Archive for August, 2019

CHOSEN FOR WHAT?

For many Jews, it’s an embarrassment: inspiration for both anti-Semitism and self-questioning. I refer to Moses’ statement to the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh (See).

The great teacher says, “. . . the Lordyour God chose you from among all other peoples on earth to be His treasured people” (Deut. 14:2). Many Jews and non-Jews misinterpret this as raising the people Israel above other nations for no discernable reason. But Israel’s selection entails not privilege but responsibility.

The Israelites, whose misdoings condemned them to wander in the wilderness for forty years, were not chosen for their size—they were a small people—or their merits. Deuteronomy 7:8 relates that they were chosen “because God ‘kept the oath he made to your fathers . . .’” The Rabbis term this zevut achot, the merits of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who held a special monotheistic vision. Thus a stiff-necked people was to be given a homeland. Why?

The late Israeli scholar Nehama Leibowitz comments, “the Almighty did not release Israel from the burden of persecution [in Egypt] in order to set them free from all burden or responsibility. He wished them to become free to accept another burden—that of the kingdom of Heaven—of Torah and Mitzvot [commandments].”    

Israel is to be a nation of priests. This represents a goal, a status of holiness to be earned by accepting responsibility and its consequences. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, the father of modern German Orthodoxy, points out that if God grants priests rights and privileges unavailable to ordinary people, God also places them under greater scrutiny. Hirsch imagines God saying, “The more a person stands out from among the people as a teacher and a leader, the less will I show him indulgence when that person does wrong.”

Israel must accept its special status with modesty. The prophet Amos preaches that God also watches over other nations. “True, I brought Israel up / From the land of Egypt, / But also the Philistines from Caphtor [Crete] / And the Arameans from Kir” (Amos 9:7).

Rabbi Joel Rembaum states that God “maintains relations with all nations, with regard to whom God can act either as judge or as redeemer.” God’s approval must be earned through right conduct, which all peoples can exercise.

The Canaanites sinned. Only for that reason did God cast them out of their land and give it to the Children of Israel. But the Rabbis do not denigrate the basic human worth of non-Jews. They also are created in God’s image. All people, the Rabbis maintain, contain the Divine spark.

A midrash—a story trying to explain the biblical narrative—guides the Chosen People to exercise perspective. While Israel (the people, not the modern state) is to be praised for accepting the Torah, God previously offered it to all the other nations. Moreover, the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) relates Rabbi Avdimi bar Hama’s view that God held the mountain (Horeb/Sinai) over the Israelites’ heads and said, “’If you accept the Torah, it is well; if not, there shall be your burial.” The Israelites did not make a moral choice. They had no choice.

Treasured on one hand, the Chosen People are tasked to set an example for their siblings. Being the “oldest spiritual child” represents a daunting challenge.

This post was adapted from a discussion in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible, available from me or at Amazon.

The blog will take off next week and return September 13.

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DUMB AND DISLOYAL

You’ve doubtless heard what the Sage of Mar-a-Lago declared on Tuesday: “Any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat—I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” My goose is cooked.

I’m a Jew who’s a registered Democrat and voted for Hilary Clinton in 2016. I wasn’t wild about Hilary but consider the alternative. In 2008, I might have voted for Republican John McCain given Barack Obama’s inexperience, but McCain chose Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. Deal breaker.

Trump’s statement concerned Democratic Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib (Michigan) and Ilhan Omar (Minnesota) recently planning to visit Israel. Trump suggested that Israel not allow them entry. Israel blocked them. Let’s be clear. I don’t like Tlaib’s and Omar’s positions re Israel. They’d basically like to see Israel disappear. Israel won’t do so any more than they represent the majority of the Democratic party.

So what was gained by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu barring two legally elected United States representatives? Nothing. Unless you consider Netanyahu believes he must kiss Trump’s rump given a new Israeli election takes place in several weeks. Israelis like Trump, though most American Jews don’t. But Netanyahu has his work cut out for him. In the April election, his Likud Party won all of 35 seats out of the Knesset’s 120. Not even one-third. That’s not unusual. What is: Netanyahu couldn’t assemble a coalition government.

Which brings me to loyalty. Evidently Israelis, with more to lose in the unsettled Middle East than Trump, must be disloyal since more than two-thirds voted against Netanyahu’s party. Or they lack knowledge. Although many know Netanyahu seeks to stay in office to keep from being tried on bribery charges and possibly imprisoned.

Me? I’m so dumb, I think The New York Times’ Tom Friedman was right when he wrote that barring Tlaib and Omar makes Israel look like “a Jewish banana republic.” Israel’s a thriving democracy, although Netanyahu seeks to curtail a free press and independent judiciary. He’s a Trump fan. This decision made Israel look weak.

If I’m not dumb, obviously I’m disloyal. But to whom? The United States? I served three years in the U.S. Army—as a volunteer. Trump claimed phony bone spurs to dodge the draft during Vietnam. I’ve always paid my taxes. Trump avoided paying federal taxes for years. Smart? He lost over $900 million dollars. Dumb.

