our sanitized digital dope for a bottom line we'll never see.

No wonder I love Torah and poetry so much.

But goddamn!  What an uphill battle we retrogrades fight!

I been walking along with this story, courtesy of Philip Levine (Poet Laureate of the United States 2012 YO!) for the past week.  One encounter from our nutty world that says so much.  Read it and weep.
So I hailed a cab, and the guy pulled over--a black man, probably about forty years of age.   I told him exactly where I wanted to go, a particular door in the museum.   And he said, "You must know this city."  I said, "Yeah, I used to live here."  He said, "Yeah, you left us, didn't you?"  And I said, "Yeah."  He said,"Well, all the smart people left."  And he said, "What're you doing?" and I described what I'd come back for--that I was a poet and I'd come back for the retirement party. He said, "Are you going to make him laugh or are you going to make him cry--your old buddy?"  I said, "I hadn't thought about it.  But now I'm going to try to do both."  Then he said, "Oh man, that's biblical."  I didn't know what he meant by that.  What is he saying?  Am I hearing born-again talk? So I said to him, "What do you mean by 'that's biblical?'"  He pulled the cab over to the side of the street and he said, "You know, you and I could become friends.  You know that?  If we knew each other well, I think we could become friends.  Let's say we did."  I said, "Yeah.""And here we are," he began.  "What's your favorite drink--alcohol, you know?"  I said, "Irish whisky."  "Okay, mine's bourbon.  Now you see that bar over there?  Let's say you and I would meet frequently at that bar, we'd have a drink and talk, and then one day you're in the cab here and I'm taking you someplace, but instead of getting out on the curbside, before I can say anything to you, you get out on the streetside and--wham--you're dead.  Well, today is September 23.  Every September 23 I'd park the cab here, I'd walk up to that bar, I'd order two drinks, my bourbon and your Irish whisky, I'd drink mine for me and yours for you.   That's biblical."  The guy was great.  Then he took me to where I had to get out.  We parted, and I never saw him again.

Bless the poet who reminds us of the essentialness of life's sinewy, fibrous, verbal reality, conjuring life from words.  And yes, bless the poet, whose narrative certainty roots our vaporous virtual strivings in memory's muddied, certain earth.

Heads up, ye humans!  Abandon ye palms!  Embrace your fate.  Before all the smart people, the wise people, leave or die.

"You know, you and I could become friends."

02 December 2011

Walk the Walk

I found myself deeply disturbed by today's report in the Times about energy's companies strategies to buy the rights to drill on private land.  Both the greed and duplicitousness of the energy companies and the naivete and desperateness of the landowners looking to make a quick buck.

If you haven't read it, it's worth your time.  There's plot, intrigue, character development, betrayal--all the elements are there for a good story.  And, of course, with contaminated drinking water, there's tragedy as well.

It was a good week for the story to appear, what with New York State hearing testimony about Fracking, one of the processes by which natural gas is extracted from the earth.  This week a new Jewish website even appeared, called, fortuitously, Jews Against Hydrofracking, which answers most questions you'll want to know except one:  how come Jewish dudes *without* beards aren't on the front lines of this battle?

All kidding aside, I'm generally sympathetic to these Jews who are waging this righteous battle against the despoliation of the earth and I was slated to offer a blessing or two at its rally the other day but an emergency came up, necessitating that I submit my testimony in writing to New York State, which I'll do later next week.

Still, while downtown earlier this week on the morning of the hearings, I came upon a group of young men heading toward the hearings and leading their own chant, a variation of a lyric I knew from a riff on a Rockmaster Scott song that I once heard Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers perform at a great show in 1990, "The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire!  We don't need no water let the motherfucker burn!"  These guys, who I think were making their west from Zuccotti Park, could have just as easily been dressed for an audition at the Ace Hotel Stumptown Coffee--I mean, these protestors were HIP!  I couldn't figure out what was going on.

"The water, the water, the water's on fire!  We don't need no fracking let the corporations burn!"  Bearded, hipster, anarchist, environmental barristas!  Viva la yo!

The humor I enjoyed; the violent conflagrations I could do without.  After all, corporations made the nifty hats they were wearing; the poster board for the signs they were carrying; even the laces on their marching boots.

But people are mad these days--all around.  Right, Center, Left.  Everyone's mad.

Hosea is particularly helpful here.  The prophet's words, chosen for this week's Haftarah (Hosea 12.13-14.10) describes the bitterness and backward ways of the idolatry in the land; but while the God of the Hebrew Bible often gets a bad rap for violent and destructive responses to sinful behavior, Hosea is able to channel love and understanding, despite the people's general stupidity.

"Take with you words and return unto the Eternal," says Hosea, which I usually interpret as, "Calm down and learn to express yourself more cogently.  It helps us all to figure out and understand what's bothering you."  And further, the prophet has God saying, "I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely, for My anger is turned away from him.  I will be as the dew unto Israel, he shall blossom as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon."

And further, "Whoso is wise, let him understand these things, whoso is prudent, let him know them.  For the ways of the Eternal are right, and the just do walk in them, but transgressors do stumble therein."

