22 January 2015

On Boehner and Bibi

Two things disturb me about House Speaker John Boehner's decision to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress:  that he didn't clear the invitation with the White House and that Bibi accepted it.

It should be no surprise to anyone anymore that Mr. Boehner pulled a stunt like this as Washington sinks lower and lower into the great sandbox fights of our most petulantly partisan and child-like civic selves.  Since 2008, Republican strategy has been quite clear in its decisions to block the President's path whenever possible and to execute a scorched earth political plan often rooted in mockery, denigration, and on more than one occasion, racism.

And while it is no secret that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have a terrible relationship, fraught with tension and disagreement not only about Iran but about Israeli settlement policy, the Israeli Prime Minister's decision to take the American political bait in the midst of his own election campaign in Israel where numbers show he may actually lose, is a cynical move and frankly, embarrassing.

Imagine if you will the maturity of a nation's leader having the self-discipline to simply say, "Many of you are aware of the differences between President Obama and myself on various matters but it would be inappropriate of me to accept an invitation to speak to Congress without being invited to do so by the President of the United States.  Our nations are the deepest of friends and united in our fight against terror and extremism.  And though we have our differences, I intend, as I often do, to share them directly with the President and not insert myself into divisive partisan politics.  After all, Israel has no shortage of the politics of division itself!  I have many friends in the Republican and Democratic parties whose unwavering support for Israel is deeply appreciated by myself and my nation and I would never want to unnecessarily disturb that relationship for temporary political gain."

Alas, that is not the case.

The challenges we are confronting today are enormous and dangerous.  Disagreements among allies is not unusual or new--certainly to the America-Israel relationship.  Regarding Iran, turmoil and instability in the Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and beyond; the rise of Muslim terror threats in Europe coinciding with Far Right extremism there as well, and the ongoing lack of resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--there is both room for disagreement while remaining united over the general direction of the alliance.

That Mr. Boehner and Mr. Netanyahu would openly ally themselves against the President strikes me as a dangerous precedent and signals both to our other trusted allies and more significant, our enemies, that this division and weakness can only further be exploited by those who would seek to do us maximal damage.

21 January 2015

Merge Into Life

The first time I ever got behind the wheel of a car on the highway was on my way to my grandma's funeral.  Grandma had died, six years after her beloved Charlie, the heroic grandfather doctor of my youth, a man (if not known or conjured by John McPhee as one of his "heirs of general practice") true and good.  Grandma had despaired after Grandpa died.  At his cold, snow covered grave on a February afternoon in 1973, she threw her body to the ground only to be pulled back by her sons, her heirs, and then, haltingly set about to remove herself from the world until she figured out that an assiduously waged campaign of low-grade depression could drain of her of the essentialness, the immediacy, of the will to live.

She died quietly, with others of her generation already gone, with the many mysteries of her life and how it unfolded, from there, in Russia (then still unlocked from the shackles of fascism and communism and anti-Semitism and dislocation and war and migration and settlement and citizenship and the acquisition of an identity necessary yet not quite chosen) to Milwaukee:  hospitable--yet foreign in its banal, benign blandness.  

Not for me, of course.  I loved my childhood.  An American boy, I was infatuated with my busty Jewish bubbe; enamored of my dashing, virulent, healing grandpa; enlivened by sport; and aroused by the redolence of our suburban yard, teeming with the arboreal urgency of possibility and renewal.

Grandpa's death both devastated and shaped me.  It's when I first saw my father cry.  My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Bernstein, upon my return to class after his funeral, read his Jewish Chronicle obituary aloud to the class in order to demonstrate Grandpa's mythic greatness and model to my fellow students that we support one another in times of need.  The pedagogy of Jewish death and mourning, brought to bear into the public school classroom.  We had arrived.  Our customs as a people were on the way to being Ever-Present.  Grandma, having thrown herself down to that ice cold, cold ground stayed with me like a song, part Yiddish folk tale, party Johnny Cash.  She wailed and mourned.  

In the six years between their deaths, Mom and Dad got divorced; Dad lost his job; Mom re-married; Dad, too late, expressed regret; and I had found out about books, girls, basketball, politics, weed and Richard Pryor.  A lot goes on, I guess.

