Archive for March, 2019

AFTER MUELLER—WHAT?

Attorney General William Barr recently reviewed Special Commissioner Robert Mueller’s long-awaited report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Some Americans believe that Barr’s four-page letter to Congressional leaders provides satisfactory answers. Given that Mueller’s report exceeds 300 pages, I have questions.

I note first that a Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday reveals that 84 percent of respondents want the report made public. Also, 75 percent of Republicans surveyed favor the report’s release.

As to the attorney general’s letter, Barr declared that Mueller saw no collusion by Donald Trump. Yet Barr wrote that Mueller “did not draw a conclusion — one way or the other — as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction” and quotes Mueller that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

Barr also writes, “Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.” Barr states that such proof must be beyond a reasonable doubt. All well and good. That’s our legal system.

But why did Trump refuse to acknowledge American intelligence and security agencies’ findings that Russia manipulated social media and stole Democrat emails? He conjectured that the culprit might have been a 400-pound guy in a New Jersey basement. The joke was ill-conceived.

Why did Trump, on national TV, ask Russia to provide Hillary Clinton’s missing 30,000 emails? Another joke? If so, it was on the American people. Presidential candidates know—or should—when such “levity” is totally inappropriate. And why did Trump later accept Vladimir Putin’s word that Russia had not engaged in nefarious activities, again throwing U.S. intelligence and security professionals under the bus?

I can think of two reasons. 

First, Trump couldn’t stomach the thought that Russian interference might tarnish his “overwhelming” victory (with 46.1 percent of the popular vote; Barack Obama had 52.9 in 2008, 51.1 in 2012). Did Russia give Trump his victory in the Electoral College? We’ll never know. But Hillary Clinton topped Trump by three million votes. Trump claimed fraud—as he claimed his inauguration crowd was bigger than Obama’s. Lies. 

Second, Trump didn’t want to upset business relationships in Russia. During the campaign, he said he had no business with Russia. Another lie. Trump representatives discussed a Trump Tower project in Moscow before, during and even after the campaign. Aside from the Miss Universe contest, did Trump have other dealings with Russia? If so, did some or all violate U.S. law? We’ll see where other investigations lead.

Until the full report becomes public, we have no idea just how unethical—if not illegal—Trump’s position on Russia has been. But if legal standards for criminal prosecution are high, so should be the moral/ethical standards of a president. 

The Talmud (Yevamot 121b) states that God is most feared by those nearest to Him—the righteous—because He is more exacting of them. Leaders are held to a higher standard. 

Whatever the Mueller report states, Donald Trump has demonstrated a clear failure to uphold the standards expected of leaders and continually demonstrated his contempt for the United States. The Mueller report will never clear him of remaining mired mouth-deep in the swamp he promised to drain.  

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LARRY

I lost my friend Larry Raphael last Sunday. I’m writing about Larry because he deserves it—and I need to.

Larry became Congregation Sherith Israel’s senior rabbi in July 2003 after three decades at Hebrew Union College in New York. It was his first pulpit. He was ready. A dedicated and accomplished teacher, Larry immediately led Torah Study Saturday mornings before services. Several friends and I were regulars. We loved it. A bond formed. After a while, Larry asked me to lead the group when he had to be away. I was honored.

Larry taught evening courses about various subjects. The classes were great, including those on one of his passions, Jewish mystery and detective stories. He’d edited two volumes. Larry never displayed an ego and encouraged everyone’s opinions. 

Occasionally, Larry joined some of us for dinner before class or for lunch after teaching Talmud downtown—another great success. Discussions covered many topics, including baseball—another passion (he also loved photography). The two of us started going to lunch and did so monthly after he retired in 2016. Occasionally, we’d go to a Giants game. When he left his seat, I filled in his scorecard. 

Larry was a private person and I’m an introvert, but we shared stories—he loved stories—about our families, congregations he served part-time in retirement, my writing. He related travels in Europe, Israel and Guatemala, as well as living in Brooklyn—we had a mutual friend there—and growing up in Los Angeles. I detailed growing up in Queens, army service, Texas, travels in Europe and Asia, and caught him up on Carolyn and our kids.

Larry wrote a column for the Sherith Israel newsletter, which I co-edited. When he was busy, including fundraising for our successful $16 million seismic retrofit, I’d suggest ideas and write first drafts. “I couldn’t have written it better myself,” he’d say. “But you did,” I’d answer. “I’m only channeling you since you taught this idea and we talked about it.” Larry’s trust meant so much to me.

At my request, Larry wrote a blurb for the cover of my 2009 book, God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible. I’m not a rabbi or academic, but Larry read some of the manuscript and responded, “Great. What would you like me to say?” 

