Archive for June, 2012

MAKING WAY

My cousin Howard called me on Wednesday. It was great to catch up with him. Better yet, it was great that Howard is still here. He had a brain tumor. An operation and radiation have given him clean readings so far, and he’s pretty much back to normal. If, having had a tumor, life can ever resemble normal again.

But as Howard said in so many words, “None of us is getting out of here alive.” Yet how we go makes a big difference. An uncle of mine, 96, hasn’t long. Hospice has been arranged so he can die at home. I hope this comes to pass. My friend Yury died of pancreatic cancer in a hospital two years ago. Neither of us would have chosen that path.

If death is on my mind this week, it’s only natural. Yesterday marked the 76th anniversary of my parents’ wedding, somewhat sandwiched in between the anniversaries of their deaths. And this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (Numbers 19:1–22:1) brings us two significant deaths. The first is that of Miriam. We know little about it. “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there (Num. 20:1).” A quiet death we presume and hopefully a dignified one.

The second death is Aaron’s. And while Aaron’s passing is seemingly peaceful, it has always disturbed me. After the Israelites arrive at Mount Hor, God instructs both Moses and Aaron, “Let Aaron be gathered to his kin: he is not to enter the land that I have assigned to the Israelite people, because you disobeyed my command about the waters of Meribah (Num. 20:24).” Earlier, Moses had struck a rock rather than speaking to it to bring forth water. God was not pleased. For now, Aaron must pay the price.

Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s son Eleazar, his successor as High Priest, ascend the mountain. Moses strips Aaron of his vestments and puts them on Eleazar. Aaron dies. No farewell tour. No parties. No speeches and toasts. And of course, no video tribute. It all seems so callous. Seemingly without emotion, one generation hands off its duties to the next. The Israelites only realize what has happened when Moses and Eleazar come down. They wail for thirty days—equivalent to today’s Jewish mourning period known as Shloshim.

What can we say? We all die. How else can we make room for our children and grandchildren? And our end will not be glorious. A funeral. Some kind words (true or not). Maybe an obituary in the newspaper (exaggerated or not). Hopefully for Jews, Kaddish recited and a yarzheit candle lit on each anniversary of our passing until no one is left to remember.

But the story of Aaron’s death is also the story of his life. With it all, he died with dignity. And the Sages tell us that Aaron—who pursued peace and sought to bring people together—was beloved where Moses, our great teacher, was feared.

As for me, I’m not prone to worrying about when and how I’ll die. I’d much rather focus on how I’m living.

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

Finally… SLICK! is now available as an e-book at Amazon.com (Kindle) and bn.com (Nook), as well as in trade paper. Also in digital and paper formats at iUniverse.com. Get a head start: read the first 2-1/2 chapters of SLICK! at davidperlstein.com. More promotion: SLICK! received a great review and coveted Star as “a book of remarkable merit” from Kirkus Reviews. 

IRRELEVANCE

In Slick! Russia’s ambassador to the Persian-Gulf sultanate of Moq’tar points out to Bobby Gatling that while Moq’tar is 3,700 kilometers from Moscow it is 11,000 kilometers distant from Washington. The message: Russia, too, has legitimate geopolitical interests. But today, those interests seem to matter very little. And Russia’s demise as a world power offers a valuable lesson for the United States.

Russia has always been concerned with its “near abroad.” But the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991 left Russia in disarray. Since 1999 when Vladimir Putin became president following Boris Yeltsin’s resignation—a position Putin still holds with time out for one term as prime minister during which power was transferred to that office—Russia has sought to regain power and prestige. Plentiful oil money boosted its economy. Oligarchs and mafia chieftains made billions in the new private-enterprise environment. An upper class emerged with incredible wealth. But economies built on commodities suffer inherent weaknesses. And those with autocratic governments stifle many of their best and brightest along with possibilities for an economy and a society that are more diverse, inclusionary and sustainable.

As to Putin: Although he won a five-year presidential term last March and can run for another in 2017—which would make him Russia’s most powerful man for 23 years—Putin’ has been poutin’. It seems that the rest of the world, observing Russia’s political, military, economic and health problems along with a population shrunk to 143 million—less than half that of the U.S.—doesn’t take the Russian bear seriously.

About the only authority Russia now exercises on the world stage is its veto in the United Nations Security Council. It regularly blocks positions against Iran’s development of nuclear weapons and condemnations of the Assad government’s brutalization of the Syrian people. And why not? If the UN supports change in clerical Iran and dictatorial Syria, why not in authoritative Russia where dissidents are beaten and jailed, and journalists routinely killed?

