Archive for October, 2014

PERLSTEIN STREET

I watched with delight Wednesday evening as the Giants won their third World Series in five years. The championship brings everyone associated with the team pride, money and celebrity. Giants’ fans may share in the pride, but we’ll have to take a pass on everything else. But I don’t care. I just found out that there’s a street named for me—kind of.

Welcome to Perlstein Street in Bat Yam, Israel, just south of Tel Aviv. I’ve strolled it digitally thanks to Google Maps. It’s a modest one-way street, tree-lined and about five blocks long. It’s located in the city’s central district, which reminds me in some ways of Rego Park (Queens, New York City) where I grew up. You probably wouldn’t feel impelled to live on Perlstein Street unless, perhaps, your name is Perlstein.

But what’s in a name? My father Morris (Moishe) arrived at Ellis Island from Warsaw in February 1906. It would make a great legend that he came by himself, but he was two-and-a-half. (My mother’s father Lyon Finkle came by himself at 14—not unusual.) My grandfather Sam (Chaim Shlioma) took my father off the ship along with my grandmother Katie (Kayleh) and aunts Alice (Elka) and Etta (Etka). Grandpa and Grandma had two children here—Uncle Benjamin, who died ay age two, and Aunt Babe (Sarah). The name itself first was inscribed as Perelstein—note the “e” after the “r”. That spelling appears on the family’s naturalization certificate dated August 25, 1914. The name got somewhat anglicized after. Not surprisingly, America has its Pearlsteins, Pearlstones and other variations, too.

So who was Perlstein Street named after? I don’t know. A list of prominent people from Bat Yam doesn’t include a Perlstein, but a city of 130,000 has lots of streets to name. I sent the question to the city but my email didn’t go through. I’ll keep digging.

Here in the United States, Perlsteins, whatever the spelling, have made their mark. Rick Perlstein is a noted historian and best-selling author. His new book is The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. Norman Pearlstine served as editor-in-chief at Time magazine from 1995–2005. Philip Pearlstein is an influential painter known for his modernist-realism nudes. Linda Perlstein has written about families for Newsweek. There’s also a Perlstein Hall at the Illinois Institute of Engineering in Chicago. LinkedIn lists 25 successful Perlsteins. There are plenty more.

Two of my favorite Perlsteins are less well known. I used to go down to the basement of my college (Alfred University) library and look through old editions of the New York Times. One article from the 1940s or ‘50s detailed Max “Snooky” Perlstein playing pool against the legendary Willie Mosconi. Max got edged out, 150–6. Yes, six! Then there was Larry Perlstein, who played basketball for Brooklyn College. Unfortunately, Larry never enrolled as a student.

Will any city name a street after me? I doubt it. And I won’t be feted with a parade down Market Street. Still, I take pride in the accomplishments of Perlsteins known and unknown. And if, after I die, a few people can say they were glad to have known me, I’ll be famous enough. Although Perlstein Street in San Francisco does sound pretty good.

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SILWAN

A newspaper article from decades ago concerned the wise, heroic act of a teacher in a tough Chicago high school. I wish I could personally tell the story to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu.

A student pulled a gun. Let me be clear. No one has the right to bring a gun into a school. The teacher entered the scene but didn’t threaten the student. He knew that might set the student off. So he said, “Let me hold that for you.” The student, seeing a way out, surrendered the weapon. The teacher’s considered words prevented a possible catastrophe.

Israel faces a similar situation in East Jerusalem. Let me be clear. Israel has every right to exist. Moreover, I defend Israel’s right to strike back at Hamas and other terrorists with whatever force it deems necessary. But the Israeli government’s strategy regarding East Jerusalem—the Silwan neighborhood in particular—seems self-destructive.

Silwan, which borders the southern portion of the Old City, is thoroughly Arab. I’ve been driven through Silwan several times, so I’ve had tires, if not feet, on the ground. Some right-wing Israelis have moved to Silwan to establish a “substantial” Jewish presence in Arab East Jerusalem (as opposed to the huge Jewish suburbs in areas annexed by the Municipality of Jerusalem). Recently, Jews purchased several residences through an Arab intermediary and entered them under cover of darkness.

According to The Jerusalem Post, Jews in Silwan number 500. The Arab population is 50,000. So the Jewish presence is anything but substantial. Yet the right seeks to settle enough Jewish residents to void Arab claims on Silwan and the rest of East Jerusalem. Bibi and the right insist that Jerusalem, East and West, is and will remain the undivided capital of Israel. They see Jewish residents invalidating any claim on East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state.

