Author Archive

DON’T TURN AWAY

The January 25 issue of J! The Jewish News of Northern California reported on Jews of color rising to take their places in the Jewish community. I applaud this. But the article also made me nervous.

Yes, Jews of color have faced difficulties in a religious and cultural world led by Ashkenazim—Jews of European descent (like me). Yet the Jewish world is incredibly diverse. It includes those born of two non-Ashkenazi parents—of color or not—or one. And Jews by choice. At my synagogue, Congregation Sherith Israel, we’re majority Ashkenazi but include Sephardim (descended from the Jews of Spain), Mizrachim (Jews from the Middle East) and congregants with genes from Africa, Asia and Latin America. I’m not sure about Native American descendants, but that would be cool.

Still, Jews of color often are asked, “What brings you here?” and “Are you Jewish?” Many Ashkenazim have no idea regarding Jewish diversity and non-Ashkenazi legitimacy. It’s only natural and right that Jews of color demand an equal place at the table.

Lest you think this problem is confined to North American and Europe, consider Israel. Wander through its cities and towns, and you discover Israeli Jews’ wide genetic and cultural backgrounds. Jews have immigrated—or fled—from the West, Latin America, North Africa and the Arab Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Ethiopia. Some have come from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Far East.

Yet pre- and post-state Ashkenazim often exhibited racist attitudes. Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews were welcomed to swell the young nation’s population but under-funded regarding housing and education. In his book Spies of No Country, Israeli author Matti Friedman notes how Mizrachi Jews spied for Israel’s “Arab Section” during the War of Independence but were looked down on as “blacks.”

Racism isn’t gone, but it has been much reduced. Mizrachim and Sephardim make up half the population—and vote. Also, military service and a growing economy have brought together Israelis from all backgrounds. My cousin Maxine has a son-in-law whose family comes from Iran and Yemen. We spent last Passover with our cross-cultural family at the ancient fortress of Masada overlooking the Dead Sea. I love Tsachi’s family the way I love the varied backgrounds of my fellow Sherith Israel congregants and friends newer to Judaism—African-American, Korean, Mexican, Chinese and other. 

The Torah states, “The stranger (ger, later considered by the sages to mean proselyte) who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself…” (Leviticus 19:34).The commandment to love the stranger appears at least 36 times in the Torah. I hope Ashkenazim everywhere take this to heart.

I also hope that Jews of color will refrain from turning inward. Be’chol Lashon (“In every tongue”), headquartered in San Francisco, runs programs and a summer camp for Jewish kids of color. It enables them to look in the communal mirror and see themselves. That’s good. In a Christian-dominant society, Ashkenazi Jews don’t always get to do that, either. But will Be’chol Lashon remain necessary ten or twenty years from now? It would be wonderful to see the organization eventually disband because it’s simply not needed.

So, I extend a plea to Jews of color: Don’t turn away from me. That would hurt us all.

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STATE OF DISUNION

Tuesday night, as always, I watched the State of the Union address. As always, I suffered. I drew two conclusions: You’ve seen one State of the Union, you’ve seen almost all. And, it’s time to amend the SOTU, mandated by the Constitution’s article II, section 3, with seven new rules:

1. 30-minute time limit. Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie” can tell a story in 30 minutes or less, so can our president. For that matter, Congress has passed some legislation in less time. A president who can’t reduce his/her lofty platitudes to half an hour should one million dollars of campaign funds per overtime minute. At the 35-minute mark, TV and radio networks should be forced off the air. Disclosure: My mind turned to jelly well before 60 minutes into you-know-who’s 82-minute address.

2. No guests. This emotional manipulation is no less obscene than corporations’ TV commercials, which deliver platitudes but no specifics about what said corporations are doing to right the wrongs they’ve done—like overcharging for drugs and wrongfully foreclosing on people’s homes. Besides, TV’s few remaining soap operas appear mornings and afternoons. Disclosure: My mother Blanche was a big soap fan.

