Archive for September, 2016

CAPTAINS OF OUR SOULS

Sunday evening, Jews will observe Rosh Hashanah, the New Year (5777). Ten days later comes Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Unlike during the rest of the year, the sanctuary at Sherith Israel, my synagogue, will be full. Interestingly, most in attendance won’t know the Hebrew (our prayer book offers transliterations into English), or the prayers and rituals. What’s more, they won’t come back for another year. So what’s the draw?

All religions mark sacred days and seasons, which continue through centuries, even millennia. Contrast our own lives: here today, gone tomorrow, remembered the next day, forgotten the day after. No wonder many seek consolation—even those in whose lives religion plays a negligible role.

The vast majority of Jews in San Francisco don’t join synagogues. Many have no interest in Judaism even if they remain affixed to various components of Jewish culture. Others drop out completely. Still others, particularly young people, explore Judaism but view synagogues as too institutional, symbols of permanence intruding on lives in flux, reminders of their settled, stolid parents. Some find alternative Jewish communities—vibrant and creative but generally requiring little or no commitment.

Even many synagogue members—outside of Orthodoxy—forego core Jewish practices. They work, party and shop on Shabbat (the Sabbath—sundown Friday to sundown Saturday). They view the dietary laws as holdovers from a primitive, superstitious past, digging into their bacon cheeseburgers. That’s their choice, and they’re entitled to it.

Nonetheless, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, along with Chanukah and Passover, exert a powerful gravitational pull. Why? The High Holidays help keep us real.

In the increasingly secular West, we see ourselves as rational beings, masters of our fate, captains of our soul. Yet despite our material possessions, we frequently find ourselves ill at ease, unsatisfied. We sense that something’s missing. Rational beings? We witness rampant self-destructive behavior, poverty, hatred and violence. Yet humanity can produce enough of everything people need to go around. If rational means being selfish, how rational do we want to be?

Masters of our fate? Few mature adults haven’t experienced life’s unforeseen and uncontrollable twists that altered or swept away their dreams. The older we get, the more we acknowledge that random stuff happens. What’s more, our own imperfections place stumbling blocks before us.

As to being captains of our soul, that we can achieve in great measure. It’s possible to live with our human frailty, do better by ourselves and others, and achieve a measure of inner peace. But it takes attention and work. That’s why many Jews who hold Judaism at arm’s length attend High Holiday services. They seek to connect with the eternal and unknowable. To find comfort in touching base with something that’s bigger and more enduring than themselves. And they do it, even if those goals are subconscious.

I’ll be at Sherith Israel Sunday night and Monday morning. (The Reform movement observes one day for Rosh Hashanah as do Jews in Israel; Orthodox and Conservative Jews outside Israel observe two.) I’ll recite the prayers, chant familiar and new melodies, and reflect as I do each Shabbat. All those “twice-a-year” Jews surrounding me? I’ll delight in their company.

Because every now and then it’s important to crack the facades we erect around our carefully crafted personas, peer inside and see who’s home.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. If you’re marking the Jewish New Year, Shanah Tovah! May the new year bring you health and peace.

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BIRTHER 102

I’m thinking about running for President in 2020, but two factors give me pause. One is my age. I’ll be 76 then. Of course, a President Trump would be 74 prior to re-election, or a President Clinton 72. It’s the second factor that worries me.

I may have to prove I’m an American-born citizen. Obviously, President Trump wouldn’t make a fuss. As Trump informed the nation last week, “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it.” But how about Mrs. Clinton? Will she target me for Birther 102?

Like President Obama, I’m a member of a minority religion. Yes, a Jew, Joe Lieberman, ran for vice president on the ticket with Al Gore in 2004. And Bernie Sanders gave Hillary a run for her money in the Democratic primaries. Still, I imagine that the same people who fear a Muslim in the White House breathed sighs of relief. Although I don’t think they’re Hillary supporters.

Also like President Obama, I have a foreign-born father. My dad was 2-1/2 when he came to the United States—an immigrant! My mother was born in Manhattan—she claimed. I’m under the impression I was born in the Bronx, but doubts could arise. Red flag: my parents were living in Queens at the time.

My alibi? My folks previously lived in the Bronx where my sister was born. My mother wanted to keep her obstetrician. Given lighter traffic then, my father could quickly drive my mother to the birthing hospital.

Question: Does that story sound shaky?

Another question: How much insanity can Americans take? Hillary Clinton didn’t start the birther movement. Worse, Trump railed on for years then, after conceding, never owned up or apologized. So yes, I’m more than skeptical when the Donald claims credit for clearing up the question of Mr. Obama’s birth and promises to “make America great again.”

Yet I suspect that Trump sees himself as a hero. I imagine he’ll feel slighted if President Obama fails to host him at a White House dinner and award him a gold (has to be gold) medal. After all, if the New York Mets or the New York Yankees win the World Series—or even the pennant—Trump probably will take credit. (Otherwise they’re losers.)