Putin’s body language tells the story. He seeks to project the image of a man’s man symbolic of Russian might, walking with his arms held out from his sides like a muscle pumping schoolyard bully. Or think of the blowfish, which defends itself by inflating to three times its size. Photos show him riding horses shirtless, swimming with dolphins and firing weapons. Russia, he wants us to know, is still a player.

Not so, according to Ian Bremmer, president of The Eurasia Group and author of Every Nation for Itself. He points out that U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul openly sides with Russian dissidents. This angers Putin. But Washington doesn’t care. Yet the White House, Bremmer claims, would never let our ambassador to China speak that way. Russia, he asserts, has simply become irrelevant.

The lesson for us? The world changes. Power shifts. And we must adapt. I’m not suggesting that the U.S. is about to become irrelevant. But we have lost some power and influence, which we may never regain. We can accept our limitations and remain relevant. Or we can posture like Vladimir Putin and risk confrontations we may come to regret.

I’ll appear in the second half of CBS-5 TV’s “Mosaic” this Sunday morning (June 24) at 5 am. Talking about writing, of course. Easy to record for playback at a more convenient hour.

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 davidperlstein.com. 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 dhperl@yahoo.com. SLICK! also is now available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.

I AM MY FATHER

There’s an old joke: When I graduated from high school, I thought my parents were ignorant and out of touch. When I graduated from college, I was amazed at how much they had learned.

I write this because Sunday is Father’s Day. My father, Morris, died on June 18, 1983 at eighty. It was a Saturday. We buried him the next day. It was Fathers Day. But after all these years, my father is very much alive. Because as it happens, I am him.

Not that we weren’t different people. My father grew up the son of immigrants. He himself arrived at Ellis Island as two-and-a-half year-old Moishe Chaim Perelstein (an “e” got dropped while he was still a teenager) in February 1906. He didn’t like to talk about his childhood in Manhattan, but he did respond to one of my questions: he thought his parents—Sam (Chaim Shliomah) and Kayleh—were greenhorns.

I grew up in Queens the son of middle-class Americans. My mother, Blanche, was born in New York. During my childhood in the ‘50s, the United States enjoyed incredible economic growth. While my father had to work after high school and needed eleven years of night classes to get a B.S. from NYU’s School of Commerce (’32), I went away to Alfred University, a small private school in Western New York State. My father contentedly wrote checks for each semester’s bill.

I always appreciated how my father built a good life for us. But unlike him, I didn’t smoke cigars. Or take after-dinner naps. Or think like someone who had lived through the Depression that working for Sears would provide valued lifetime security. (After the war, my father took a risk and moved out of the back office to sell springs to bedding and furniture manufacturers; he did extremely well thanks to uncommon integrity and a model work ethic.)

Moreover, the only places my parents ever traveled while I was a kid were to the Catskills and Florida. They added San Antonio, San Francisco and Las Vegas after Carolyn and I married but never left the country. Admittedly, I’m not adventurous. But post-college, I served three years in the Army, settled in Texas and drove with Carolyn across the country from San Antonio to California to New York in 17 days. After which we traversed Western Europe for three months. Moved back to San Antonio. And took vacations in Mexico. In 1974, we moved to San Francisco. I went to work for myself. Different generations. Different opportunities. Different lives.

But here’s the thing. Once Carolyn and I were in Rego Park on one of our many visits. At the time, Seth was our only child. My father and I went for a walk. Outside the apartment building, we started to cross 63rd Drive. A car approached. My father grasped my arm. In the past, I would have taken offense. Now I smiled and offered no resistance. I was a father, too. And at the deepest level, I appreciated that while I was no child, I was and always would be his child.

Tonight, closest to the secular date of my father’s death, I’ll say Kaddish in his memory. On the evening of June 26, coinciding with the date of his death on the Jewish calendar (7 Tammuz), I’ll light a yarzheit candle. And I’ll remember that in so many ways, he and I were very different—just the same.

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 davidperlstein.com. 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 dhperl@yahoo.com. SLICK! also is now available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.

LONGING FOR GOD

I once read a story about the Holocaust, which may or may not be apocryphal. Not that it matters. Nothing—as well as everything—about the Holocaust is impossible to believe. What’s important is that the story’s conclusion tells us a great deal about humanity’s longing for God.

One afternoon, a group of Jewish prisoners engages in a heated discussion. Half deny God’s existence. Who can blame them? Although Elie Wiesel sagely responds to the question, “Where was God?” with “Where was man?” The other half defends God’s existence, even if they cannot understand their plight. Then someone says it’s four o’clock. All go off to pray Mincha, the afternoon service.