3. No standing or applauding. Do presidents and their staffs take us for fools? The answer is obvious. Members of Congress in the president’s party stand and whoop at least every sixty seconds while members of the opposition party sit on their hands. Except when the president forces the opposition to endorse motherhood, apple pie and the flag. Well, the flag gets contentious. What a waste of time. I could be watching Sports Center or the Warriors’ pre-game show.

4. No chanting, “USA! USA!” I’ll wager with anyone that the members of Congress, justices of the Supreme Court, military joint chiefs and assorted hangers-on know that they—and most of us—are citizens of the United States of America. If they’re unsure prior to the performance, they can check their passports. One allowable exception: Homer Simpson doing the chanting. If the White House and Congress are going to produce a comedy, they should do it right.

5. No bragging. Dramamine, please! It’s hard to escape the nausea caused by presidents regaling us with their fantastic accomplishments—all seasoned (i.e. skewed, slanted, distorted) with half-lies, outright lies and statistics. One bright spot: Many people get paid well by the media to serve as fact-checkers and shed light on presidential falsehoods ranging from slight to egregious. They get plenty of overtime, too. America needs growth industries.

6. No platitudes. Forget what I wrote in #1. Everyone agrees on national security, a growing economy and good infrastructure along with affordable healthcare and educational opportunities. Besides, if the state of the union is always strong, why do presidents keep carping on these issues? 

7. Eliminate calls for bipartisanship. More Dramamine! Presidents lead and are beholden to their parties. Sure, bipartisanship can bind many of our nation’s wounds. But the time to call for it is when presidential and congressional candidates stump for their parties’ nominations . . . Finished laughing? 

Let me know if you want to add anything—like a president who shuts down the government or rails against being investigated not being allowed to give the next year’s SOTU on Capitol Hill. That might unite us all.

Do away with the State of the Union altogether? Check Kevin Williamson’s “Great Caesar’s Ghost” in National Review (1-28-14). Thanks to Ron Eaton for sending it my way.

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SCHULTZ VS. TRUMP

Last Sunday, Howard Schultz of Starbucks renown announced he would explore a presidential run as a third-party centrist. Democrats attacked: He’d siphon away enough voters to give Trump a victory. Trump supporters celebrated. But let’s look closer.

While Schultz stands head and shoulders above Trump as a human being (and businessperson), I’m also not thrilled he’s exploring a presidential run. Of course, he’ll be his own man beholden to no one; he has enough money to fund his campaign. But Howard Schultz isn’t prepared to be president no matter how noble his thoughts and how civil his demeanor.

Disclosure: In my novel San Café, I drew on Starbucks for Mobys, the coffee-hustling corporation that seeks to control the affairs of the Central American nation of San Cristo. I presented Mobys’ chairman as a right-wing megalomaniac. He was not patterned on Howard Schultz. 

That said, Schultz has no experience in government. To many voters, that’s attractive—a man uncorrupted by the system. It’s also folly. Lack of government experience—witness Donald Trump—can be disastrous despite soundness of character (Schultz, not Trump). Example: several days ago, Trump called his senior intelligence officials “naïve.” Government’s complexities far exceed those of a private company or corporation. So do the consequences of its failings.

Michael Bloomberg, former Democratic mayor of New York, advised Schultz that he has no shot as an independent. Bloomberg may throw his hat in the ring as a Democrat. Yes, he’s a business titan (also way more successful than Trump). but 12 years in New York’s city hall offered preparation to take on the office’s challenges.

So, by this fall or winter at the latest, Howard Schultz will—pardon me—wake up and smell the venti-cinnamon-shortbread-latte-whipped-cream-for-sure.  He’ll also be done promoting his new book.  Howard Schultz will not run against Donald Trump. 

No one will.

“Donald Trump 2020” may cause the hearts of his MAGA base to flutter, but Trump is toxic. And you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The Office of the Special Commissioner, aka Robert Mueller III, is tightening the noose on Trump and those closest to him. This is no rush to judgment. Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said this week that Mueller is close to wrapping up his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. If Whitaker thinks Mueller’s report will appear in February or March, he’s wishing under the influence. 