In George Orwell’s classic novel 1984, Big Brother declares that “black is white” and “war is peace.” Language functions as a key tool for government oppression because truth becomes whatever the forces in power say it is. As the Greek dramatist Aeschylus wrote, “In war, truth is the first casualty.” Truth doesn’t fare well in politics, either. With Trump, it’s no mere casualty. It’s a fatality.

As to my 2020 presidential run, I remain on the fence. Sure, I’d love to fly around the world on Air Force One, as I explained in a previous post “My (Maybe) Run for the White House” (5-16-14). I might upsize the national chanukiah. But to date, only my parents along with clerks in the Bronx (New York) and Bexar County (Texas) court houses, the U.S. Army and the State Department (my passport says I was born in the Bronx) plus my wife have seen my birth certificate. I prefer to keep it that way.

Or am I hiding something even I don’t know about?

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And give a little thought to how much truth the nation is willing to sacrifice because lies make frustrated people feel better.

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LET THE BOOK BURNING BEGIN

Political correctness recently broke out in Brisbane, Australia. Officials at a writers festival were so upset with novelist and keynote Lionel Shriver (The Mandibles), “they censored her on the festival website and publicly disavowed her remarks,” according to the New York Times. What horrific things did she say?

“Ms. Shriver criticized as runaway political correctness efforts to ban references to ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation from Halloween celebrations, or to prevent artists from drawing on ethnic sources for their work.” (“Lionel Shriver’s Address on Cultural Appropriation Roils a Writers Festival,” Rod Nordlund, 9-12-16). Re artists, some people believe that white authors should not create non-white characters. Ms. Shriver disagrees. “She deplored critics of authors like Chris Cleave, an Englishman, for presuming to write from the point of view of a Nigerian girl in his best-selling book ‘Little Bee.’”

Right on, Lionel! Like Incendiary, Cleave’s first novel, Little Bee is fabulous. Little Bee, the Nigerian girl who Cleave created, exhibits biting humor and remarkable courage. She offers a different perspective on England—one well worth examining. Oh, and Cleave creates sympathetic white Britons, as well—women as well as men.

Political correctness seems to demand that authors, playwrights and screenwriters create segregated worlds. Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn) and William Styron (The Confessions of Nat Turner) would be long forgotten. But all writers would pay the price. The Good Lord Bird by African-American James McBride would have its wings clipped since the white abolitionist John Brown plays a prominent role. Sherman Alexi, the Native American writer, would have to eliminate whites though they’re integral to his novels and stories.

Amy Tan? Imprisoned in Chinatown and the Middle Kingdom. Englishman Tom Rob Smith’s magnificent Child 44 set in Russia? Nyet! The late Bernard Malamud’s stories set in Italy with a Jewish protagonist and all those Italians? Bury the Italians. I’m sure I can find enough people to say Kaddish.

The foolishness never ends. Jewish Steven Spielberg directed the film version of The Color Purple with a screenplay by the Dutch-born Menno Meyjes. Scandalous! The Broadway smash Hamilton features minority actors playing America’s white founding fathers and mothers—and rapping. Man (and woman) the barricades! Then there’s earthling George Lucas creating all those aliens in Star Wars. Talk about intergalactic cultural insensitivity!

Let’s get real. Writers tell stories by drawing on their experiences with people of all ethnicities. They observe. They do research. And they imagine. Good writers create characters of any ethnicity who reveal human nature at its best and worst.

I don’t restrict my characters to Jews. Specifically, Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews. Specifically, men. Specifically, old men. In Flight of the Spumonis, the street kid Jimmy Q represents four different ethnicities, one of them Jewish. Do I get a pass? The private eye Moonbeam Cherney is a woman but Jewish. Cut me some slack? In my newest novel, the powerful executive director of a major museum, the holder of law and MBA degrees, is Black. Have I crossed a forbidden boundary?

Sure, we could purge our libraries, bookstores, Amazon and homes of all books guilty of cultural appropriation. But then we’d appropriate the cultures of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China and much of the Middle East. And our shelves would be bare.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And read a good book—whoever the author is and whatever ethnicity the characters. It’s a human thing.

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ISLAM AND 9-11

What if New York’s Twin Towers had been felled (and the Pentagon attacked and a fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania) on December 25? We would long remember that terrible day. So would celebrating Christmas in America be halted?

Recently, American Muslims feared that the festival of Eid al-Adha would fall on September 11. Could Muslims celebrate the festival without being called un-American? Without being attacked in their mosques, business places and homes? The worry ended when Saudi Arabian religious authorities, who set Muslim dates according to the moon, proclaimed that this year Eid al-Adha falls on September 12. But if the festival had fallen on September 11, should American Muslims have sought to delay it?

