Archive for September, 2018

DEMOCRACY’S NOT DEAD YET

Several nights ago, I heard a symphony of foghorns. I live two miles from the Pacific and half that distance from San Francisco’s Baker Beach and the Golden Gate. Yet extended periods of time often pass between my visits to the beach to admire the ocean’s size, energy and mystery.

So it is with much in life. Beauty and wonder often are much closer than we realize. Politics, war and disasters—natural and man-made—attract our attention. We close our eyes and minds to the good that also surrounds us.

Another matter relates. Tomorrow (Saturday) night, Jews will celebrate Simchat Torah (Joy of the Torah). Then or on Sunday, synagogues will unroll a Torah scroll and read the last verses of the year’s final portion, V’zot HaB’rachah(And This is the Blessing), which concludes with Moses’ death. Without a pause, reading will continue with the first verses of B’reishit(Genesis) with which the Torah starts, presenting creation and life.

Why read the same text year after year? The scholar Jeffrey Tigay explains that we find new insights on every page (as we might at the beach or in a forest), “not because the Torah has changed, but because we have changed since we read it a year ago.”

Looking past immediate concerns, Americans can gain new perspectives on our present situation and our past—hear the call of the Liberty Bell too often drowned out by shouting. We may discover that the nation’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses.

I’m not wearing rose-colored glasses. As I write, I’m gazing at the cover of October’s The Atlantic. This special edition asks a disturbing question: “Is democracy dying?” Editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg titles his introduction “The Crisis in Democracy.” A toxic brew of populism, tribalism, Donald Trump and technology worries a number of The Atlantic’s writers and contributors. Nothing new here. A recent edition of Foreign Affairsconsidered the same matter. The non-Fox media continue to do so.

Sure, there’s plenty of worry to go around. Witness the hyper-partisanship surrounding yesterday’s Senate testimony by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanagh. Yet America weathered previous storms.

White people enslaved black people. The Ku Kux Klan promoted racism and segregation not just in the South but all over the country. Universities and medical schools restricted Jewish matriculation. Women couldn’t vote until 1920. In the 1930s, upwards of thirty million Americans listened to Father Charles Coghlan’s anti-Semitic radio broadcasts. After Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans. Throughout our history, the nation also suffered a series of economic depressions and, of course, 9/11.

Un-democratic, prejudicial laws and customs have always had strong proponents. Hence the secession of the Southern states leading to the Civil War, considerable opposition to women’s suffrage in Congress and later political maneuvering like Richard Nixon’s southern strategy. All these battered and bruised American democracy. We moved forward.

I’ll give the last word to New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, writing from Greece: “Democracy is stubborn. It raises our gaze. It is the system that best enshrines the unshakable human desire to be free. Athens reminds us of that. America reminds us of that. It fails. It falls short of John Winthrop’s ‘city upon a hill.’ It strives still to fail better.”

To respond, click on “comments” to the right just below the title of this post. Then go to the response space at the bottom of the post.

LAUGHING UNTIL WE CRY

A recent comic strip in the San Francisco Chroniclerelated to a matter I discussed with a stand-up comic at last Sunday’s annual Comedy Day in Golden Gate Park. Our chat yielded an interesting but dark observation.

Wiley Miller’s “Non Sequitur” panel presents a man in blue overalls, white tee shirt and red baseball cap, which in front might have read Make America Great. He stands, pen in hand, before a large sign: Entrance Exam. Behind it is an angel at a velvet rope. Another—God? St. Peter?—sits at a tall desk and holds a quill pen.

The man must answer a single question to enter heaven: Nazis are (check one) good, bad. The man appears stumped. The seated angel/God/St. Peter asks, “Remember when this was the easiest test in the universe?”

Most readers get Miller’s take on Donald Trump’s comment following the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia over a year ago: There were “some very fine people on both sides.”