The end, however, is approaching. Mueller obtained seven indictments against Trump sidekick Roger Stone. Stone approached WikiLeaks when requested by a “senior campaign official.” That official was prompted by a “higher up.” Mueller knows who they are. They know Mueller knows. Expect more indictments at the highest levels, very possibly including one or more of the Trump family—Donald Jr., Eric, Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner. 

When will Mueller release his report? May, June or early September. Summer’s a bad time. The report will provide American voters and politicians what they need to go forward. I suspect it also will reveal that Trump instructed someone to pursue the Russia-WikiLeaks connection or was advised about it and remained silent. Result: His resignation sometime between impeachment—unless he wakes up and smells the coffee (from McDonald’s)—and trial in the Senate. 

That will leave him even farther on the sidelines than Howard Schultz.

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THE WRONG OF RETURN

Ten days ago, I and several members of Congregation Sherith Israel met to determine how to present programs on Israel. Regarding the Palestinians, we face a challenge. A January 19 New York Times  column by Michelle Alexander demonstrates the issue’s difficulty.

Our synagogue—and we as individuals—support Israel’s right to exist. But the question of Israeli government actions towards Palestinians is fraught with emotion and disagreement among congregants and the American Jewish community. Moreover, not only Diaspora Jews express a multitude of opinions.

Israelis do not march in political lockstep. We mostly hear from the far right because the political edges make the most noise. But debate in Israel, as reflected in the nation’s multiplicity of parties—and on issues involving other than the Palestinians—is continuous and often raucus.

American Jew often remain quiet. Two weeks ago, Carolyn visited our son Yosi in Los Angeles. Yosi and his friends are more supportive of Palestinian causes than we are. At dinner, conversation was steered away from Israel. I emailed Yosi that that was unnecessary. Mom and I want to know what he thinks—to listen rather than argue.

When I read “It’s Time to Break the Silence on Palestine” by Michelle Alexander, I did so eager to know what she thinks. I agree that Israeli actions towards the Palestinians are often heavy-handed. There is an element in Israel that despises Palestinians as human beings. But this element does not represent all—or even a majority of—Israelis.

Like the late Israeli writer Amos Oz and Times columnist Roger Cohen, who wrote about their friendship, I believe in a two-state solution. Yet also I get the position of Israeli writer Matti Friedman: Peace with the Palestinians isn’t enough. The Middle East remains a powder keg. A weak Palestinian state could endanger, not enhance, Israeli security. For the record: Oz, Cohen and Friedman advocate treating Palestinians with respect.

Where does Alexander not get it? She condemns Israel for not being willing to discuss a Palestinian right of to return to Israel within the “green line” established before the 1967 Six-Day War. Note that the 1947 United Nations partition gave Palestinians moreterritory than contained within the ’67, pre-war borders. In 1948, five Arab nations and Palestinians attacked Israel after its declaration of independence. Israel won and gained land Palestinians would have now for their state had they chosen peace.

Ms. Alexander opts for considering the simplistic, self-righteous Palestinian position—let the refugees back. But if millions of Palestinian—grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who fled or were pushed out 70 years ago—can return, where do Israelis go? “Back” to Russia, Poland, Germany, Hungary, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Ethiopia, India? Or must they contract into overcrowded ghettos?

It’s time to break the silence regarding the folly of those who wish the world were perfect—from theirperspective. No nation legitimizes self-destruction. While I believe resolving the issue should produce a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem, this represents a trade-off. Palestinians will have to forego a right of return less a few symbolic families. As long as Palestinians and their supporters cling to the delusion that Israel opening its borders is up for discussion, a better life for Palestinians also remains folly.

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ROOTING AGAINST OURSELVES

A column by Nick Hoppe in Monday’s San Francisco Chronicle reflected on his father Art, a longtime Chron columnist, writing in 1971 against the Vietnam War. In effect, Art Hoppe rooted against his own country. That poses some interesting questions.

We lost. Withdrawing our last combat troops in 1973 enabled North Vietnam to overrun the south and enter Ho Chi Minh City in 1975. What if we’d won? Would we have defeated our real enemies—the Soviet Union and China?

We didn’t need to be in Vietnam. China was a half-hearted “ally” of Vietnam. In 1979, the two nations fought a brief border war after Vietnam invaded Cambodia. As to the Cold War’s bigger picture, the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Two years later, the Soviet Union dissolved.