Eid al-Adha marks the intended sacrifice by Abraham of his older son Ishmael (although not specified by name in the Qur’an). Yet Genesis 22 relates that God tested Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his younger son Isaac. Why the disconnect? While Muslims venerate Abraham as the original monotheist and a great prophet, Islam adheres to a number of different religious narratives despite what has been passed down in the Hebrew Bible.

Regarding 9-11 and Eid al-Adha, is there a link? No. Muslim holidays move “backward” through the secular calendar since the lunar Muslim calendar contains only 354 or 355 days. This year September 12, next year September 1 (possibly August 31) and so on. The Jewish lunar-solar calendar also falls short of a secular year, but a leap month added to seven of every 19 years keeps holidays within their appointed seasons. Thus Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur always arrive in late summer or early fall; Passover always comes in the spring.

Purely by coincidence, any Muslim holiday can fall on any national or state holiday. Most American holidays bring a sense of joy, so no offense can be taken. Memorial Day should be somber, but most Americans indulge in weekends away, barbecues and shopping. December 7, anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and 9-11 are sad days but not national holidays. Americans may pause for a moment but generally go on with their lives.

Would Christmas then cease to be a major holiday if America noted a tragedy called 12-25 or Black Christmas? Christian Americans wouldn’t have it, and they’d be right. Therefore, Muslim-Americans can acknowledge an American day of doleful remembrance yet remain patriots while celebrating a major religious festival.

Many Americans boast dual identities and sometimes more. We share our Americanism while upholding our ethnic/religious traditions. The latter don’t negate the former. That we can do this pays tribute to the American ideal of freedom of religion.

Yes, I have a personal interest in American Muslims celebrating their holidays on the correct date. If the Jewish High Holy Days fall on Columbus Day, or Chanukah on Thanksgiving or Christmas, or Sukkot on Memorial Day, I’m not about to give up my religious practices. And I won’t be less American. Upholding two holidays is like walking and chewing gum at the same time. It’s a rare person who can’t do it.

So to all Muslim Americans, Happy Eid. September 11 is a sad day. But those attacks on America and its values remind us that in this nation, the freedom to observe our particular religions—or none—remains sacrosanct.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And may we remember those whose lives were brutally taken on September 11 and live life to the fullest in their honor.

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THE QUIET PRINCESS—A FABLE

Once, a king couldn’t decide which of his three sons should inherit his crown. He also had a daughter, but in addition to being a girl, she was modest and seldom spoke. In the royal court, as everyone knew, words meant everything.

The dilemma haunted the king. The oldest prince was cruel and doubtless would alienate his subjects and the surrounding kingdoms who maintained a fragile peace. The second son was greedy and would tax the people until they rebelled. The third son was vain and spent most of his time in front of mirrors. The king couldn’t begin to imagine the harm he would do.

Finally, the king reached a difficult decision. Each prince would become king over one-third the land to offset the harm any of the others might do. The very next day, the royal attorney drew up a new will. The king immediately stamped it with his royal seal and the document was placed in the royal vault. Its provisions remained secret.

The next day, the king took to bed gravely ill. The court physician summoned the king’s children. “I fear His Majesty has little time.” The princes entered the royal bedroom. The princess waited in the anteroom.

The king beckoned the princes to come close. “Soon,” he gasped, “the kingdom will be yours.” He explained at length the kingdom’s three-part division. The eldest son clenched his fist. “The people need discipline,” he said. “The entire kingdom should be mine.” He then spoke at length. The second son urged, “Let me be king, and the treasury will burst with gold.” He, too, gave a lengthy speech. “Make me king,” said the youngest, “because everyone says how handsome I am, and isn’t what that what the people want in a king?” He then gave an extended discourse on the need to make a good impression. The princes’ voices were so loud, they carried out to the princess.

The king bade the princes take their leave then called in the princess. He related all his hopes and dreams for the kingdom, his accomplishments and his failures. He also expressed his disappointment in his sons. All the while, the princess said nothing. Rather, she gently squeezed her father’s hand every few moments. When he finished, she kissed him goodbye. Just before sunrise, the king died.

After a week’s mourning, the princess invited her brothers to a family dinner in their honor at her small villa. They sat at table with the princess nearest the kitchen so she could serve them. In silence, the princess rose and went to the kitchen from which she brought four goblets of wine. She placed three large goblets before her brothers and a small one, befitting her status, at her place. Then she raised her goblet and pronounced more words than they had ever heard from her: “To father, to the kingdom, to our people and to peace.”

“I prefer war,” said the eldest prince. “I prefer gold,” said the middle prince. “Does anyone have a mirror?” asked the third prince.

Although none of the princes thought the toast eloquent, they drank. In seconds, all three pitched forward dead. The next day, the princess was crowned queen before a cheering citizenry. She ruled a peaceful, prosperous kingdom happily, if quietly, ever after.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And maybe this week, we’ll all make a little less noise.

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