Archive for April, 2011

ARS GRATIA PECUNIAE

While a young advertising copywriter in San Antonio, I met a talented illustrator named George Hughey. George’s business card read, Ars gratia pecuniae—Latin meaning art for money’s sake. George was an artist but practical. I empathized. Virtually every advertising “creative” wants to be a great novelist, poet, screenwriter, painter or sculptor. Most find solace being artisans rather than artists. The latter tend frequently to go hungry.

Getting paid for art is challenging. Years ago, I had a literary agent in New York. He sent back words of praise from editors but no book contracts. We parted ways. I focused on my growing freelance copywriting business to provide for Carolyn and the kids. It hurt.

Six years ago, I started writing novels again. I work with a great fiction teacher, Tom Parker. I’m good! But I can’t get an agent. Still, I write. I’ll probably publish my geopolitical satire set in the Persian Gulf, Slick!, this fall. A companion piece awaits revision. And I’m completing the first draft of yet another novel.

Why do people pursue art with such passion? Calvin Coolidge, our thirtieth president (1923-29), famously stated, “The business of America is business.” Hah! My wife is an actor (they don’t say actress anymore). She has four more performances left in “Collected Stories.” My oldest son, Seth has composed beats and works for Cakewalk, a music software company. That’s art-related business. My middle son, Yosi, plays drums and fiddle for New Orleans-based Hurray for the Riff Raff. They just won the Big Easy award for best country-folk band. And my youngest, Aaron, dances with the Alwyn Nikolais Dance Theater after four years with ODC/Dance in San Francisco.

The Mishnah (Pirke Avot 3:17) informs us, Ein kemach ein Torah. Without bread (literally flour) there is no Torah. One must meet practical needs in order to study. The early sages had day jobs. But it also states, Ein Torah ein kemach. We require spiritual sustenance to reap the practical rewards of life.

“I like creating something physical out of nothing,” says my friend Jim Shay, a terrific painter. “I could not stop making art.” When the art market went south (it’s picking up), Jim saw the opportunity to paint anything he liked although “I’ve never felt constrained to paint a certain way.” Notes another friend and fabulous painter, Tom Gehrig, “Art gives me a perspective on my experience in the world. My work is about celebrating the mysteries and not knowing why. In a technological society where everything is instantaneous, art forces people to slow down and see the world through someone else’s eyes and imagination.”

We’ve heard much debate about government support for the arts over recent years. I find no fault with discussing the matter. But I can’t help believing that a nation so fixated on the accumulation of wealth that it ignores artistic vision risks imploding.

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SEPHARDI EGGS AND OTHER MYSTERIES

One question some Jews undoubtedly posed at their Seders last Monday and Tuesday nights is, “Why are we here? Why, after 3,300 years, do Jews still observe Passover?”

Pesach is the most observed or noted holiday on the Jewish calendar. American Jews with no other connection to religion—and perhaps a dwindling identity with Jewish culture—mark Passover with a Seder of some sort or another. A National Jewish Population Survey (2000-01) put that figure at 79 percent. Family tradition plays a strong role, of course. But perhaps the events of the Exodus and its message of redemption and hope are so compelling that this holiday—one of three ancient chagim (pilgrimages) along with Shavuot (spring) and Sukkot (fall)—exerts a formidable gravitational force.

The Seder meal and telling of the Passover—some Jews only eat—can be accomplished in many ways. A Haggadah (literally, the telling)—a book filled with commentary, blessings and prayers—guides the Seder (literally, order). Many versions of the Haggadah exist, and Seder leaders may use them however they wish. Call it structured anarchy if you like. I call it creative and meaningful. Jews can tailor the Seder to their needs.

Granted, not every participant at a Seder is religious or believes in God. No worries. Judaism emphasizes actions rather than belief, although the First Commandment makes clear that God is. Just what God is remains a subject for discussion.

But the Seder, and Passover in its seven- (in Israel and for Reform Jews) or eight-day duration (for Orthodox and Conservative Jews outside Israel) holds a power of its own. Thus my wife Carolyn begins collecting onionskins as soon as Passover concludes. She keeps them in a crystal bowl that used to be my mother’s. To what purpose? For boiling Sephardi eggs the next Passover. This traditional treat of Jews descended from those who fled Spain after the expulsion of 1492 is part of our Passover each year. I love Sephardi eggs. They link me, as an Ashkenazi (European) Jew with my Sephardi cousins. As the saying goes, am Yisrael echad—the people of Israel are one. And no less important, they are the best tasting hardboiled eggs I have ever eaten with an oniony, smoky flavor produced by a minimum of six hours in the water. A non-Jew from Senegal works at a local grocery. Carolyn gave him the recipe.

