Archive for March, 2012


You don’t really need to find out what’s going on

You don’t really want to know just how far it’s gone

Just leave well enough alone, keep your dirty laundry

“Dirty Laundry” by Don Henley, released 1982

In today’s San Francisco Chronicle, Chip Johnson asks why so many Oaklanders focus on the killing of a young Black man in Florida, Trayvon Martin, because the alleged killer was not Black. Yet Blacks kill fellow Blacks on Oakland’s streets in alarming numbers. The truth can be hard to face. I recall the turbulent ‘Sixties ‘60s when some Blacks boasted they could not be racist since they’d been oppressed. And to hell with Whitey if he disagreed.

All groups have dirty laundry. Asians often are portrayed as America’s model minority. But ask San Francisco’s crime task force if what happens in Chinatown and other parts of the city keep them busy. The recent killing of five Asian Americans near City College by a Vietnamese ex-convict informs us that we’re all different just the same.

Jews included. America alone produced Jonas Salk, discoverer of the polio vaccine, and dozens of Nobel Prize-winning scientists; Supreme Court justices like Louis Brandeis and Benjamin Cardozo; entertainers like Fanny Brice, Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen and Barbra Streisand—not to mention rockers like Bob Dylan and Lou Reed; authors Philip Roth and Grace Paley; and baseball greats Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax; plus countless business people, professionals, artists, factory workers and auto mechanics.

Other names resonate in American-Jewish history, too: Jacob Levinsky, Dopey Fein, Dutch Schultz, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Abe Bernstein and Moe Dalitz. Not a Ph.D. among them. They and many others made their mark in organized crime. Eastern-European immigrants, of whom I am a descendant, did not always find America the Goldene Medina—the Golden Land.

Truth be told, we Jews have our share of dirty laundry. Today, of course, we’re rarely involved in violent crime. But Jews on Wall Street—mixed with plenty of non-Jews—played a role in the subprime mortgage mess that shattered our economy. Nowhere is it written that to be Jewish is not to be human. Rather, as I wrote last week, we are tasked to overcome the yetzer hara—the bad impulse. Our record is impressive but not perfect.

Witness some of our cousins in Israel last Monday. According to the Jerusalem Post, some 300 fans of the Betar Jerusalem soccer club, following a victory over Tel Aviv B’nei Yehuda, attacked Arab workers at the Malcha Mall. They also chanted racist fight songs. Betar fans apparently have a reputation for anti-Arab outbursts.

But another aspect of this story bears telling. Wednesday night, 150 protestors gathered at the mall to support the rights of all Israelis. And Israeli police arrested 16 suspects. Six were brought to court and face indictment next week. The resolution may not be perfect. There’s lots of work to do in Israel regarding anti-Arab sentiment. And God knows, just chipping away at anti-Jewish sentiment in the Muslim world will take Herculean effort.

So another truth must be declared. The more we expose dirty laundry to fresh air, the easier it is to get it clean.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first 2-1/2 chapters of SLICK! at Which, by the way, received a great review and coveted Star as “a book of remarkable merit” from Kirkus Reviews. To purchase a signed copy, email me at SLICK! also is now available at, and


The murder of sixteen Afghan civilians allegedly by Staff Sergeant Robert Bales has set many Americans to soul searching. The killings were in themselves terrible. They also have caused serious deterioration in the tenuous U.S.-Afghan relationship. But even more is involved concerning something each of us must fear about ourselves.

Family and friends portray Bales—now in confinement at Fort Leavenworth—as an upstanding family man and neighbor. If he could do such a horrible thing, what does that say about us? Can any of us withstand life’s most terrible pressures? Are we willing to put others into life-threatening situations and expect them to emerge unscathed?

A ten-year veteran, Bales was deployed three times to Iraq and then to Afghanistan. The White House and the Pentagon will have to give serious thought to how we engage in extended wars given the volunteer makeup of our armed forces. Not that a draft would easily solve this problem. In Vietnam and Korea, for example, most American forces served a single tour. But that’s all it took to spur occasional atrocities like the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam and inflict Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on a significant number of returning troops.

Yes, the media is digging into Bales’ background and finding negatives. But Robert Bales is neither less nor more human than anyone else. David Brooks, in his New York Times column of March 20, wrote that, “…even people who contain reservoirs of compassion and neighborliness also possess a latent potential to commit murder.” Brooks—as I’m sure he knows—relates nothing new.

The Sages of the Talmud tell us that human beings all contain the yetzer tov, the good impulse, and the yetzer hara, the bad impulse. This reflects their interpretation of Eve (she did go first) and Adam (he never protested) eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad against God’s clear instructions. Christians interpret this defiant act as giving rise to original sin—humans are sinful by nature. The Sages—and this remains Judaism’s take on the issue—view every individual as capable of bad rather than sinful. We require no forgiveness for being born human but rather for any specific bad acts we perform.

