Archive for September, 2017

BRUCE MAXWELL GETS IT

When (former) San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem last season, he stirred a controversy. Was he a traitor or a patriot? Let’s look at the example set by Bruce Maxwell.

A little background: Kaepernick appears to have cost himself an NFL job this season, but other players in the 75-percent black NFL followed his lead. Donald Trump called them sons of bitches who should be fired.

Last Sunday, many players—and some owners—responded to Trump. They knelt or stood with arms linked. Three teams, excepting one player, an Army veteran of Afghanistan, stayed in their locker rooms.

Bruce Maxwell, catcher for baseball’s Oakland A’s, is one of MLB’s relatively few African-American players in a sport culturally rooted in small-town, conservative America. He protested in a way every American can respect.

Maxwell knelt. He didn’t turn his back, look away or fiddle with his shoe laces. Son of a military father and a loyal American, he placed his hand over his heart and looked up at the flag. In doing so, he made a statement that inequities in the treatment of minorities must be addressed by the country he loves.

Some people believe athletes kneeling or linking arms dishonor the flag. The flag is piece of cloth. (See “Just What is the Flag?”) Likewise, the anthem is a musical composition. They are symbols. Americans can approach them in different ways without showing disloyalty to the nation, its military and its first-responders.

I still stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” though I believe playing it before sports events is unnecessary. Gazing at the flag, hand over heart, I say to myself, “May this flag fly over a nation realizing the high ideals it represents. When we fall short, may it inspire us to fulfill its promise.”

Opposition to recent protests seems to flow from the old bromide, “My country right or wrong.” (See “God Bless America! And Then What?”) That philosophy makes sense only when we acknowledge the nation’s shortcomings and make good-faith efforts to correct them. Blind allegiance to flag and anthem ignores our faults or, worse, gives them legitimacy.

I recall those who railed against protestors during the Vietnam War, pronouncing “America, love it or leave it.” I thought they misunderstood love of country. I was then an Army officer.

Can this nation heal? Eliot Cohen, who served in the George W. Bush administration, writes in the October issue of The Atlantic that no matter how soon Trump leaves the White House, the government and nation will sustain damage for years. Perhaps decades.

Our nation and government can overcome, but only when Americans listen to each other. Casting aside the far-right’s white supremacy, anti-Semitic agenda and the shrill, authoritarian aspects of the far left, we’ll discover that we often agree on desired outcomes. Our differences lie in the methods with which to achieve them. Realizing this, we can return civility to politics, the absence of which stalls improvement while distorting the concept of patriotism.

So here’s to Bruce Maxwell. Those who take offense at his approach might do some soul searching about the deeper meaning of symbols and slogans. Because our ongoing task is not to make America great again but to make America greater.

If you are going to Yom Kippur services at Sherith Israel tomorrow, please join me at 1:15 as I lead a class and discussion on the book of Jonah. And may you be written and sealed into the Book of Life, and enjoy a year of peace.

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JONAH AND JONES

Harvard University recently rejected a Ph.D. candidate in history despite impressive credentials. Michelle Jones’ case should move us to examine the biblical book of Jonah.

Jones, 45 and a child victim of abuse, served more than 20 years for murdering her four-year-old son. A horrible crime? Absolutely. Yet in prison, she earned a B.A. from Ball State and led an award-winning research project for the Indiana Historical Society. Harvard’s history program accepted her, but the school’s administration overturned the decision fearing backlash from rejected applicants. At least some Harvard administrators hold the concept of repentance at arm’s length.

With Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, beginning next Friday evening, practicing Jews focus on repentance. During Rosh Hashanah (the New Year; it’s 5778) and the ten days following, we seek forgiveness—individually and communally—for sins committed against God. (For wrongs against people, only those hurt can grant forgiveness.) We pray for God’s mercy. But are we willing to forgive others who repent?

Note that Judaism doesn’t instruct victims to turn the other cheek and offer blanket forgiveness. That lets wrongdoers off the hook. Rather, a wrongdoer must ask for forgiveness. If after being asked three times the injured person refuses to forgive, the offender no longer remains obligated to make further petitions.

Understand, too, that it’s easy to say, “I’m sorry.” The philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) instructs that repentance involves three phases—understanding the wrong committed, vowing not to repeat it then not doing it. Words must lead to action.

Granted, it can be difficult to forgive those who have wronged us. This conundrum marks the biblical book of Jonah, a traditional Yom Kippur reading. I’ll teach the text at Congregation Sherith Israel on Yom Kippur afternoon (1:15).

In brief, God tells Jonah to go to the wicked city of Nineveh and tell the people to repent. There’s an irony here. Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, which destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and scattered its “ten lost tribes.” Despite God’s command, Jonah sails west in the opposite direction to escape performing this task. He doesn’t want God to give the Ninevites the opportunity to repent.

After three days in the stomach of a dag gadol (a big fish, not a whale), Jonah learns a lesson. God commands. You do. Jonah goes to Nineveh and announces that God is giving the city 40 days to repent or be overturned.