You may not laugh, but Miller’s humor bites. Satirizing the powerful, especially when they are inane, represents a necessary act of protest. Will Miller’s panel change the outcome of November’s midterm elections? Lead to Trump’s leaving the White House? Likely it will be forgotten—but, added to all the humor out there, could prove the straw that broke the camel’s back.

As to the discussion: Jill Maragos is a stand-up comic who performed at Comedy Day along with dozens of others. As always, I enjoyed her brief set. She’s a funny woman booking gigs around the country.

When I saw her backstage, Trump came up as a subject for stand-up. Jill doesn’t think he’s a good one. I see her point. Not that I couldn’t write material for myself: Have you noticed that Trump’s hair matches the pale yellow sofa in the Oval office? Did the White House order new fabric dyed to match the president’s hair? Or did Trump like the sofa’s color so much, he ordered his stylist to match it?

But including Trump in a stand-up routine performed over time can’t replicate the skewering by late-night TV hosts and Saturday Night Live. They enjoy the advantage of timeliness. A team of writers takes off on some Trumpism that hit the news that day or that week—something specific and fresh in people’s minds.

Generalized material doesn’t work so well. Jill supplied an appropriate (a word missing from Trump’s vocabulary and behavior) reason. Audiences have had enough of him. It’s not that they necessarily stop getting the news. It’s that the situation is so horrific, stand-ups have to pick their spots.

Satiric comic strips and editorial cartoons remain important. Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and SNL also will keep firing away. Trump will express his displeasure. Buffoons and blowhards—one president can be both—hate being laid bare like the emperor in his new “clothes” portrayed in the Hans Christian Andersen story.

Trump’s low approval ratings indicate that more Americans view him not as the king he pretends to be but as the court jester. But unlike as in Shakespeare or Game of Thrones, the audience has discovered that within the ignoble body of this fool lies an ignoble heart. That observation may draw a wry smile but not likely a laugh.

To respond, click on “comments” to the right just below the title of this post. Then go to the response space at the bottom of the post.

I BELIEVE IN AMERICA

The film begins with the screen black. A man’s voice declares, “I believe in America!” His Italian accent tells us he’s an immigrant. The camera then reveals him in closeup—mustache and suit as black as the background in which he seems suspended. A humble if successful undertaker, he pleads with someone we cannot see: His daughter has been dishonored. He seeks justice. But it will not be in the American way. Or will it?

The Godfather presents America as the land of opportunity. For many millions born on foreign shores and their first-generation American children, it has been just that. But the irony of the undertaker’s speech soon hits home. The Godfathermakes clear that in America, hard work and risk-taking offer great rewards. These values may be applied to a great many enterprises. Not all need be legal.

Those who saw opportunities by breaking the law are duly noted in downtown Las Vegas’s Mob Museum. I was there last week, since I did a small portion of the research for my next novel on their website. Moreover, I admit to a fascination with the Mob—particularly Jewish gangsters of the first half of the 20th century. They were legion. Money guys like Arnold Rothstein and Meyer Lansky? Sure. But many more were stone-cold killers like Ben “Bugsy” Siegel, Dutch Schultz, Abe “Kid Twist” Reles and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter. (FYI, Lansky and Siegel appear in the novel.)

The Mob Museum details the rise—and fall—of the Sicilian Mafia and its affiliates, including the Jewish gangs, which provided murder—and lots of it—for hire. (Protestant and Irish gangs terrorized New York and Boston before them). For many young immigrants lacking education and living in slum conditions, crime paid. Death often came early; success comes with a price.

Ultimately, the FBI squeezed and put away the classic Mob bosses. Vegas cleaned up its act. Other ethnic groups stepped in. Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Dominicans, Mexicans, Chinese, Russians and Vietnamese, as well as groups native to the Heartland, carved out their own American opportunities.

This nation will always face the Mob in some form. But ordinary criminals—even the drug cartels—will not destroy our democracy. We’ll rot at the hands of corporations and the super-rich. They buy politicians and virtually write our laws to eliminate regulations protecting ordinary citizens and reduce their taxes and liabilities, society be damned. In the process, they brush crumbs to the floor. Some people lap them up.