The presence of the yetzer hara implies the necessity of making choices. To think we will naturally do good is delusional. Doing what is right takes work because each of us is capable of doing bad. During periods of stress, we risk losing our thin veneer of civility and self-restraint. Horrible acts may follow. Bales’ accumulated military experiences and challenges at home may well have exposed his yetzer hara. Why other military personnel with similar experiences refrain from committed murder remains an intriguing question.

Such thoughts bring me to Deuteronomy 30:19. Moses warns Israel that through God, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse.” He counsels, “U’vcharta b’chaim—Choose life.” Whether Jew, Christian or Muslim—Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist—agnostic or atheist—we confront pressures and temptations every day. May we choose life indeed.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first 2-1/2 chapters of SLICK! at Which, by the way, received a great review and coveted Star as “a book of remarkable merit” from Kirkus Reviews. To purchase a signed copy, email me at SLICK! also is now available at, and


They—whoever they may be—say that truth is stranger than fiction. As a novelist and a lover of satire, I’ll go along with that. Because based on what recently transpired in Afghanistan and what I’ve recently experienced with my novel Slick! truth indeed can make us wonder, “How did that happen?”

As to Afghanistan, we know that an American soldier allegedly (just using the legal jargon in self defense) massacred 16 civilians—women and children. You could write a novel about an incident like that. But in many ways, nothing you create would be any more moving, angering and mind blowing than this tale as it unravels regarding the alleged killer’s deeds, motivations and background, which appears to include multiple combat tours in the Middle East, a head injury and marriage problems.

At the same time, nothing I wrote in Slick! including the march during which Moq’tari protestors chant, “Hoops yes! Bagels no!” could be more bizarre than the radio report of the Taliban, allegedly representing God and a higher civilization, referring to American soldiers as animals and calling for their heads to be chopped off. You can make this stuff up, but you don’t have to. A satirist just observes the world and lets loose.

As for me—hey, it’s my blog and I can self-promote all I want—a writer from Kirkus Reviews interviewed me last Sunday for a profile scheduled to appear in the April 15 issue. The publication, which has reviewed books since 1933 and calls itself “The World’s Toughest Book Critics,” gave Slick! a great review and awarded it a Star as a book of “remarkable merit”—their description, not mine. I checked out their site. Not many books get a Star, including those brought out by major publishing companies.

What I find gratifying is that I published Slick! independently—a euphemism for “I couldn’t get an agent let alone find a publisher.” So there’s stuff here for a novel. Writer writes book. Writer believes in book. Writer’s editor, wife and a few friends believe in book. No one else does. Except a major industry publication.

And then I get a call to appear on a local show, Mosaic (CBS-5, San Francisco) to talk about my non-fiction book, God’s Others: Non-Israelites Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible. But maybe I’ll save that for next week.

Back to Slick! If all this was the plot in a popular novel, agents and editors would soon be calling. I’d be swamped with offers. They’d also want to publish my follow-up novel set in Central America. And they’d be salivating over the other novel I just completed, an entirely different book about death, cancer, Down syndrome, stand-up comedy and dogs. The usual stuff. And let’s not even talk about Hollywood! On the other hand, a more literary novel about my writing career might offer a different plot. Acclaimed work. No agent or publisher in sight. A man writes into his sunset years waiting discovered in vain. Move over, Vincent van Gogh.

Okay, I’m dramatizing. But truth writes itself every day in so many ways that often resemble fiction. And every human life really is a novel that crafts itself. I plan to keep turning the pages to see how it all comes out.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first 2-1/2 chapters of SLICK! at To purchase a signed copy, email me at SLICK! also is now available at, and


Yesterday (beginning Wednesday evening) Jews celebrated Purim. We read the Book of Esther, which presents a great threat to the Jews of ancient Persia. So what’s changed?

According to the megillah (scroll/story), Haman, King Ahasuerus’s top counselor, responds negatively to the Jewish Mordecai’s refusal to bow to him. “Accordingly, written instructions were dispatched by couriers to all the king’s provinces to destroy, massacre, and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women, on a single day… and to plunder their possessions. (Esther 3:13)”

Many Hamans have arisen over time. Today, Iran’s Supreme Leader (and how does such a title not raise eyebrows?), Ayatollah Khamenei, and president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wish to obliterate Israel. Not surprisingly, tensions are high this Purim. Israel is publicly considering military action against Iran’s nuclear-weapon capabilities. President Obama has indicated that U.S. military action remains on the table even if he wishes Israel to hold back for now. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Washington this week did not necessarily resolve strategic differences, but Netanyahu did ask for advanced “bunker-buster” bombs and refueling planes. At the same time, the Pentagon is preparing for possible military activity in the Gulf and elsewhere, since Iran, even if attacked by Israel alone, may strike at U.S. interests abroad and at home.

