Archive for August, 2011


Libyan rebels have taken the Tripoli compound of Muammar el-Qaddafi (New York Times spelling). The Libyan poet and writer Khaled Darwish wrote in a Times op-ed piece yesterday, “My son Mohammad waved our new flag of independence in one hand and held a martyr’s picture in the other as he chanted, ‘The blood of martyrs is not spilled in vain.’” We can all respond, “Amen.” But while we can hope that a brighter future awaits Libya, we cannot know.

Couples often endure nine long months of pregnancy anticipating that at the moment of birth, their trials will end. But as parents know, birth is just the beginning. The future, despite our dreams and plans, remains uncertain, and each day takes tremendous effort.

So it will be with Libya. The nation must build the institutions of a civil and workable society virtually from scratch. To do it, Libyans from a variety of factions—political and tribal—will have to find common ground to avoid turning their country into another Iraq. This will require a new sense of openness—of family—marked by accepting others’ differences and compromise. It’s not easy, but it’s doable. I would hold out to Libyans the much smaller example of my synagogue, San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel.

I wrote an ad running in today’s J., the Jewish Weekly of Northern California, based on Sherith Israel’s winning the J.’s Readers’ Award for “Best Interfaith Programming.” The headline states: “We’re not all Jewish. But we’re family.” Interfaith, in my opinion, constitutes a misnomer. Sherith Israel is, after all, a synagogue for Jewish worship, study and celebration. (We partake in social justice, too, but this also is true of churches, mosques, and other houses of worship.) That being said, our synagogue is not only for Jews.

We have long welcomed non-Jewish spouses and partners into our temple family. There’s no pressure to convert—and many don’t—although we offer a yearly course on Jewish basics for Jews and non-Jews wishing to learn more. The range of genetic and cultural backgrounds often startles visitors. But we’re unified by our commitment to Jewish families even if that commitment is expressed on a broad continuum of observance.

The fact is, our non-Jewish spouses and partners tend to be highly supportive of Sherith Israel. Many play active roles in the congregation within some limitations. (You have to be Jewish to serve on the board or chair a committee.) Non-Jewish parents promote their children’s Jewish education and identity as did my wife, Carolyn, as our three children went through Religious School, became bar and bat mitzvah and then were confirmed leading to lengthy summer trips to Israel.

Alas, the concept of family in an extended context—of focusing on what binds all of us rather than what divides—is not found everywhere in American society. Thus Libya confronts a serious challenge. May they and us come to see each other all as members of the human family just as the Torah teaches us that we are all—Jews and not—the children of the same Creator.

For a take on family regarding Muslims in America, see Jill Waldman’s wonderful short story, “The Submission,” in the September Atlantic magazine.

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I was driving back from Los Angeles and stopped for gas. A man in a yellow t-shirt with an illustration of a rattlesnake and the words, “Don’t Tread on Me,” saw me buying bottled water and commented, “Wish I could still afford that.” He held up two empty plastic thermoses. “Gonna fill up in the men’s room.”

“Tough times?” I asked. He shook his head mournfully. “The wife lost her job last year. Now she can’t look for a new one because she has to take care of her mother. Dementia. They closed her adult-day-care program. Then I got laid off last month. Company lost some government contracts. I have diabetes, but at least I’m keeping my health care coverage for a while.”

“That’s COBRA,” I said. “A government mandate for qualified people who lose their jobs.” He looked puzzled. “A government deal? Hell, Washington’s killing this country. If the government would just keep its nose out of people’s business, you’d see the economy come roaring back. And Washington can start by repealing Obamacare. Why should my taxes pay for healthcare for people who don’t want to work?”

I scratched my head. “But you’re out of a job, and other working Americans are paying their unemployment taxes to help you.” He stared at me. “I paid my share. It’s about time I got some back.” I smiled. “Well, that’s the way it works. We pay taxes, and those taxes come back to us in the form of things like national security, roads, schools and some minimum standard of life in retirement.”

He pointed one of his empty thermoses at me. “Retirement? My 401(k)’s all over the place, and all Washington wants to do is screw free enterprise by regulating the banks. And they never should have bailed the banks out in the first place. Social Security? Obama wants to take it away from the little guy. It’s time we got government out of Social Security. That goes for Medicare, too.”

I edged my bottled water behind my back. “But what if wealthy people get a little less in their Social Security payments? And pay a little more on their Medicare premiums? That would lower spending and help keep Social Security around for the little guy.” He shook his head. “You just want to raise taxes.” I twirled my water bottles in my hands. “Well, for the rich, why not?” I asked. “And how about raising revenues by cutting loopholes? Why should we support the oil companies?” His cheeks turned crimson. “Raise revenues? Not according to Jesus. Just cut taxes and let business create jobs.”

I sighed. “But economists say that tax cuts don’t stimulate the economy. They can hurt it. In 1937, Washington cut its stimulus program and raised taxes after the economy was recovering. So we had a recession for a year then rapid growth after President Roosevelt developed a new stimulus package without lowering taxes.” He pointed his other empty water bottle at me. “I’m a man of principle, and a man of principle sticks to his guns. No matter what. I’d rather bring this country to its knees than ruin it with big-government socialism.” He turned towards the men’s room then whirled around. “And I’ll tell you this. If someone doesn’t start smoothing over some of that bad road along I-5 out here and add another lane, I’m gonna be one very unhappy camper.”