In the musical Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye the milkman advises, “It’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor, either.” I support ambition. I succeeded financially because I risked working for myself and pushed to meet my goals—honestly and ethically.

I also support a sense of balance. The Christian Bible tells us that not money but theloveof it is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10). The Mishnah offers wisdom through a Jewish lens: “Who is rich? He who appreciates what he has…” (Avot 4:1).

I believe in America. I also believe that keeping the pursuit of wealth from devouring ethics requires making wise choices. November will reveal whether greed outweighs goodness and lemming-like, this nation marches off a cliff.

For you who are celebrating Yom Kippur starting Tuesday night, may you have a meaningful holiday and be sealed for good in the New Year.

To respond, click on “comments” to the right just below the title of this post. Then go to the response space at the bottom of the post.

 

A GENERATION ENDS

My aunt, Rita Nachem, died two weeks ago at 97. A generation ended. Last Friday night at my synagogue, I said Kaddishfor her. But as much as I mourn, I celebrate her life and those of all my aunts and uncles.

Aunt Rita was the last survivor of six Finkle children, including my mother Blanche. My grandparents, Lyon and Minnie, had three children in quick succession then paused before bringing into the world another three. Each older kid was assigned a younger sibling to assist Grandma. Aunt Rita, ten years younger, was my mother’s “baby.”

All my aunts and uncles on both sides of my family are gone. Added together—counting only first spouses, eliminating one I never knew, and including my great uncle and aunt, Moe and Anne Horowitz, who I consider second parents—they numbered twenty. Until I became an adult, I never considered my aunts and uncles by marriage distinct from my parents’ siblings. I never felt less than their nephew.

Uncle Larry Nachem died some years ago. Carolyn and I called him a day or two before his death and chatted. He did not fear the inevitable. Actually, he sounded pretty good. People in their final days often experience a resurgence—if for only a moment. While it’s not always possible, we got to say goodbye. We were glad.

Over the years, we called Aunt Rita regularly as did my other cousins, and spoke with her two weeks before she died. Obviously declining, she sounded tired. Nonetheless, as the matriarch of the family, she asked about us and our children. She uttered no complaints.

We often visited Aunt Rita in the Boston area—the last time in May 2017 during an unusual cold spell. She lived in a wonderful independent-living community near my cousin Sue (my cousin Bev lives in far northern California) and maintained an active life—bridge, movies, discussions. When she turned 90, all the cousins who could—it’s a long trip from Israel—gathered to celebrate.

I mentioned relationships going beyond “blood.” I’m proud that Aunt Rita was fully Carolyn’s aunt, too. No “by-marriage” asterisk there. Aunt Rita was always interested in Carolyn’s storytelling and acting career, as well as Seth, Yosi and Aaron. Carolyn was always fascinated by Aunt Rita’s travels—she and Uncle Larry traversed the globe—and her thoughts on opera, books and current events.

At seventy-four, I harbor no illusion about living forever. My parents’ generation is gone. Mine will leave the stage, as well. Each survivor will endure the pain of loss until we are no more. But memories of my family stay with me. Live in me. I’ve been lucky to have a large and loving family. And with three adult children plus nephews and nieces, and all those remaining cousins—I’ve lost a few—there’s plenty of family left.

Death represents no mystery. We all die. Life after? That’s a mystery to the living. Ultimately, we’ll be forgotten save for those with a passion for family trees. But for as long as we survive in someone’s memory, we’ll enjoy something of an extended life. I don’t believe in heaven. But being remembered—hopefully positively, if only for a short time—works for me.

For you who are celebrating Rosh Hashanah starting Sunday night, Happy New Year. May you enjoy health, peace and prosperity.

To respond, click on “comments” to the right just below the title of this post. Then go to the response space at the bottom of the post.