Hoppe asks his own tantalizing question: What happens when Americans—himself included—root against our country today because we see it engaged in wrong behavior. If the American economy prospers—more jobs, a rising gross domestic product, a stock market climbing again—does that justify Donald Trump in the Oval Office?

Hoppe concedes that rooting against America is rooting against himself. He has to make a living. He has a 401(k) plan. Are he and so many other people opposed to Trump willing to suffer short-term, and perhaps painful, economic stress to limit Trump’s time in office? Bear in mind that the report from the special commission headed by Robert Mueller could offer proof of collusion with Russia and lead to impeachment—or not.

I suspect that many Americans are undergoing such a challenging conflict. They want to succeed personally. And they’re not selfish. They want others to succeed. Still, they hope the nation experiences failures. Yes, they’re alarmed that 800,000 federal workers have been furloughed without pay for four weeks, but they view the partial government shutdown as an opportunity to de-legitimize the president. Trump states that the furloughed workers support him along with farmers. The latter, unfortunately, can’t utilize critical government services informing them of the best times to plant and enabling them to apply for loans. Do those who suffer the most pain really want to endure it?

My key question: If under Trump’s policies—steep tax cuts for corporations and the super-rich, economic and environmental deregulation, trade wars, strained international relationships—the economy continues to grow—and we all do better—shouldn’t “Trump 2020” be on everyone’s lips? Does it matter what insults he hurls? What encouragement he offers racists? How he maintains a relationship with Vladimir Putin?

Isn’t it all about the money?

A look at history: In the 1920s, after Benito Mussolini took power, his government circulated word that the fascists had upgraded the nation’s dilapidated railway system. Even after World War II—Il Duce was shot and his mangled corpse hung at a half-finished gas station in Milan—his supporters comforted themselves by reflecting that “at least the trains ran on time.”

What trade-offs are we Americans willing to make for a thriving economy? Will we sacrifice our democracy, granting its imperfections? Is there a price high enough to impel us to sell out the Constitution? Or is rooting against ourselves, as Nick Hoppe suggests, an illogically logical proposition?

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AMERICA’S REAL CRISIS

On Tuesday night, Donald Trump offered his pitch on TV that America needs a wall across our Mexican border because we face a grave crisis. The president was right. But not necessarily about the wall.

Most Americans agree that the United States has a right to control its border and who may enter the country, including refugees. This does notrepresent an anti-immigrant stance. Despite Emma Lazarus’ moving poem, we no longer can open our borders to all the world’s tired, poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free. We’d be swamped. Moreover, the nation has changed. In 1906, my father—as a small child—sailed into New York Harbor past the Statue of Liberty. America’s western frontier had been deemed closed less than 20 years earlier. The Wright Brothers flew the first powered airplane little more than two years before. Now, we’re a post-industrial society.

Will more wall—we’ve built over 700 miles of barriers, many during the Obama administration—best secure our border with Mexico? Maybe. Read Bret Stephens about Israel’s “smart fences” in yesterday’s New York Times. The problem is, Trump spews hysteria, obscuring reasonable discussion.

Effective leaders examine potential solutions to problems rather than pre-determine them. They call on experts—widely scorned by those on the right—listen to ideas, then propose approaches based on reality rather than ideology or politics.

Congress doesn’t help. It continually fails to pass comprehensive immigration legislation. Some members feel heat from the far left, who want open borders. Others fear the far right who, like Trump, would accept limited numbers of ethnic “Norwegians,” who meet their definition of true Americans as white Christians.

Lately, Trump said he’ll accept a steel barrier rather than a concrete wall. Yet former White House chief-of-staff John Kelly stated that the idea of a concrete wall was shelved a year ago. Trump kept trumpeting that wall to incite and deepen his base rather than widen it. He insists that Congress appropriate $5.7 billion for a symbol of border control, not a well-thought-out solution. And Mexico will pay now thanks to the recent trade deal. Really?

Engaged in a pissing match with the new Democratic House majority, Trump insists that the 800,000 federal workers going without paychecks today support him—and will if the government shut-down continues for months, even years. Really?