The story, with its deep irony, typifies Jewish humor. It also demonstrates a great truth.  We all long for something beyond ourselves, something that can guide us in living not just for ourselves but also for each other. Tonight, as always, I’ll attend Shabbat services at Congregation Sherith Israel. And I’ll witness that Holocaust story play itself out yet again.

Reform Jews, notes Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism in the current issue of Reform Judaism magazine, “have trouble talking about God.” True that! But Rabbi Jacobs’ observation isn’t new. Many people with whom I’ve attended services and Saturday morning Torah Study share an agnosticism bordering on atheism. The God of the Torah antagonizes them. At Sinai, God instructs the Israelites never to bow down to sculptured images or other false gods “For I the Lord your God am an impassioned [often translated as jealous] God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and fourth generations of those who reject Me…” (Exodus 20:5). God has a temper, and many thousands of deaths result. Yet still they pray and study.

As for me, I’ve long been attuned to Maimonides’ dictum regarding God—even more so after both my recent visit to Israel and a class on Maimonides taught by Sherith Israel’s senior rabbi, Larry Raphael. We know God by what God is not. God has no body—no head, no hands, no feet. God is not a consumer of food—the ancient sacrifices. God, in spite of the passage from Exodus and others in the Hebrew Bible, has no emotions. The Torah is metaphor written in a language people can understand. Thus God doesn’t even need our prayers. We need them.

The current Reform Judaism offers reflections from members of Sinai Temple in Springfield, Massachusetts regarding feeling close to God: at the birth of a child, on Yom Kippur, in the company of others. These are all valid. But none defines God.

Then again, does God need definition? The very concept of God may elude us, yet we’re drawn us to investigate, discuss and even argue. As for me, I believe in God as that which connects us to our best selves, each other and our world. And I’m quite willing to let it go at that. Which is why the only response I can offer atheists is, “Which God is it that you don’t believe in?”

Shabbat Shalom!

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 davidperlstein.com. 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 dhperl@yahoo.com. SLICK! also is now available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.

O JERUSALEM!

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

  Let my right hand wither…

—Psalms 137:5

Jerusalem’s place in the Jewish heart has been established for nearly three thousand years. So stating that modern-day Israel can and should live without part of Jerusalem is not easy. But it’s necessary.

The Palestinians have long demanded that East Jerusalem—in Arabic Al Quds (the Holy)—be their capital. Arguments as to whether Jerusalem should or should not be considered sufficiently holy to Muslims after Mecca and Medina (originally Yathrib) don’t concern me. It’s sufficient that Palestinians cling to Jerusalem, which represents a redline issue to them as does prohibiting a right of Palestinian return to Israelis.

Would dividing Jerusalem be a sacrilege? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says yes. On May 20, Jerusalem Day, Bibi repeated that the city would remain Israel’s undivided capital. But other Israeli voices differ. Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak were willing to give East Jerusalem to the Palestinians as part of a peace agreement. And on Jerusalem Day, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who once demanded a united Jerusalem, stated again that East Jerusalem should go to the Palestinians. Reasons abound.

View Jerusalem from Mount Scopus, and the Old City stands surrounded by a vastly larger metropolis unimaginable to Israel’s kings and sages. Tour the Old City, and you know that the Ottoman Turks built the current walls 500 years ago. Walk the tunnel under the Kotel (Western Wall), and you learn that the Jerusalem of the Second Temple lies 50 to 80 feet beneath you. Visit East Jerusalem, and you see another city entirely—Arab neighborhoods lacking the Jewish side’s good streets, ample lighting and sanitation. Moreover, as The Jerusalem Post reported on May 24, “The National Insurance Institute found that 78 percent of residents and 84 percent of children lived under the poverty line in east Jerusalem in 2010.”

Jewish neighborhoods—far too sophisticated and expansive to be called settlements—continue to grow around East Jerusalem. Tensions also keep growing. Not that the Palestinian Authority has been wise in refusing to engage in new talks until growth stops. The P.A. has let the building continue, making a bilateral solution even more challenging. Which is why Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak call last Wednesday for Israel to take undefined “unilateral actions” to set the borders of a future Palestinian state.

For all the relative calm and quiet in Jerusalem, I’m wary. Every block of Jerusalem limestone set in place on the West Bank and every neglected neighborhood in East Jerusalem serves as a piece of kindling. Aluf Benn, editor-and-chief of Haaretz, told my group from Congregation Sherith Israel at a briefing in Tel Aviv a month ago that a third Intifada (uprising) is not a matter of “if” but “when.” I fear he’s right.

The Psalmist described our agony 2,500 years ago after the destruction of the First Temple. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion.” We possess all of Jerusalem today, but that agony continues.

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 davidperlstein.com. 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 dhperl@yahoo.com. SLICK! also is now available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.