Archive for December, 2018

HAUNTED BY HISTORY

Old newsreels and propaganda films of World War One can be difficult to relate to. Camera vibrations and slower frame speeds produce herky-jerky images in black and white. But Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies) has completed a documentary that brings the Great War to life. It’s haunting.

The trailer for They Shall Not Grow Old shows how Jackson digitally restored footage from Britain’s Imperial War Museum, adjusting the frame rate, colorizing many clips and transforming some into 3-D. (Read a fascinating overview in The New York Times.)

The documentary also provides voiceovers taken from BBC interviews with British vets in the ’60s and ’70s. Additionally, lip readers determined what some troops were saying, and actors with accurate regional accents dubbed scenes.

Obviously, uniforms and equipment are dated. The number of missing teeth, given the British love of sweets and war’s ravages, is astounding. But these soldiers no longer seem caricatures from an almost mythological past but our contemporaries. Note: Britain and its colonies lost 750,000 troops. The U.S. lost 53,000 after entering the war in 1917. Altogether, World War One took nine to 15 million lives.

Most Americans don’t come close to knowing these figures or the causes of a war that never should have been fought. We long have become a nation—even more so over the last two years—proudly ignorant of history and its impact on our present and future. The vengeful Treaty of Versailles (1919) sowed the seeds of World War Two.

In 1954, the U.S. became the dominant Western power in Indochina following France’s humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu. The Eisenhower administration knew little about Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, but Cold Warriors feared Communist Ho Chi Minh becoming a puppet of China. In reality, Vietnam had been hostile to its northern neighbor for 1,000 years. Some historians believe that Jack Kennedy would have withdrawn American advisors. I wouldn’t have bet on it.

Lyndon Johnson feared drawing conservatives’ wrath and sent more advisors until we staged the Gulf of Tonkin incident as an excuse to land major combat forces in the South. Richard Nixon, who won the presidency in 1968 after LBJ chose not to run for re-election, boasted of a “secret plan” to end the war. He waited until ’72—after re-election—to unveil it. Slaughter continued there, riots and societal breakdown here. Nixon’s secret? “Peace with honor.” Translation: Leave. We lost the war and 58,000 troops. South Vietnam fell.

George W. Bush and his handlers knew nothing about the Greater Middle East. Post-9/11, we went into Afghanistan to find Osama Bin Laden. Fine. Then we blew it. He escaped. We stayed. We’re still there. In 2003, we invaded Iraq to destroy weapons of mass destruction and create an American-style democracy. We found Saddam Hussein but no weapons. No matter. Mass destruction followed.

Ultimately, that led us into Syria. Now, we’re reversing course and leaving. I believe this move is premature—and dangerous. Secretary of Defense James Mattis does, too. He resigned yesterday.

They Shall Not Grow Old reminds us of George Santayana’s advice: “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” It offers sound advice to each new generation. What truly grows old is our ignoring it.

To those who celebrate these holidays, Merry Christmas and Happy Kwanzaa! To all, Happy New Year!

The blog will take some time off and return on Friday, January 4.

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TELEPHONE MEMORIES

Last month, an internet service technician saw something in our kitchen. “Is that a telephone?” he asked. It was. Still is. My history with telephones goes a long way back and offers interesting memo

We bought our kitchen phone when we moved into our house in 1983. It’s a wall model roughly 12 inches square. Most of the unit consists of a telephone book holder. Remember telephone books? We keep menus in there. The reversible front offers a chalk board and a bulletin board. We use the latter to post photos.

My sister Kay has a conventional wall phone in her kitchen. Once, it rang when my great-nephew Max was there. He asked, “How do you answer that?”

As a kid, we had rotary-dial phones. We also helped pioneer extensions. Our two-bedroom apartment hosted phones in each bedroom plus the foyer and, yes, a wall phone in the kitchen.

We had a plan for unlimited local calls with Bell Telephone—the onlyphone company. Many friends didn’t and paid, I believe, ten cents a call. When a call came in, we waited through the first two rings. One ring and a hang-up came from someone I forget. A two-ring hang-up came from my best friend Marty, who I’d call back. I remember our first phone number: HIckory 6-1585. Area code? Didn’t have them. Our number changed to HAvemeyer 4-6348.

Phone numbers matter: “1-800-273-8255” (featuring Khalid and Alessia Kara) is now the top-selling song with a phone number (suicide hotline) in its title. Check YouTube! It surpassed “876-5309/Jenny” (Tommy Tutone). Elizabeth Taylor won an Oscar in 1961 for BUtterfield 8.

Long-distance calls required an operator. Direct-dial long-distance put the country closer to our fingertips. Overseas calls? Never made. To whom? But when Carolyn and I traveled through Western Europe in 1970, we called “home” twice—once from a post office phone center in Rome, the other time from Madrid.