Of course, Carolyn scouts supermarkets and other stores at least a month in advance for the right matzah (including chocolate-covered), gefilte fish and horseradish (she’s a mavinah—an expert), macaroons and other treats.

The power of Passover? Carolyn was raised Catholic and is not drawn to formal religion of any kind. But being embraced by my New York Jewish family and having one of her own—Seth, Yosi and Aaron, all b’nai mitzvah, confirmands and visitors to Israel—have made her a Jewish mother of whom my own mother and sister have always been proud. And this, I suggest, constitutes yet another sign and wonder in the Passover tradition.

New post most Fridays. Previous post appears after this one; scroll down to read more. Want to respond? Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article. And of course, Happy Passover! And Happy Easter if you’re celebrating that holiday!

 

SCYLLA AND CHARYBDIS

Posted Apr 15 2011 by in OUR WORLD with 1 Comment

Last Wednesday, before President Obama outlined plans to reduce the nation’s deficit and debt, the AP’s Jim Kuhnhenn wrote of Mr. Obama’s taking on the challenge of “risking liberal anger and Republican scorn.” Such is the predicament of anyone—caught like Ulysses between Scylla and Charybdis—seeking reasonable solutions to the vexing problems of the budget.

Ideologues may wear their blinders comfortably, but middle-roaders—people with a social conscience who wish to maintain the economy’s long-term health—understand the inherent fallacy of black-and-white approaches. Two stories—one fictional and one real—present the plight of the overlooked pragmatist.

In “Fiddler on the Roof,” Nachum the beggar complains when Tevye offers him one kopek instead of the usual two. “If you had a bad week,” Nachum scolds, “why should I suffer?” The logic of the illogical gets a big laugh. It also raises important questions: Must Tevye, a hard working milkman struggling to provide for a wife and five daughters, reduce himself to Nachum’s circumstances? And what if many Nachums lived in Anatevka?

On a personal level, my friend Dan and I provided a ride to a bus stop to a woman we met at our synagogue who is in poor physical and emotional health. When I helped her out of Dan’s truck, she asked me for money. I gave her twenty dollars. She then asked for more. My twenty apparently wasn’t enough—not if she could figuratively get her hand into my wallet. I said no. I may be my brother and sister’s keeper, but am I also their ATM?

In the months ahead, the President will ask that the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy be rescinded after 2012. Conservatives will scream—although the ten states that extract from Washington nearly twice the money or more they send to the Treasury (Newsweek, 4-18-11) number eleven Republican senators to the Democrats’ nine.

I will support the President on this, and so will many middle-class Americans who understand that the debt problem requires both raising revenue and cutting expenses. But these taxpayers will continue to question government spending that increases the nation’s $14 trillion debt while failing to provide sound cost-benefit analyses and enabling health care and other costs to rise precipitously. They are not heartless. Nor are they mindless. They know from experience that some people want more—often far more—than that to which they are “entitled.”

Regrettably, “government-is-the-enemy” conservatives who now want seniors to enroll with private health insurers and “government-has-all-the-answers” liberals in love with victimization and hostile to financial success not their own continue to shout at each other from opposite mountain peaks—rocky perches bare of anything but ideological purity. In the valley below, hardworking men and women till the fields, and work in factories, mines and offices to provide for their families and help others to do so with gifts of money, food, clothing and time. As the 2012 budget takes shape, whose voices will be heard?

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GOLDSTONE REDUX

Yesterday, a missile fired from Gaza struck southern Israel, wounding two—one critically. Israel retaliated, killing five Palestinians. Hours later, Hamas announced that militants had agreed to a cease-fire. Whether the cease-fire will hold remains to be seen.

These unfortunate events come less than a week after Richard Goldstone wrote a revealing article in the Washington Post. A South African jurist—and a Jew—Goldstone headed the United Nations committee investigating the conduct of Israel’s 2008-09 incursion into Gaza. Operation Cast Lead responded to continual rocketing by Hamas and other anti-Israel groups. The 2009 Goldstone Report accused Israel of overreacting—of deliberately targeting and killing civilians. Israel conducted its own investigation countering the accusation. The world turned a blind eye.