The right-wing position represents a fantasy that keeps tensions high. Arab East Jerusalem is just that. Jews lived there in the past, yes. But Palestinians once lived in West Jerusalem. That’s also the past; they won’t be returning. We should remember the past but more important live in the present with an eye on an attainable future.

Let me also be clear. Arab/Palestinian violence in response to the situation is wrong. On Wednesday, an Arab resident of East Jerusalem drove his car into a group of people at a light-rail stop. He killed a three-month old Jewish girl. That’s monstrous. Bibi’s response condemned Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for making incendiary statements about Muslims defending the Noble Sanctuary (Temple Mount to Jews). Bibi may be right. But his self-righteousness has not helped matters.

Does it make sense to toss a lighted match into a barrel of gunpowder? The teacher in Chicago might have been “right” to threaten the student, but he chose to defuse the situation. Yes, East Jerusalem has been part of Israel (though two previous Israeli prime ministers offered it to the Palestinians and were rebuffed) since the 1967 Six-Day War. And Arab residents of East Jerusalem take advantage of generous Israeli social benefits. But as to Silwan, this Israeli government’s approach remains needlessly heavy-handed. Cornering the market may pay off. Cornering an opponent risks disaster.

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THE YEAR OF LISTENING

During the Jewish month of Elul (August/September) leading to the recent High Holy Days, I made a semi-resolution. The Sages caution against making vows and for good reason, so I avoided going that far. But I determined to try to be a more attentive listener. That’s a challenge.

I took inspiration from Pirke Avot (Wisdom of the Fathers) 4:1 attributed to Ben Zoma: “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.” So often, we only pretend to listen to others while our mental wheels spin on and on. We hear words, but the thoughts and intentions behind them don’t register. We’re too engrossed in googling our minds for ways either to refute the speaker or demonstrate that we know more.

Many people, myself included, love to engage in forms of mental gymnastics. But at the age of seventy, I’m increasingly aware not of what I do know but of what I don’t. I’ve recognized the possibility—indeed, the probability—that others can offer ideas worthy of reflection rather than rebuttal or revision.

Not that I’m waving the flag of false humility. Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 3:7 advises that there is “A time for silence and a time for speaking.” Obviously, I’m still blogging. Moreover, we all have a responsibility to add knowledge to a discussion or class. When we withhold a fact or considered comment, we deprive others of a learning experience. And while good judgment is required, we have an obligation to correct an error that might mislead others.

Attentive listening also can improve personal relationships. At Congregation Sherith Israel’s Rosh Hashanah services, Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller gave a sermon on listening without defensiveness when an issue arises. Rather than protesting, interrupting or displaying anger, she said, we do better simply to hear the other person out. Yes, disagreement and anger have their places. But they too often become knee-jerk reactions when someone else speaks about a subject or offers an opinion that may make us uncomfortable or even be contentious.

I started practicing attentive listening last Saturday morning at Torah Study. It went fairly well. I spoke only once—to ask a question. I focused not on what I know but on what others know or how they might get me to look at a piece of the text in a different way. Members of the group may not hear very much from me for the next year (at least), but that’s because I’ll be listening to them.

This brings to mind mid-term Congressional elections only a few weeks off. Our senators and representatives in Washington have a less-than-praiseworthy record when it comes to listening to members of the other party—and sometimes to those of their own. I don’t expect Republicans to become Democrats or Democrats to morph into Republicans. But failing to listen attentively reflects a disturbing preference to demonize others rather than find common ground. Such elected officials say they seek to strengthen the nation. They only weaken it.

So here’s to listening and learning something new. I can’t promise that I’ll succeed, but I won’t fail to try.

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THE RODEF

Two of my favorite TV shows, both on Showtime, reveal a lot about Syria and Iraq. Yet only one involves the Middle East. It’s all about the rodef, the Hebrew word for pursuer—one who seeks to murder or otherwise harm an innocent person. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 73a) states that in self-defense, we may kill the rodef first. But the concept of the rodef and responses to it defy easy definition.

Take Homeland. The rodef lies at the heart of the series, including season four, which began last Sunday. The relentless Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is in Kabul managing the drone rocketing of Islamists on a long hit list. The CIA considers these men rodefs—pursuers seeking to launch terrorist operations.

The initial episodes pose troubling questions. How are we to view collateral damage—a euphemism for killing and wounding civilians—when targeting rodefs? (I’m not giving anything away when I write that a drone attack approved by Carrie causes extensive collateral damage.) Must attacks against rodefs guarantee zero collateral damage? Should the target be spared regardless of potential loss of life resulting from his future activities?