Around 1950, my family started spending summers at a bungalow colony in the Catskills, Kappy’s Kottages. Making a call required going to the casino—the combination recreation hall (black-and-white TV, ping pong table, pinball machine) and grocery store. Receiving a call meant a loudspeaker announcement by Irving or Rose Kaplan echoing off the mountains: “Blanche Perlstein, telephone call. Telephone call for Blanche Perlstein.” Kappy’s wasn’t noted for privacy. A few years later, my parents got the first phone installed in a bungalow. But my mother wasn’t always a pioneer. It took her decades to switch from rotary phones to push buttons—and only at Kay’s insistence.

Calling from the road? Pay phones. I remember them costing a dime. I’m sure other folks remember a nickel. Pay phones were everywhere. Today, they’re collectors’ items. One of my favorite New Yorkercartoons shows a man drunk, leaning against the inside of a glass booth and peering out to give pick-directions for being picked up. The caption: “I’m at the corner of Telephone and Telephone.”

Yes, I have an iPhone. I call and text from anywhere to anywhere. And no, I don’t think the old days were better—at least with one exception. Except during an emergency, no one stared at an old-fashioned phone through meals or social gatherings let alone walking on the street. The dinosaur days at least offered that advantage.

To all who celebrate Christmas, may the season bring you joy and peace.

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THE CHANUKAH DILEMMA

’Tis the season when most Americans embrace Christmas. But not all. I have no intention of putting a damper on Christmas to explain the challenges this holiday presents American Jews.

I’ll start, as in the recent past, with a comic strip—this time, “Luann” by Greg Evans. On November 29, Evans began a new storyline. A secondary character, Leslie Knox, shows no interest in Christmas. His Uncle Al explains, “Les lived with a Jewish foster family till I took him in. I don’t do holidays, so he’s never had a big Christmas.” Uncle Al’s new wife states, “Well, he’s in for a treat.”

I hoped “Luann” would explore the reality that not every American celebrates Christmas, which shocks some Christians. The next two days showed Les being pessimistic about the gaudy Christmas decorations hauled out of storage. Then the storyline disappeared. Perhaps Evans was just noodling in public. Or maybe newspapers received negative feedback: Christmas and all its trappings being questioned? Un-American! I don’t know.

But what many Jews term the “Christmas Dilemma” got swept under the rug. Then the novelist and journalist Michael David Lukas wrote a New York Timesarticle titled “The Chanukah Dilemma”(12-1-18). His three-year-old daughter wondered why they don’t celebrate Christmas. He told her that Chanukah is their holiday. But he found his thoughts conflicted.

Chanukah, Lukas noted, marks the Jewish victory in 162 BCE over the Assyrian Greek king Antiochus IV, who polluted the Temple with pigs and statues of Greek gods, and attempted to destroy Judaism. The Jews rebelled, won and then cleaned and rededicated the Temple. What disturbed Lukas: The victory included killing Hellenized—assimilated—Jews. How can he teach his daughter to celebrate a holiday marking a victory over assimilation when they, American Jews, are assimilated?

Or are they? I suggest that Lukas’ desire to celebrate Chanukah rather than Christmas removes him from that “stigma.” Americans are free to choose their religious practices—or reject religion. Lukas chose Chanukah—and Judaism. He is, of course, free to choose more: Send his daughter to a Jewish pre-school then religious school at a synagogue. Later, a Jewish day school. And observe Shabbat however he’s comfortable, as well as other Jewish holidays.

Moreover, Lukas can study Torah and other Jewish subjects by reading and/or taking classes. Whatever makes him comfortable. Being an “authentic” Jew starts, as Orthodox Chabad promulgates, with performing one mitzvah at a time. Thus “authenticity” encompasses a very big tent.

“Assimilation” itself is a tricky word. Joseph married the daughter of an Egyptian priest. Moses married the daughter of a Midianite priest. Diversity in Jewish thought represents a near-2,000 year-old tradition with influence from both Christian and Muslim scholars. Jews have also welcomed elements of the cultures among which we’ve lived—food, music, language, dress. And most Israeli Jews—the “paragons of Jewishness”—exhibit little or no interest in Judaism.

Michael Lukas doesn’t need to grow a beard and wear a black hat to be Jewish. Nor does he have to hide his identity, which only gives haters the victory they seek.

The death of a non-Jew, President George H.W. Bush, who—whatever your politics—displayed admirable decency and civility, provides an important reminder. ’Tis also the season to be kinder and gentler to everyone—including ourselves.

Happy Chanukah (this is day five), and to all who celebrate Christmas, may the season bring you joy and peace.

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