In his recent article, Goldstone repudiated the report’s findings. He wrote, “If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.” Last Saturday night Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the UN to retract the Goldstone Report. We’ll see where that goes.

Hamas has long targeted Israel. The problem Israel faces is how to stop the attacks within the strictures of what the world deems “proportional response.” The conundrum: If Hamas launches three rockets into an unoccupied area of Israel’s Negev, may Israel launch only three rockets in return—and only into a relatively unoccupied area of Gaza? If a Hamas rocket lands in Sderot, may Israel fire only a single rocket at a lightly inhabited area of Gaza? If Israel experiences no fatalities, should it be castigated if its rocket results in one or more deaths? And what if Hamas launches dozens—even hundreds—of longer-range missiles at heavily populated Ashdod or Tel Aviv? Does proportional response dictate that Israel may fire only the same number of missiles?

Tit-for-tat is in no way proportional. It favors Hamas, which seems delighted to fray Israelis’ nerves and accept similar casualties and damage in Gaza. Hamas is more than willing to take a punch—as opposed to a knockdown or knockout blow— if it can garner world support for its self-portrayal as the Arab David combating the Jewish Goliath.

I suggest that proportional response is not a numbers game. It should represent not military action undertaken but results achieved. I do not propose that the IDF follow the scorched-earth policy of Genghis Khan. But if Hamas launches rockets, Israel is entitled to respond in such a way that Hamas stops. Operation Cast Led achieved that—for a while.

I hope that Richard Goldstone will not only continue to distance himself from his committee’s report but avow Israel’s right to halt Hamas’ attacks. Perhaps then, we can all move forward on a long-overdue agreement to establish a Palestinian state and a real peace.

Several readers expressed anger at the family in my blog “Supermarket Politics” (March 25). Sorry to disappoint, but the family is a fictional device. Alas, the problem of American obesity and the failure of Congress and California to arrive at healthy budgets are all too real.

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“UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN!”

A heavy stream of traffic passed my house yesterday morning. It indicated a major accident on Park Presidio Boulevard, the north-south artery leading to the Golden Gate Bridge, a block and a half away. A Department of Parking & Traffic officer told me there had been an earlier accident, but that wasn’t the problem. It had long been cleared. A utility pole of some sort was leaning perilously near the roadway and no agency—the City, CalTrans, PG&E, AT&T—claimed responsibility for it. Traffic would be diverted until one did.

This may seem a strange lead-in to a brief discussion of this week’s Torah portion, Tazria (“bear seed”), but there’s a connection. Tazria is the fourth of ten weekly portions in the Book of Leviticus (Vayikra), which mainly deals with priestly functions and holiness. Tazria begins with the ritual impurity—caused by blood—of a woman who gives birth. She may not touch any consecrated thing or enter the sanctuary for 33 days if she has a son, 66 days if a daughter. Then she must bring a lamb and a turtledove for offerings in order to achieve a state of ritual purity.

The portion continues with priestly examinations of several skin afflictions, commonly translated as leprosy, although these conditions do not equate to Hansen’s disease. It goes so far as to command a person with “leprosy” to cover the lower part of his face to his upper lip and shout out, “Unclean! Unclean!” as he moves about outside the Israelite camp which he may not enter.

These practices, which relate to the Temple and priestly functions, ended—if some ever were actually followed—in 70 CE with the destruction of the Second Temple. Because they are foreign to modern thinking, some Reform Jews hesitate to study Leviticus. But while we certainly would not—and cannot—follow them today, they offer us much to consider.

The Torah sought to guide a society of twelve confederated tribes then a surviving kingdom in living at peace with God, nature and each other. But as a religious document, it placed great emphasis not only on criminal and civil law but also on ritual purity. To be sure, the word kadosh (holy), which literally means separate, confuses many twenty-first century moderns. The terms of kadosh seem arbitrary. Why is someone with a spreading skin affliction impure but someone whose affliction covers the entire skin in a state of ritual purity? (I suggest because there’s no mixture of afflicted and clean skin—a separation).

Back to yesterday. After several hours, the involved agencies agreed on who should take responsibility. Rules and protocols might have been complex, but traffic flowed again on Park Presidio. Order trumped anarchy.

Who knows? Perhaps Washington, Sacramento and City Hall in San Francisco will find in Leviticus a somewhat oblique but nonetheless inspirational message: we can and must all work together to build a better community—from national in scale to local.

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