Disloyal to Israel? I support Israel every chance I get. You’ve read that in previous posts. And Carolyn and I love visiting family there. Like Israelis, I call it as I see it. When I disagree with Israeli government policy, I say so. But I’ll always support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. It’s the only one we have.

Or am I disloyal to Donald Trump. On Wednesday, Trump declared himself “the chosen one” and repeated conspiracy theorist Wayne Allyn Root’s claim that Israelis think of him as the “second coming of God.” Alert: Jews don’t believe in a first coming. That’s Christian theology, and Jews refusal to accept it has spurred centuries of persecution by Christians. As always, Trump’s cluelessness produces offense.

In 2020, I expect to dumbly and disloyally vote for the Democratic presidential candidate. But then, I’m a stubborn Jew who values conscience above rhetoric.

Big Truth: New and Collected Stories,is available at Amazon and bn.com in paper or e-book. Or, ask your favorite bookstore to order a copy. And, please leave a review on either or both sites.

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YOUR HUDDLED MASSES

In 1883, Emma Lazarus wrote the poem “The New Colossus” to help raise funds for a base for the Statue of Liberty. We all know, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” What to make of those words today?

I love the Statue of Liberty. In February 1906, Chaim Shlioma and Kayleh Perelstein, their 2-1/2-year-old son Moishe—my father Morris—and two daughters, Elka and Etka, sailed into New York Harbor. They’d left Warsaw, Poland, then part of the Russian Empire, because opportunities there for Jews were scant and pogroms frequent, like those in Kishinev and Kiev in 1905.

I fantasize that my grandfather held little Moishe aloft and pointed to “The Lady.” America!

From 1885, Eastern Europe’s huddled masses—Jews, Poles, Slavs, Italians, Greeks (many Germans and Irish came earlier)—entered America by the millions. In 1924, Congress slammed the door shut. America, which long excluded Chinese and savaged its black citizens, had grown increasingly anti-Semitic. Only white Protestants need apply.

Sounds familiar? Yet the huddled masses continued to bring their dreams from every corner of the planet and helped build—and defend—this nation. In one generation, the descendants of the “wretched refuse” became “real” Americans. Should America now fear new additions?

It’s sensible to continually reassess immigration policy, because while history may repeat itself, it’s neither cyclical nor entirely linear. But change is real.

The Perlsteins (we later dropped an “e”) arrived in New York only 12 years after the American frontier was declared closed. Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona were territories. (Alaska and Hawaii became states more than 50 years later.) In 1906, America’s population was 85 million. The nation sought immigrants to work on farms and ranches, in mines, steel mills, factories, stockyards and urban sweatshops. Immigrant laborers would swell production and also serve as consumers.

The dream of America in a challenging world continues. But our population is 330 million while our land mass remains the same. That population has shifted. As eastern and northern cities aged, we flooded the Sun Belt. Oklahoma City has more people than Baltimore, Albuquerque more than Cleveland, and Phoenix—the nation’s sixth largest city—more than Boston and Detroit combined. Our most populous state? California.

We’re now post-industrial with artificial intelligence threatening millions of jobs. We need fewer strong backs, more education. As always, the poor will need help. A century ago, family along with religious and community groups helped pave the way. Public assistance wasn’t an option. There was none. Today’s non-profits will need to step up their game.

This stated, we can and should welcome new immigrants. We still need farm workers, meat packers, restaurant workers, roofers and healthcare workers. More doctors and nurses, too. So, how many of who?

We’ve yet to hold an objective, expertise-based national discussion. Congress concerns itself with the immigration’s politics. The president, a nativist, and his far-right supporters want educated Europeans—whites. The far-left preaches virtual open borders, leaving unconsidered impacts on federal, state and local budgets, as well as on social upheaval.

It’s critical to salute the ideals represented by the Statue of Liberty while seeing things as they are—to be hard-headed without hardening our hearts. I believe that “The Lady” I love gets that.

Big Truth: New and Collected Stories, is available at Amazon and bn.com in paper or e-book. Or, ask your favorite bookstore to order a copy. And, please leave a review on either or both sites.

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GUILTY ME

Not to demean or dismiss America’s recent mass shootings in California, Texas and Ohio, but I want to point the finger at the next culprits: me and my family.

You can take President Trump’s word. Last Monday, he cited several factors contributing to the nation’s wave of mass shootings: the Internet and social media, “gruesome and grisly video games” and mental health laws. True?

I use the Internet, although I limit my social media to Facebook where someone I know occasionally re-posts vile stuff. So maybe social media doesn’t make me a threat.

Video games? My son Seth works as a hard-surface modeler for a New Orleans studio supplying visual elements to major video game publishers. He’s also a big gamer. Violent? No.