The Ninevites, from the king down, repent—and mean it! Jonah is unhappy. He wants Nineveh destroyed and always feared God would forgive. God, however, prefers that humans repent and live righteously. Terrible deeds cannot be undone, but people can refashion themselves.

Jonah and Yom Kippur assert that the human heart possesses considerable elasticity. Not all bad or evil people will turn towards righteousness. Like the Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites, some have gone too far gone. But for most of us, the opportunity to repent endures.

But we cannot proclaim our worthiness to be forgiven while refusing to give others when they prove their merit. New York University got it. They accepted Jones. In doing so, NYU (my father’s alma mater) affirmed that Jonah, a small book, offers a big a lesson for the ages. Now go and study.

For more on Jonah, see my recap and commentary in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible (Amazon). May you be written and sealed into the Book of Life, and enjoy a year of peace.

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DIRTY LAUNDRY

Jerusalem and the Second Temple fell to Rome in 70 CE. The Sages saw in this event dirty laundry—what Jews didn’t want to talk about. The tragedy occurred because of sinat chinam—baseless hatred. Not of Rome for Judea but of Jews towards each other. Jews around the globe need to take notice. So do non-Jewish Americans.

Today, discrete groups of haredim—ultra-orthodox Jews—maintain great antipathy towards each other. They unite in their distaste—often hatred—for Modern Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and secular Jews—the majority of Jews in Israel and the U.S.

The haredim deny Israelis in the Progressive (Reform) and Masorti (Conservative) movements religious equality. In 1948, David Ben Gurion gave this then tiny group full charge of all religious lifecycle events to bring them into his governing coalition. With their high birthrate, the haredim grew far faster than other Israeli Jewish groups. In Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu’s multi-party coalition, they wield considerable political power. This includes preventing Progressive women from praying at the Kotel (Western Wall) by themselves or with men, wearing tallitot (prayer shawls) and reading from the Torah.

The Jerusalem Post (9-6) reported statements by Shlomo Amar, Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, that Reform Jews “… don’t have Yom Kippur or Shabbat, but they want to pray [at the Western Wall]. But no one should think that they want to pray. They want to desecrate the holy.”

Sinat chinam! Jews seeking religious equality very much observe Shabbat (Friday night and Saturday) and Yom Kippur (beginning this year on September 29 and coincident with Shabbat). Their interpretation and observance of the Law is not that of Rabbi Amar and others in the ultra-Orthodox community—who often contend among themselves regarding minutiae. But it is serious, studious and heartfelt, reflecting a love of Torah along with an embrace of the twenty-first century.

Divisiveness also impacts Israel’s political realm. The left has faded. The far-right now abhors centrists, who prefer a two-state solution given sound security guarantees to a greater Israel disenfranchising Arab citizens—or denying citizenship. Despite statements to the contrary, Netanyahu continues to appease the far-right. This while facing allegations of corruption and his wife Sara’s imminent indictment on corruption charges.

The hatred keeps on coming. Bibi and Sara’s son Yair recently posted on Facebook a cartoon using classic anti-Semitic images of his father’s political foes, including billionaire George Soros and former prime minister Ehud Barak. Yair withdrew the meme but not before it elicited praise from American neo-Nazis.

Israel and world Jewry see Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas—among others—as security or existential threats. The challenges they present must be faced with resolve. But Israel confronts an even greater challenge—disunity.

The U.S. exhibits the same dirty laundry. Liberals and conservatives raise fists and shout each other down. Varying groups claim sole knowledge of civic and religious truth. Each seeks to impose its views on the others.

This week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, offers my favorite biblical verse: “Choose life” (30:19). We possess free will. Using it, we can air our dirty laundry and rid ourselves of its stench. Otherwise, we open ourselves to grave risks as reflected in the words of the cartoonist Walt Kelly’s beloved character Pogo: “We have met the enemy and they are us.”

To all Jews everywhere: L’Shana Tovah—Happy New Year. To everyone else: shalom—peace.

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CHICKEN VINDALOONIES

North Korea. ISIS. DACA. Harvey. Irma. This morning’s 8.1 quake in Mexico. Life gets heavy. So it’s time to lighten up with Indian food that soothes the soul. I’ve got just the recipe. Actually, forty. But first, an explanation.

Carolyn and I visited India last fall. Recently, we had an Indian dinner at Keeva on Clement Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. Having leftovers, the next night we picked up a dish of Chicken Vindaloo to fill out a meal at home. India being large and diverse, Chicken Vindaloo varies from family to family, restaurant to restaurant, town to town. Research revealed many recipes, each appealing to a different taste. See how many you recognize:

Vindalucy created with Cuban spices by Desi Arnaz on “I Love Lucy” for Lucille Ball… Vindalube prepared by auto mechanics on the greasy side… Vindaljubljana prized by residents of Slovenia’s capital… Vindalulu scarfed by the British singer Lulu  with the 1967 hit “To Sir With Love”… Vindalucretia in safe and poisonous versions from Italy’s notorious Borgia family… Vindalubavitch satisfying the kashrut standards of Chassidic Jews… Vindaluminous lighting the night for stargazers… Vindalooneytunes for fans of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck…