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New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff offered an interesting parenthetical remark on August 4: “(Whenever I write about Israel, I get accused of double standards because I don’t spill as much ink denouncing worse abuses by, say, Syria. I plead guilty. I demand more of Israel partly because my tax dollars supply arms and aid to Israel. I hold democratic allies like Israel to a higher standard — just as I do the U.S.)”

It’s nice that Mr. Kristoff recognizes Israel as the democratic ally it is. As it happens, Israel as a Jewish state should and does hold to—if not always meet—the highest standards. But expecting more of Israel does create a double standard. This is particularly troublesome in the face of Syria’s repression of its own people, a response so blatant and violent that Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah demanded “an end to the death machine and bloodshed.” And let’s face it. The Saudis run a pretty tight ship when it comes to human rights and dissent.

Israelis and Jews in general are only human. Witness the Book of Deuteronomy, which we’re now studying. In verses 28:15–68, Moses offers the Tokechah (reproof)—a list of curses in ascending severity that will befall the Israelites if they fail to heed God’s commandments. God has set the very highest standards of human behavior. But the Israelites remain only flesh and blood in spite of being created b’tzelem Elohim—in the image of God. Otherwise, the Tokechah would have been irrelevant.

If Mr. Kristoff feels the need to point out modern Israel’s failings, fine. Israelis and Jews worldwide do, too. Israel has always been filled with political debate and expression. Last Saturday, 250,000 Israelis protested wage disparities and costly housing. No batons. No bullets. How’s that for meeting a higher standard than in Cairo, Hama or Tehran?

Nonetheless, injustice follows when the world fails to hold other nations to Israel’s standards. Hypocrites dismiss those nations’ violence and hatred then present Israelis as wrongdoers for fighting back when violence and hatred are directed at them. Such warped thinking makes targets of Jews everywhere.

In the contexts of both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Arab Spring, the concept of higher standards also establishes Arabs—particularly Hamas, Fatah, Hezbollah—and Iranians as childlike and undeveloped. They act badly because they simply don’t know better. Thus they can’t be expected to meet accepted standards of decency. No matter how terribly they speak and act, they don’t disappoint and so fail to draw condemnation. It is Israel that, when attacked, must defend itself against accusations of “disproportional response.” Given the demands that democracy makes on any nation and the hopes that democracy may some day flourish in the Middle East, how condescending is that?

So please, Mr. Kristoff, don’t put Israel and Jews on a pedestal. We do enough of that ourselves. Double standards serve only to turn world opinion against us for no good reason while providing Syria’s Bashar Assad and other Middle East tyrants a pass to act outrageously. As a columnist for the Times, shouldn’t your writing meet a higher standard?

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The most courageous heroes often walk among us unseen. Sadly, many no longer grace us with their presence. On 3 August 1967, my fraternity brother and friend, First Lieutenant Howard Jon Schnabolk, a medical evacuation helicopter pilot, was shot down and killed in Vietnam. You would never have pointed to Howie as a hero. Yet an officer I met who had flown with him called Howie “the bravest man I ever knew.” There’s a lesson here.

Howie grew up in Sea Bright, New Jersey on the Jersey Shore and was a year ahead of me at Alfred University, a small private school in western New York State. Mild-mannered and soft-spoken, Howie didn’t fit the mold of a future hero. He never played intramural football, basketball or softball as I did, let alone varsity sports, although he did cheer on our Tau Delta Phi teams. He spent much time and effort as the lighting designer for student plays. I remember. I acted in them.

Neither glum nor withdrawn—he flashed a ready smile—Howie just seemed more mature than the rest of us. He was an Eagle Scout. He took flying lessons. He attended Masons meetings. What college kid does that? It was Howie who put up paneling in our fraternity house living room—and who served as president for two years.

Howie also took ROTC. After graduating in 1965, he deferred Army service to attend Yale Drama School as a lighting design student—no mean feat. But the program didn’t satisfy him. He entered active service as a second lieutenant in the Medical Service Corps and earned his wings as a helicopter pilot at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Vietnam followed.

I graduated in 1966. Having passed up the final two years of ROTC—the first two were required of all male students—I enlisted in the Army and attended Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. I was commissioned in May 1967 but in the Adjutant General’s Corp because my eyes were so bad an Army optometrist in basic training told me I shouldn’t be there. I was assigned to Fort Sam Houston, Medical Services Corp headquarters, and shared an apartment off post. We agreed that when he returned to Fort Sam, he’d move in with me.

Howie and I had been writing while I was in OCS and after I got to Fort Sam. His letters were brutally honest. He was flying in support of the 101st Airborne, for whom I have great respect. But, he wrote, they were getting the shit kicked out of them. His words. Howie’s job was to pick up the pieces—to fly into a battle zone and take out the wounded and dead. To save lives, not take them. Once, he was given a new “bulletproof” flight helmet. An enemy round went through it, missing his head by an inch or two. Howie kept flying. Then his luck ran out. His aircraft was hit, and he purposely crashed it on its side, surrendering his life to enable the wounded he carried to live, which they did.

I will say Kaddish for Howie tonight, and it will hurt. I have done so for years, since I don’t know if his parents are still alive or if he has any siblings to remember him. I do know this: In an era in which the call to patriotism and duty are so often bellowed with macho pretension, Howie’s quiet courage will be remembered. Zecher hatzaddik l’vrachah—may the member of the righteous be for a blessing.

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