Ray Donovan, which concluded two weeks ago, poses another question: Can the concept of rodef be exploited? Ezra Goodman (Elliot Gould), a doddering but powerful and immoral Hollywood lawyer, frequently draws on Jewish law to justify his instructions to Ray (Liev Schreiber), his hired fixer with blood on his hands. Ezra excuses a murder by citing the rodef. But it’s clear that the victim was not pursuing innocent blood but rather the truth about criminal activities in which Ezra and Ray were involved.

How does Ray Donovan relate to the Middle East? Islamists see rodefs everywhere. The West, they say, is out to get us. The West’s colonial past is undeniable. But so too are the brutal Muslim dictatorships in Iraq and Syria that spawned so much chaos. (For the record: I opposed invading Iraq; the Bush administration’s mishandling of the post-war period demonstrates why.) It’s particularly sad—and frightening—to see so many young Western Muslims, including women, in Syria. They’re true believers fighting not only the Assad regime but also anyone who doesn’t follow the intolerant forms of Sunni Islam they’ve only recently adopted.

Last Wednesday, CBS-TV News’s Clarissa Ward interviewed a young Somali-American man who condemns America for bombing innocent Muslims. America is the terrorist, he says while praising Osama bin Laden. He makes no concession that the 190,000 deaths in Syria alone involve mostly Muslims killed by Muslims. Neither does he mention Islamists killing Christians and Yazidis simply because they are Christians and Yazidis.

A Thursday Reuters report on yahoo.com was particularly affecting. A 15-year-old French-Muslim girl went to Syria to take part in humanitarian efforts on behalf of Islamist forces. Seemingly disillusioned, she cannot return. Many young women from the West find themselves forced into marriages. All become virtual prisoners. Like the Eagles’ Hotel California, you can get in, but you can never get out.

Ray Donovan demonstrates that the term rodef and justifications for self-defense can be abused. Homeland raises the challenge that legitimate defense against the rodef may be fraught with moral danger. We’d all like to pursue simple answers. They likely will outrun us.

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YOM KIPPUR, JOGGERS AND THE ARAB WORLD

As should be obvious from last week’s post, “Rosh Hashanah, China and ISIS,” I like finding connections. So as the High Holy Days prepare to conclude, I offer some new ones. If they seem far-fetched, think about the complexity of human nature.

Let’s start with joggers. A few days ago, I was walking on Lake Street. A jogger was running east on the opposite sidewalk. A car also was heading east. At the corner, the jogger made a sudden left turn to cross the street at a pedestrian-protected intersection. The car approached but didn’t yield. The jogger came to a sudden stop and shook his fist.

From what I witnessed, the jogger made a misguided assumption that the driver would see him. As an avid walker and former runner as well as motorist, I know that’s foolish. Yes, all too many drivers are oblivious. At the same time, runners and pedestrians often pop out of virtually concealed positions at corners, sometimes mid-block, unaware that drivers often can’t see them. Does responsibility rest only with the other guy? What about common sense? As a long-ago New York City public service campaign once warned, “You could be right. Dead right.”

Which leads to Hisham Melhem, bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Last Saturday he wrote a risky article, “Who brought the Arabs to this nadir?” According to Melhem, Arabs—particularly intellectuals, activists and opinion makers—won’t come to grips with the terrible tragedies inflicting the Arab world until they assume the main responsibility for them. The Arabs must “own their problems.” Like the jogger, many—seemingly most—Arabs feel free to point fingers at America, Israel, Europe, Lady Gaga—but never at themselves.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, ties in perfectly. Jews, concluding ten days of soul-searching, must own our misdeeds to find forgiveness. Sins against God require repentance, so Jews will fill synagogues tonight and tomorrow. But prayer does not atone for sins against people. We must ask their forgiveness. And in all cases, we must not only recognize wrongdoing and vow not to repeat it—we must actually do what is right.

It’s hard for all of us to own our mistakes. Joggers, walkers, cyclists and motorists must understand that we all use the same streets and sidewalks. Our right to move where we want when we want must be placed in perspective. So too, the Arab world must learn to respect others. That also goes for the rest of us too often wrapped smugly inside borders, cultures and religions that define ourselves as good and anyone different as bad.

None of us is perfect. That, I believe, is the appeal of Yom Kippur to many Jews who otherwise never attend synagogue. At some level they seek a moral, even spiritual, accounting. They recognize the need to accept, if only for one day, that they as individuals are not the sole measure of the world.

In this New Year 5775, may we build new connections. In doing so, may we build the prospects for peace.

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