Vindalucite slobbered over by multi-headed, plastic-eating space aliens on “The Simpsons”—and Homer… Vindalutece followed by assorted cheeses at the once-famed Manhattan restaurant… Vindaludacris, a recipe traditionally passed on by rapping… Vindalutein recommended by ophthalmologists to fight macular degeneration… Vindalute soothing lovers of Baroque and classical Persian music… Vindalouisville served at the Kentucky Derby… Vindalugosi offered at Dracula film festivals…

Vindaluria connecting the human and Divine for kabbalists… Vindalucca spicing things up for folks living in the Italian city founded by the Etruscans… Vindalupron maintaining masculinity for prostate cancer patients undergoing hormone therapy… Vindalude recalling memories of all-night dancing in ’70s glam-rock clubs… Vindaloofah cleansing the bodies and souls of earth mothers… Vindaloogie clearing congested throats… Vindalucille memorializing B.B. King’s legendary guitar… Vindalucchese for folks who love cowboy boots…

Vindaluna satisfying the nighttime munchies of moon watchers… Vindalucre for Wall Street types… Vindalouvre winning the grudging approval of French art lovers… Vindaloose prepared on the go by prison escapees (you thought I had something else in mind?)… Vindalucha heating the palates of Mexican wrestling fans… Vindalucci celebrated soap opera star Susan’s Emmy (1999) after 18 fruitless nominations… Vindaluke offering a taste of Heaven to readers of the Gospels… Vindalucifer for those who like it hot and then some…

Vindaloot gobbled at malls by shopping addicts… Vindalucabrasi, a dish you can’t refuse inspired by “The Godfather”… Vindalucerne prized like their ancient covered bridges by citizens in central Switzerland’s largest city… Vindalouvaine featured at a neighborhood restaurant on St. John’s Hill in Battersea, London (South Bank)… Vindalura teasing the taste buds of the little girl who lived down the street from us 40 years ago… Vindaloser endlessly regurgitated by Donald Trump… and my favorite—Vindalunacy.

The late George Carlin quipped, “Class clown becomes office schmuck.” I add, “Lame humor writer remains lame humor writer.” But this is my post, and we all need to ingest something silly now and then. See how many references you recognized without googling. And if you didn’t laugh with me, laugh at me. But laugh! We need to do that now more than ever.

Didn’t find your favorite? Let me know what it is. Hungry? The New York Times offers real chicken recipes from around the world.

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HOUSTON, WE HAVE A SOLUTION

In April 1970, the Apollo 13 moon flight’s Jack Swigert reported, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” (The movie modified this to “Houston, we have a problem.”) Hurricane Harvey brought a more massive problem to Houston. In its suffering, Houston and other Texas Coast cities have displayed the solution to this nation’s bitter political and racial divide.

Early on, Houston’s mayor Sylvester Turner made a tough call telling residents not to evacuate the city. Given the impassability of so many streets and stretches of highway, his call seems on target. Still, Harvey forced tens of thousands of residents to leave flooded neighborhoods. Some managed alone. Many required assistance.

Local, state and federal agencies, including the Texas National Guard and the U.S. Coast Guard, went to work. They deployed helicopters, boats and high-water vehicles to pull desperate people out of the water, free them from vehicles and pluck them off roofs. Given the scope of the problem, they couldn’t do it alone.

Houston-area residents—and many people from out of the area—used their own boats and vehicles to take neighbors and strangers to shelters across the city. The Red Cross and other non-governmental agencies cranked up their efforts.

In addition to courage and compassion, these rescuers and caregivers shared another important quality. They assisted people in need without regard to race, ethnicity, religion, sexual identity or any other factor that has pitted one segment of the nation against the rest. I know of no white Christians who refused to help Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Jews and gays. I know of none of the latter who refused to assist whites. When push came to shove, Houstonians and others pushed back against the common adversary that threatened life, property and hopes for the future.

Houston and the Texas Coast will require years to fully recover. Some estimates see the presence of FEMA—the Federal Emergency Management Administration—at four years. This raises a critical question: Will FEMA have the funds and personnel to do the job—and do it right? Donald Trump ran a winning presidential campaign on shrinking the federal government and draining the swamp in Washington. Forget D.C. The White House needs to sufficiently fund FEMA and other agencies to help Houston and the Texas Coast rebuild long after its very real swamp drains away.

I wonder how many first-responders and rescuers—all of whom deserve our praise and thanks—voted for Trump based on his premise of smaller government and funds directed away from FEMA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health, the arts and more to build a wall on our border with Mexico. What we need is a wall sturdy enough to shield the Gulf Coast and its cities from rising waters—or a dome expansive enough to hold off biblical-type rains. Of course, that’s wishful thinking.

But here’s reality: The U.S. government has the unique assets and people power to make a long-term difference anywhere disaster strikes—and lead planning to avoid or mitigate new disasters. That’s why Texas governor Greg Abbott, a Trump supporter, welcomed federal aid.

Our political efforts should target making Washington more efficient and effective, not destroying it. Houston’s selfless, color-, religion- and gender-blind heroism offers a solution to national acrimony and achieving that goal. Pray that enough Americans notice.

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