As it was, we drove divided to the cemetery on the south side and because I needed some road work behind the wheel.  I drove Dad's 74 red Chevy Impala convertible (top down, heater blasting) to the Second Home Cemetery which required for this novice in mourning on ramps, off ramps, signaling, merging and, a gesture I would never quite learn to moderate to this very day, acceleration.  It seemed like just a moment before I was in the back of that car on a warm summer night, eating custard on the way home from a ballgame, stars flying by overhead like a warp-speed observatory show, luxuriating in the tender innocence of the father-son dyad.  A flash-forward to the cold, cracked concrete, salt-covered highway barriers and ugly orange collision cones, signifying fallibility, boundaries and danger.

Death, the ineffable expression of finality, our guide.

But Goddamnit if I didn't want to drive that car.  And Dad gave me the keys as much to teach me as a relinquishment of the throne.  Unspoken:  Not a usurpation but a betrothal.  A marriage to the story of our people, he seemed to say, which has eluded me in my quest to escape the mad, red-hot hatred of anti-Semitism, I give to you.  I couldn't tell the story, son, he seemed to say, passive, in silence beside me.  But you can.


So I did.

And so I have.  Merged into family.  Identity.  History.  When I played point guard in grade school and high school, Dad would sit in the stands and shout at me, "Drive, son, drive!"

Ah, it's all metaphor, isn't it?  The ancestors; the parents; the keys to the car or the castle.

And who are we but those who ask, who dare to question, who take the risk of peeling back the layers to understand.

There is of course, a danger to the inquiry.  "You peel back an onion too far, son," my dad said, "And you're left with nothing."

So you have to eat.  To sustain yourself.  I get that.

At Benji's in Milwaukee it was corned beef; hopple-popple; chocolate phosphates.  I'd sit there with Dad in the early divorce years, the Bucks game on the tv screen above the counter, Benji's goyim slicing meat in the ways of our people, Dad kibbutzing his cousins who were also there, consuming the peculiar culinary identity of our European forbearers.

Today in New York, in the comfort-countered home base of Russ and Daughters, it's mostly fish and eggs.  But as equally sustaining as the food is, there is another element:  the reification of Jewish migratory narrative; the celebration of hospitality; the humorous, self-reflective, honoring of the past in the present; and the very act of being, the paradox of the permanence of change.

My lunchmate was talking about the Holocaust and DP camps; about Yiddish and German and English; about Lodz and Munich and New York and Israel.  And I was talking about Israel and New York, and White and Black, Rich and Poor, and Justice.  And underneath the table, my foot was on fire, pedal to the metal, going full speed ahead toward understanding.

Like even in mourning, you can drive to a funeral in a convertible:  wind in your face; brisk and cold; and then, in an instant, you can do what you've never done before which is to merge into life.

Merge into life.

09 January 2015

It's Still Up To Us

I imagine if I had a chance to talk to Edgar this week, he'd be very practical about everything.  And brutally honest.

He'd see and say that political constructs aren't necessarily either/or but both/and in the events playing out in the world.  From New York to Paris to Jerusalem.

He'd say that the NYPD have a right to be pissed about being targeted by angry citizens but that certain racist and rogue cops and overly excessive stop and frisk policies need to be curtailed.  He'd say that for the sake of the city, Mayor deBlasio and the NYPD need to stop fighting NOW, sit down, and make peace.  (After all, given the horrific events in Paris of the past few days--the abhorrent attack on Charlie Hebdo followed by the horrifying anti-Semitic outrage on Paris Jews--a unity between City Hall and the One Police Plaza is absolutely essential for the safety of New York.)

He'd say that one of the reasons he served as he did as President of the World Jewish Congress had to do with the undeniable reality that in many parts of the world today, Jews are still in danger.  And he'd be fearless in using his considerable power, wealth, incisive wit and pragmatic sensibility to speak out, persuade, and do whatever was in his strength to save Jewish lives.  And in the same conversation, he'd say that it actually is possible to find the expansion of Jihadi movements beyond dangerous, necessary to confront; but that didn't mean that one couldn't also be critical of Israeli governments and settlement policy.  That the debate about what was right and wrong in the world didn't mean that if you opposed the spread of violent and radical Islam, it meant by necessity that the movement for a greater Israel was correct.  You could believe both/and.

But as I stood above his grave on the one year anniversary of his death this week; as a steady snow lightened the weight of the granite stone that bore his name; as I remembered back to burying my friend last year beneath a heavy December rain while a flock of Canada geese flew mercifully overhead, I remembered with pain and sadness that his voice--his moral voice, his playful voice, his fearless voice--could only be as discernible as his very name below, obscured by the light film of frozen condensation, near, approximate, but no longer plainly known.