Frank Bruni wrote in last Tuesday’s New York Times that “it’s not really a wall that Trump is after, if indeed it ever was. It’s a victory for victory’s sake. It’s a show of his might. It’s proof of his potency.” Bruni added, “Seldom has a president’s ego been this tender, and seldom has it required so much shoring up. There’s not enough concrete in creation for that job.”

Like the Energizer Bunny, Trump keeps on going. On Wednesday, he said he has a right to declare a national emergency. Yesterday he said he well might exercise it.

A workable new immigration policy demands stepping back to lay out the facts and objectively determine our options, no matter how imperfect. That our president is incapable of doing this represents a true national emergency. His insistence on a wall as a political sop to his base sends a loud message that the Oval Office is swamped by ignorance and incompetence. That’s America’s real crisis.

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A SERIOUS RESOLUTION—KIND OF

I love to laugh. So I’m going to tell you one of my favorite jokes—in a moment. But you may not hear much humor from me in 2019.

Don’t get me wrong. Growing up in New York, exchanging banter was as natural as drinking mother’s milk. Although I was bottle fed. Scotch. When I outgrew my bottle, I learned to drink from a tippy cup. Vodka. But sometimes humorous comments get in the way. And as I grow older, I sometimes go to extremes. I reference the late George Carlin.

Carlin—also a New Yorker—offered, “Class clown becomes office schmuck.” I was never class clown, although I was chief comic among my friends. I was never office schmuck. But that slippery slope beckoned, and among friends, I often teetered on the brink. I’m pulling myself back. It’s so important to let other people speak and actively listen to what they say. Imagine if Donald Trump, the Oval Office schmuck, followed suit.

Not that I’m burrowing into a hole and clamming up. Although I did that recently. I experimented by spending one year of Torah Study rarely making comments. I wanted to learn more from our teacher and other students. Admittedly, I withheld observations that might have clarified our discussions. The Sages say not to do that. Apologies. When that year concluded, I dialed back my silence and shared thoughts I believed critical, particularly when discussions came close to veering off the rails. In that light, I’ll try to modify all my social interactions in 2019 to be less of a wiseass.

Not that I’ll stop laughing. Last week, Carolyn and I flew to Baton Rouge—a mirthless adventure that took over 30 hours thanks to electrical storms in Texas and Louisiana. Still, we had a wonderful visit with our son Seth, a grad student at Louisiana State University (LSU) in video game design. His degree combines art and technology, and he showed us some of what he’s doing. Fabulous.

Seth gave me a belated Chanukah gift, the book Old Jews Telling Jokes. It’s a compendium told by—yes—old Jews (60 and up) on the YouTube site of that name. Interestingly, Carolyn and I saw an off-Broadway version a few years ago. One of us laughed a lot.

Now for that joke I promised. (It’s not in the book). It was told, as I recall, by the late Myron Cohen. It involves ritual circumcision. If this seems too much for you, don’t read any further. But you won’t find in it the word penis or any of its Yiddish terms, like schlong or schwantz. Still reading? Good.

A mohel (MOY-al)—a ritual circumcizer—enters a luggage-maker’s shop. He says, “Fifty years I’ve been snipping baby boys, now I’ve retired.” He presents the luggage-maker with a large sack. “I saved every foreskin. Make me something to remember my life’s work.” The luggage-maker says, “Sure. Come back in a week.” The mohel comes back and receives a package in a plain brown paper. It fits in the palm of his hand. Wary, he unwraps it. “A wallet? Fifty years, and all I get is a wallet?” The luggage-maker grins. “Rub it. It’ll turn into a suitcase.”

Happy New Year!

The above commentary does not constitute a legal declaration—explicit or implicit—that the writer (aka David Perlstein) will refrain in whole or in part from telling jokes or making comments intended—but not guaranteed—to be humorous at any time and in any place of his (but not the listener’s) choosing during the year 2019 of the common era. Further, this statement does not constitute an agreement with his wife Carolyn that he will refrain from making adolescent comments typical of a man at the age of sixty-fourteen.

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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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