Let me get one thing straight. Although soft-spoken, Larry was nobody’s fool. He could get angry with those who acted badly. But he was incredibly welcoming to everyone who came to Sherith Israel and people he met elsewhere. He also was a wizard at remembering names. (I’m terrible at it.) He could have created a memory act for Las Vegas. 

Larry spent most of the last three-plus months in the hospital and rehab facilities, so we chatted periodically on the phone. He gave me some details on his illness, but I emphasized my calls as “Hi, we’re all thinking of you” moments. We hoped to have one last get-together. It didn’t work out. 

I don’t regret not having a final in-person goodbye. The end of a life doesn’t define a person or a friendship. What counts is all that takes place in the years before. Larry inspired so many students—rabbinical and lay—congregants, more than 50 converts, and me. His memory is a blessing. 

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SHALOM, DOLLY!

Carolyn and I just saw the road revival of the 1964 musical Hello, Dolly! My life passed in front of my eyes.

Dolly Gallagher Levi is a matchmaker and hustling Jill-of-all-trades in 1885 New York. Widowed a decade, she sets her sights on Horace Vandergelder, a Yonkers widower and reputed half-a-millionaire. All the rest is commentary.

Except, who is Dolly? Originally Dolly Gallagher, she’s Irish. But she married a Jew, Ephraim Levi. (Ephraim was one of the biblical Joseph’s two sons, Levi Jacob’s third son and antecedent to Israel’s hereditary priests beginning with Aaron). The musical’s roots lie in Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker. Making Dolly’s late, beloved husband a Jew seemed to have been a rather brave undertaking on Wilder’s part.

But, was Ephraim really Jewish? During a monologue by Dolly, we see the store Ephraim owned—a haberdashery—a men’s clothing store. In 1966, a Jewish-owned men’s store was the first thing I saw in Anniston, Alabama heading to Fort McClellan and advanced infantry training. And when Dolly is asked to name a great American, her reply: Moses!

In 2006, the Jewish actress Tovah Feldshuh decided not to play Dolly as Jewish because she herself was. The late Carol Channing, who originated the role, did play Dolly as Jewish “On the basis of my own early marriage right out of Bennington. I married into a Galician, Yiddish-speaking family.”

Which brings me to me. Actually, to my wife. Carolyn was raised in Waco as a Catholic but had many Jewish friends and a Jewish aunt, uncle and cousin. She was falling away from Catholicism when we met. No, she never converted. A justice of the peace married us. 

But over the last 50 years (this September marks our golden anniversary), she’s been a true helpmate to a Jewish man, raised three Jewish children, supported our synagogue and championed Israel, which we’ve visited together twice. I should add that she often enlightens her friends (many or most Jewish) on Jewish practices and Israel.

This may be due in part to my parents, Morris and Blanche, who welcomed Carolyn into the family sight unseen. Of course, my mother had to meet this girl after we called from San Antonio to say we were getting married. A sophisticated woman with perfect hair, makeup, nails, clothing and accessories, Blanche Perlstein flew down and brought gifts—among them a potato grater and jar of chicken fat.

It was love at first sight. My mother signed me over to Carolyn as Dolly Levi gave Horace Vandergelder no choice but to marry her. Carolyn has “guided” my life, clarifying what I really wanted to do about various things because how could I be expected to make decisions about the menu at our kids’ b’nai mitzvah or our 36th (double chai/2×18) recommitment ceremony at Congregation Sherith Israel, or the colors for the exterior of our house.

Doubtless, Ephraim Levi knew how lucky he was to marry Dolly Gallagher. I feel the same way about Carolyn. So does my entire family, who from the outset made Carolyn their own while relegating me to “Carolyn’s husband.”

Without Carolyn, I’d be nothing. So from now on, I’ll refer to Hello, Dolly! as Shalom, Dolly! because the moment I met Carolyn, I said hello to a better life.  

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CRAFT

Last Monday, Carolyn was in Hollywood shooting a scene for a TV show running on CBS. I can’t reveal which until before it airs, but I can say that her comments got me thinking about the little things—the mastery of craft—required of us all.

This was not Carolyn’s first rodeo. She’s appeared on “Chuck” (ABC), “Grey’s Anatomy” (ABC), “Chance” opposite Hugh Laurie (Hulu) and other shows and films. Doing so, Carolyn’s learned a lot about the special skills the camera demands.

For example, actors must hit their marks—taped spots on the floor putting them in proper position relative to other actors, the camera and lights. There’s also eyeline. When a scene is shot from multiple angles, actors must look at the same person or object in the same way for the sake of continuity. 

Carolyn’s also aware of a tip I read from the great actor Michael Caine. In a two-shot (two actors on camera), look at your opposite’s eye nearest the camera to keep your face from being hidden while not distorting the shot.