The world's a mess, that's for sure.  But the anger all around is just as much an idol as the greed and golden calves being protested in the streets of our fair cities.

01 December 2011

"Up with the Bonnet!"

While waiting to cross a Brooklyn avenue this morning after dropping my kid off at school, I noticed a public/private city bus, segregated, carrying Hasidic Jews to work in the city.  Women in the back, men in the front.  On this bus, the separate seating was hidden by ads on the windows, encouraging the purchase of kosher food products.  Segregated buses in the United States--now how do you like that?  Why, the only other place where Jews can be forced to ride separately is in Israel, where, ironically or not, we're meant to be "a free people in our land" as the anthem goes. 

Rosa Parks, an African American heroine who helped anchor the Reverend Martin Luther King's Montgomery Bus Boycott nearly 60 years ago, would find such seating rather amusing, to say the least.  And so would the vast majority of American Jews who identify with what a great gift of freedom the United States represents for all people who decide to call this place home--including millions of Jews, who have settled here for more than 350 years. 

Freedom, as we surely know from the Torah, is never free.  No sooner than a mere couple of months following their Exodus from slavery were the Children of Israel gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, ready to receive the Law--the price one pays in order to enjoy one's freedom.  The lesson here, told for centuries, is that freedom is a privilege with obligations to one's neighbor and even obligations to oneself.  Total freedom is anarchy.  One is not allowed to steal and kill--at least without the Law enforcing covenantally agreed upon consequences.

What has become painfully clear, however, over the past several years, is that under the current Israeli government, Jewish freedom is being called into question. The government is attempting to curtail free speech when that speech is critical of the government; it allows foreign money to support the establishment of settlements in Palestinian territories but attempts to forbid foreign money from supporting Jews who support Palestinian rights; it heavily subsidizing the Haredi yeshiva world, shielding it from fully entering the work-force, while cutting subsidies for student housing and university faculty development for the predominantly secular lower and middle class. 

Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, mocks with impunity the President of the United States and his Jewish advisers and allows one of the world's most famous chauvinists, Avigdor Lieberman, to remain in his cabinet, offering quote after quote of gravely embarrassing and often bigoted statements to stand without any meaningful repercussions. 

Thanks to Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, who shares recent videos produced by Lieberman's Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, encouraging Israeli Jews to return to Israel because of Christmas.  Notwithstanding that one of the nicest Christmas Eve's I ever spent was following a bunch of American army troops on leave as they wound their way through the Old City, church hopping (with hundreds of Israeli Jews who took advantage of the free and beautiful choral music all night long) and singing songs, I hardly think that Christmas is keeping Israelis in America.

Israeli political dysfunction is. 

I don't know a single serious person who believes that the parliamentary system works; that the political leadership is getting it right; that thinks (even beyond the wrenching security questions Israel justifiably deals with locally and regionally on an hourly basis--and I'm with you on this Bibi) the country is generally headed in the *right* direction.  And that goes for most of the Israelis that I know that are living in the United States precisely because they see much of the democracy as broken; the university system as eviscerated; the public education system in disarray; and a vocal but paralyzed government overly beholden to Haredim and Settlers. 

Yesterday while walking from the Upper West Side to the Village, I came across dozens of Israelis who were visiting and engaging in the Israeli Olympic sport of Shopping.  And on more than one occasion, enjoying very much the opportunity to mingle with New Yorkers of every race, color, shape and size, posing in front of holiday decorations, bumping into one another in the cross walks, and waiting patiently as the NYPD readied public streets for the arrival of President Obama, who consistently outpolls Bibi Netanyahu in terms favorability among American Jews. 

Fancy that. 

In 2008, President Obama received approximately 78% of the Jewish vote; and while support may have eroded in the last three years generally, no one believes that the number will fall below 70% in the upcoming election.  Unfortunately, for Prime Minister Netanyahu, he doesn't enjoy the same popularity among American Jews, primarily because his reputation for upholding a robust, even disagreeable and critical democracy for his own citizens, is in tatters.  He's greeted respectfully, we embrace him at public events, we continue to support Israel because we believe in, love, the Jewish people and the Jewish homeland.  But we wouldn't vote for him if he were running for Leader of the Jews.

Alas, Bibi and Avigdor continue to offend because they know, to a large degree, the fault lies with them.  Fix what's broken in your own house, brother, before you come blaming us for smiling at a little holiday cheer.

In the words of one you'd undoubtedly call a "self-hating Jew" (just as you did to Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod), I leave you with the immortal words of Philip Roth from Operation Shylock:
"God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave to Irving Berlin 'Easter Parade' and 'White Christmas.'  The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ--the divinity that's the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity--and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do?  He de-Christs them both!  Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas  into a holiday about snow.  Gone is the gore and the murder of Christ--down with the crucifix and up with the bonnet!"
Bibi:  Have a sense of humor; drop the schmaltzy yet ominous George Winston piano music from Lieberman's scary videos; and fix your troubled democracy.