The evils bastards who try to kill free expression and murder innocent Jews shopping for Shabbat in Paris is categorically evil.  Period.  And one can justifiably say that the attempt by Jihadists to draw Israel in to their orbit, to triangulate the world against the Jews because, according to their twisted logic, the Jihadists wouldn't be so angry if Israel didn't exist as the exemplar and perpetrator-extraordinaire of Western colonialist values, is the worst kind of reasoning imaginable. Transparent in its pure, unadulterated hatred of the Jew, it can and ought to be rejected.  Categorically and with confidence.

And of course, no sooner would one do that than some other partisan, would draw a similar inference and we'd be back at the barricades again, alas, fighting the battle for what is true and just.

We are weary, God.  Let us rest.

"God?" I'd hear my friend Edgar say.  "By God you mean who exactly?"  And he'd be right.  There is just too much God wrapped up in all this and it presses against the limits of, if not reason, than what any sane person can tolerate.  Jihadists crying out their understanding of God's name spray machine gun fire into newsrooms and onto sidewalks and inside grocery stores where others, seeking to observe their God's Sabbath, buy food to bless and eat.  And while being held hostage, others offer prayers in God's name that the hostages should remain safe but no sooner are those prayers uttered than other prayers are necessitated because the first set of prayers didn't work, the murders occurred, and now God's name is called upon to offer comfort.  Comfort for the families of Jihadists whose sons lost their way; comfort for the families of innocent writers and innocent Jews who prayers didn't protect.

Perhaps we are not the only ones who are weary, God.  Perhaps you are, too.

Our Torah teaches us this week the following:  "And it came to pass in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage.  And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob.  And God saw the children of Israel, and God took cognizance of them."

This part of the Torah has always confounded me.  It seems to imply that here in Exodus, at the beginning of the narrative of an enslaved people, that only after some of the most intense expressions of human suffering did God hear, remember and then--take cognizance?  He didn't immediately throw plagues, or thunder, or cause an earthquake.  He didn't even kick anybody's ass.  He took cognizance.  The passivity inherent in this construct upsets me greatly.  It seems to make us God's plaything, an object of reflection until a plan can be put into place to actually save us.

I find that the commentators come up short here.  God's taking note of the suffering at this juncture seems to be the activating of an earlier promise to redeem Israel.  But it is still Moses' lesson to learn, in the next chapter, that the God of Existence ("I am that I am") is the closest approximation to God's power that Moses will get in order to convince Moses that Israel's redemption relies as much upon Moses as it does on God.

Or, as Edgar used to like to say, "I don't know about God; but I like the term "Godliness."

It will be up to Moses to answer the call; to "go down, way down, in Egypt land;" it will have to be Moses as an agent of freedom; justice; righteousness; compassion--to be, by necessity, the animating and the closest approximation to the manifestations of God's will that we can conjure through the fog of suffering and strife and terror and war.

Cassuto argued that the notion of God "taking note" is exactly similar to God taking note before Sodom and Gomorroh.  Thinking aloud in Genesis 18:21, God says of Abraham that he can be counted upon to "do righteousness and justice."  And he does, doesn't he?  After all, it's Abraham who speaks up, bargains, and makes sure that the innocent don't die in God's path of rageful, Divine destruction.

In other words, pray with all your might but it's still up to us.

I demand that the Mayor and the Police here in New York City make peace--NOW!--before we make ourselves vulnerable to more attacks from those maniacs who would exploit division for an opportunity to do violence.

I am grateful for the Paris police in hunting down the bastards who killed innocent people but they need to do a much better job fighting terror and anti-Semitism in France.  This shouldn't have happened!  And tonight Paris Jews didn't worship in the Grand Synagogue for Shabbat for the first time since World War Two?!  This is outrageous.  Truly.

I want reasonable and peace-loving Israelis and Palestinians who know in their hearts that peace is the only way to live together to be strengthened in all that they do.

And in the spirit of my friend, my mentor, my teacher Edgar, on this one year of anniversary of missing your voice, I pray:  for the strength to endure; to question my own assumptions and grow; to speak the truth as I see it; and to not only remember the covenant, not only take note of it, but to use all my heart and soul and strength to build a world of justice and peace.