One more tip—and a key one: Be polite. Carolyn’s worked with accomplished actors who, along with the rest of the cast and crew, have been unfailingly gracious. TV/film production is arduous. The set is no place for egos to run amok.

What does this teach us? Without devotion to craft—the small stuff too easily ignored—there is no art. An actor brings to life—fleshes out—a character other artists—writers—create. The art involves going deep inside and finding the soul of that character. But it’s also critical to hit your mark, maintain your eyeline and work seamlessly with others to make art—and commerce—happen.

I’ve seen sad results when people enamored with their “art,” whatever it may be, fail to master their craft. During my long career as a freelance copywriter, my “art” (though it wasn’t art but rather a business communication skill set) was concepting and writing print, radio and TV commercials along with other media. My craft involved such mundane attributes as listening to my clients, respecting their authority if we disagreed and assuring that copy was concise, well written and, yes, correctly spelled. 

Because I ran my own business, my craft also included sending invoices in a timely matter, following up to be sure I received payments on time, setting aside funds for taxes and maintaining client relationships. To accomplish the latter, I promoted a simple selling point not so easily achieved by many: On target, on time, on budget.

I’m often amazed that many artists—or those who wish to be—want to live the artist’s life— whatever that is—but not practice the artist’s craft and the discipline it involves. As for me, I’m currently half-way through draft 3 of my new novel, editing and polishing every day, having received valuable feedback on draft 2b from nine readers. In a few weeks, my writing coach/editor Tom Parker will read and comment on it so I can produce a final draft 4.

If more people paid attention to the small things—not only in art but in life, every facet of which requires a mastery of craft—we might spend less time sweating so much of the big stuff.

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LAURA AND DUKE—A HATE STORY

America generally accepted racism in 1871, even though the Civil War had ended six years earlier. A century later, bigotry stood officially condemned. Yet prejudice had its champions. Today, those champions have champions. 

On Laura Ingraham’s February 20 Fox News show, author/journalist Raymond Arroyo rebutted the furor resulting from the resurfacing of a 1971 Playboy interview with John Wayne. The Hollywood legend friends called Duke told Playboy, “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.” 

Arroyo claimed that Wayne shouldn’t be judged by today’s standards. Ingraham agreed and likened protestors to the Taliban and ISIS, who “don’t want any vestige of what was.” 

So, what “was” in 1971? Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act seven years earlier. Although millions of whites fought desegregation and equal rights, America officially took a new stance towards racial equality. It was inevitable. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled against the concept of separate but equal schools. In 1948, President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces. Before and after that decision, thousands of black Americans died for our country. Theircountry. 

Educated and responsible citizens? In the ’60s, I viewed my fraternity brothers Paul and Bob, my officer candidate school buddies Kent and Cliff, and L.M., starting center on the Fort Sam Houston post basketball team I coached for two seasons, as more than well-educated to the point of responsibility. Exemplary African Americans? No. Exemplary men.

Duke Wayne’s comments become more reprehensible because he stood as a symbol of American manhood. The symbol was false. His real name? Marion Morrison—although that’s not an issue. Until about the time of Wayne’s comments, Hollywood required actors to adopt short, Anglo-Saxon sounding screen names. These often mollified moviegoers uncomfortable with seeing “foreigners” on the silver screen. (Blacks played maids and train porters, Asians maids and gardeners.) Tinseltown disguised Jewish stars like Paul Muni (Frederich Weisenfruend), Kirk Douglas (Issur Danielovitch), Lauren Bacall (Betty Perske) and Judy Holliday (Judith Tuvim).

Wayne’s heroism? Celluloid myth. He played courageous cowboys and World War Two servicemenas an actor. During the war, the military rejected him because of his age and status as a father. To Wayne’s credit, that dissatisfied him. He made USO tours and visited wounded veterans in hospitals—worthy endeavors but hardly on a par with those who endured combat.

In the post-war years Wayne, a conservative, vociferously supported the red-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee. HUAC blacklisted many Hollywood actors, writers, directors and others for liberal and/or communist sympathies during the Depression years. It destroyed careers, damaged lives. 

Laura Ingraham’s giving a pass to John Wayne’s racist views helps maintain an environment of hatred that over the past three years has crawled out from the shadows. Recently, an Alabama newspaper editor called on the Ku Kux Klan “to night ride again.” And federal agents in Maryland arrested a white-supremacist Coast Guard officer with a large arsenal of weapons. They accused him of plotting to kill Democratic members of Congress, television journalists and others. 

Should today’s racists be exonerated because their views reflect those of a supposedly cherished—and deeply flawed—past? Should their views be accepted because they match those espoused by a current self-proclaimed hero who also never served in the military? The Laura-Duke hate story deserves no love.

For a detailed look at Washington’s Hollywood purges, read Victor Navasky’s 1980 National Book Award winner, Naming Names.

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