I don’t play video games, but I read books and watch TV. I recently finished The Thirst by the Swedish mystery author Jo Nesbo. Grisly. I’m concluding another Swedish mystery with a historical setting, The Wolf and the Watchman by Niklas Natt Och Dag. More grisly. Carolyn read them too.

TV? We loved The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. Also, we just finished season three of Stranger Things: a monster, gruesome deaths and legitimate killings by a police chief using a machine pistol. Are Carolyn and I candidates for mental health intervention? I don’t think so.

Yes, I believe hate posted on the Internet and violent media may stir those with mental-health issues to commit violence. Online white supremacy and anti-Semitism can, too. Do the latter represent forms of mental illness? They’re abhorrent, but I’m not sure. Either way, I support red flag laws and background checks. But consider this . . .

Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns than people in other developed countries, according to The American Journal of Medicine. Yet our rates of mental illness are about the same. Moreover, people in other countries play violent video games and see violent movies as much as we do. So why are their gun-death rates so much lower?

Per capita, Americans own far more guns. These include military-style weapons designed solely to kill other human beings in war. What reason is there for civilian ownership? Military-style weapons have nothing to do with the Second Amendment—or the Second Amendment needs repealing. Such weapons, using high-capacity magazines and clips, deliver high rates of deadly fire that overwhelm the muskets and single-shot, ball-and-powder rifles and pistols of 250 years ago.

Will we get rid of all military-style weapons? Alex Kingsbury in today’s New York Timesdoesn’t think so. Many will be hidden away and, if cared for, remain functional for a long time. But criminalizing ownership along with the manufacture and import of these weapons can make a difference.

The NRA opposes this, and they exercise clout. Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell snuggle up together in the NRA’s pocket.

I don’t suggest that removing Trump and McConnell from office, while highly desirable, should involve violence or insurrection. That’s wrong morally. Also pragmatically. Federal law-enforcement professionals would be knocking on my door with their AR-15 rifles and similar weapons

And yes, the FBI’s weapons are similar to those we let anyone purchase in much of this nation.

Talk about mental health issues—that’s crazy.

Big Truth: New and Collected Stories,  is available at Amazon and bn.com in paper or e-book. Or, ask your favorite bookstore to order a copy. And, please leave a review on either or both sites.

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.

OUR CHILDREN, OUR CHOICES

Americans love choices. But choosing can be frustrating. Which flavor? Style? Color? Buy a house? Rent? New car? Used? Leased? But not everything in life involves choice. If a large segment of Americans comes to see that, our nation will come closer to upholding the family values they promote.

Last Sunday, Carolyn and I went to the brunch drag show at Hamburger Mary’s on Castro Street. A friend of Carolyn’s was performing. A ballet dancer and choreographer who grew up in London, Rex enjoys entertaining in drag and is a wonderful performer. No one high kicks like he does. Going on stage is Rex’s choice. Being who he is—a gay man—is not.

Many Americans still believe that people choose to be gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender or “other.” Not so. I never chose to be a straight guy. I just am. Same for Carolyn as a straight woman. And our oldest son Seth.

On the other hand, our son Yosi never chose to be a transgender man. He discovered that’s who he was. His choices involve expressing who he is. The same is true of my son Aaron and his husband Jeremy (who celebrate their 7th anniversary in a week). Being gay is who they are. Yet they make an important choice every day—to be proud of who they are as human beings. And they have lots to be proud of.

Of course, Carolyn and I had a “choice”: accept or reject Yosi and Aaron. No contest. They are our children. We loved them from the womb. We love them still. All we wanted from our kids is that they be true to themselves and live their own lives, not lives imposed on them.

Still, choices confront us daily. Some are trivial, others critical. One supposed choice should be seen as no choice at all: Do unto others. Let all people live their lives unmolested as we wish to.

Unfortunately, bad choices have emanated from the White House. Donald Trump decided that transgender men and women may no longer serve in our military. Many patriotic trans Americans chose to shoulder their part of the burden of the nation’s defense. Some served in war zones. Yet our president, who chose to avoid military service during the Vietnam War, rejected them.

Yes, some choices are highly complex. The International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) is mulling whether woman runner Caster Semenya of South Africa, born with testes, should take drugs to reduce her high levels of testosterone usually found in males. I believe that Semenya, who was brought up and identifies as female, has an advantage over her competitors. Her levels of testosterone have produced greater bone density and more muscle mass. But world-class athletes, male or female, with “normal” hormone levels boast obvious genetic advantages over the rest of us.

I don’t know what the IAAF will do, but I hope they make the key choice to avoid determining whether Semenya is “really” female despite her intersex characteristics. Caster Semenya may not be usual, but she is normal because she is, above all, a human being.

We’ll soon hear a lot of political jabbering about family values. Fine. Let those who preach them walk the talk by choosing to love allour children.

Big Truth: New and Collected Stories,  is available at Amazon and bn.com in paper or e-book. Or, ask your favorite bookstore to order a copy. And, please leave a review on either or both sites.

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.