Tuesday night, Israeli President Shimon Peres spoke at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-el. As ceremonial head of state, Peres did not rattle sabers. But he remarked that Iran is the only country calling for the destruction of Israel and termed its government the most corrupt and immoral of our time. Peres also declared, “We feel so close to the United States.” This gave a boost to President Obama, whose support Israel seeks, in the face of Republican claims that Obama is anti-Israel. But Peres reiterated that only Israel, as has long been Israeli policy, will decide what actions to take in its own defense. American help will be valued but not required.

Meanwhile, Iran again seems willing to return to negotiations. They have previously used this as a ploy to delay Western actions. Israel is wary. France voiced skepticism. The outcome remains to be determined.

Back to Purim. Most Jews know that Queen Esther, Mordecai’s adopted daughter, reveals Haman’s plot and saves the day. But there’s more that usually goes unmentioned. Esther asks Ahasuerus to give the Jews permission to fight for their lives if attacked and kill those who plotted to kill them. The Jews slay over 75,000 enemies, including all of Haman’s sons.

Note that the Book of Esther is very much a satire, poking fun at the drunken Ahasuerus and his antics, including his advisors’ concerns about wives obeying husbands. Likewise, many in the West see Iran’s ayatollahs as caricatures. But they are human beings, and their views of Islam’s relationship with Israel and the U.S. are real as are their threats.

May it be that diplomacy resolves the situation. But if force cannot be avoided, know that Haman was impaled on the stake he had prepared for Mordecai—one 50 cubits high. Let us hope the ayatollahs realize that today’s nuclear stakes are far higher.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first 2-1/2 chapters of SLICK! at Which, by the way, received a great review and coveted Star as “a book of remarkable merit” from Kirkus Reviews. To purchase a signed copy, email me at SLICK! also is now available at, and


Spring training is on with baseball’s exhibition games starting. And next week’s Torah portion (Ki Tissa, Exodus 30:11–34:35) tells the story of the Golden Calf. There’s a relationship here.

Let’s start with Torah. The Israelites, worried that Moses remains on Mount Sinai for forty days and nights, ask his brother Aaron to make a god who will go before (lead) them in the wilderness (Exod. 32:1). With Moses absent, comprehending the invisible God is too difficult. To buoy their spirits, the Israelites require something tangible—and inherently false.

Sports buoys our spirits, too—especially baseball, which starts in the spring. But the passion for winning can distort our values. Many fans self identify with their teams to the point at which they accept any means to assure a winning season and more, a championship. Half a century ago, Green Bay Packers’ coach Vince Lombardi famously stated, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Thus a game often represents not just entertainment to many fans but also personal validation. Mix that with alcohol, and conduct in the stands goes overboard. Fans rooting for visiting teams risk their lives.

Given all the gold that accompanies glory, we also see distorted values on the field, court and rink. Sports is big business—and not just on the professional level. The NCAA basketball-tournament TV deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting runs from 2011 to 2024 to the tune of $10.8 billion—yes, with a “B” as in “bizarre.”

That money produces one golden calf after another. Some players focus as much on beating mandatory drug tests as on beating their opponents. Coaches look the other way at all but the most serious criminal acts. Universities hire athletes uninterested in education—and don’t pay them. Winning trumps drug abuse, drunk driving, physical violence and cheating on term papers.

It’s not surprising that in this environment—and with the encouragement of cable TV sports shows that appeal to a post-adolescent audience—many athletes display aberrant behavior. Big—and even routine—plays demand worship-like experiences. A basketball player hits a shot and thumps his chest. A football player scores a touchdown and performs a ritual of self-glorification. A baseball player hits a home run and stands in the batter’s box to watch the ball’s flight. But isn’t that what they get paid—and handsomely—to do?

I hope this baseball season produces fewer slow-motion home-run trots and fist pumps. And while we’re at it, we can do without gestures towards heaven. What, God participates in a fantasy league and rigs it to clean up on the celestial court? Going for the gold shouldn’t mean going for the golden calf.

But of course, I’m shamefully optimistic. It’s spring, and I’ll be off to Phoenix in two weeks to check out baseball’s preseason progress. Which is why I leave you with the words of the Chicago Cubs’ Hall of Fame shortstop, Ernie Banks: “Let’s play two!”

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first 2-1/2 chapters of SLICK! at To purchase a signed copy, email me at SLICK! also is now available at, and