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RUBY-RED TURNS BLUE

Last Tuesday, ruby-red Alabama turned partially blue. Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore in a special senatorial election. Pending a requested recount, Jones heads to Washington. His 20,000-vote margin of victory was small, but the election’s message may—pardon the expression—be huge.

To begin, changing demographics may soon reverse populism’s recent gains. The percentage of whites and Christians is shrinking. Young white evangelicals are questioning their elders’ political stances favoring the far right despite candidates’ and elected officials’ misdeeds. These young people may also be conservative, but they won’t accept the behavior and speech exhibited by a Trump or a Moore regardless of potential Democrat gains.

Minorities continue to grow and vote despite hindrances placed at the ballot box. In Alabama, Birmingham’s mayor Randall Woodfin is African American. He succeeded a black mayor. The city has come a long way since the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church church that killed four African American girls and gave the city the nickname “Bombingham.” African Americans are willing to exercise their electoral muscle. Ninety-four percent gave Jones their vote.

Importantly, 30 percent of white voters went for Jones, according to The Washington Post. Not an overwhelming percentage but meaningful. Alabama’s senior senator Richard Shelby publicly refused to back Moore. He voted for a write-in candidate. Others followed suit. Conservative majority leader Mitch McConnell (Tennessee) stated that Moore didn’t belong in the Senate. All demonstrated a measure of concern with common decency, since several women accused Moore of sexual predation decades ago. Alabamians also were aware of Moore’s 2004 removal from the state’s supreme court and 2016 court suspension for placing his personal Christian beliefs above the U.S. and Alabama constitutions. He later resigned.

Jones’s victory may not represent the turning point in American politics, but it may signal change. President Trump, after supporting the losing Luther Strange in the primaries, eventually threw his weight, such as it is, to Moore. He even campaigned, albeit in Florida where he didn’t have to be seen with Moore. His lukewarm efforts failed, although Trump said on Wednesday it wasn’t his fault.

Is Trump’s “power” weakening? Also on Wednesday, the heartland-America USA Today editorialized, “A president who would all but call Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand [D-NY] a whore is not fit to clean the toilets in the Barack Obama Presidential Library or to shine the shoes of George W. Bush.”

Are Americans deserting the Republican party? No. Many continue supporting big tax cuts and small government. That’s a political viewpoint to which they are entitled. Still, some Republicans in Congress and their supporters appear to be revising their win-at-all-costs stance. God and morality could become more important than political power.

A blue victory doesn’t mean Democrats and independents should see the world through rose-colored glasses. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens warns that many Americans will view the rising economy as good reason to ignore Trump’s rantings, insults and possible Russia connections.

After World War Two, many Italians and Germans supposedly admitted that Mussolini and Hitler did terrible things but, “At least they made the trains run on time.” November’s mid-term elections will reveal if many Americans, who have followed something of a parallel view of the far right, have the integrity to moderate their positions.

To you who are celebrating Chanukah—Chanukah Sameach! May the festival of lights bring new light to us all.

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FOLLOW THE MONEY

The media continues to follow Robert Mueller’s investigation into the relationship between Donald Trump and Russia. A fuss was made this past week about Trump knowing that his national security advisor, Gen. Michael Flynn, lied not only to Vice President Mike Pence but also to an FBI agent before Trump fired him. Don’t get excited. This represents some of the what of the matter. But it’s just part of the story.

The investigation will bear fruit only when we understand why Trump turned his back on, and even condemned, the United States’ top security agencies for reporting that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election. Why he admires Putin and his governing style yet has chided leaders of allied governments. Why he fired FBI head James Comey. And why, early this week, he trashed the FBI.

We know Trump believes good relations with Russia can be to our advantage. But that’s like advocating mom and apple pie. It’s always preferable to establish good relations with all nations— even those with whom we have conflicts, such as Iran and North Korea. But Trump has never assumed the role of statesman and geopolitical thinker. He has never written or delivered cogent speeches or position papers detailing the ways American-Russian engagement can make the world safer and freer.

So back to the key question: Why all the contacts between Trump’s people and Russia? Why did members of the Trump team mention the easing of sanctions imposed by Barack Obama before the inauguration? Why the guilty pleas from Trump team members, which may cripple or end the careers of those who entered them? And why the constant discovery of more questionable contacts between the Trump campaign and transition teams, and Russia?

Follow the money!

On Tuesday, Thompson Reuters reported Mueller subpoenaed global banking giant Deutsche Bank for information regarding Trump and his family’s accounts and transactions. Might this relate to past New York Times and Vanity Fair articles on Russians laundering money through Trump condominium projects in New York and Florida? Will it reveal other Trump-Russian financial arrangements? Whatever, this form of inquiry represents the search for key answers.

It’s also critical to know why Trump refused to release his tax returns as all other candidates have over the last forty years. Look for Mueller’s team to review Trump’s tax returns soon—if they’re not doing so now. Their examination will go way past the tasks performed by the IRS. A tax expert told me that the IRS doesn’t look for illegal activities when individuals or entities state appropriate revenues, claim reasonable deductions and pay appropriate taxes. Additionally, sources of revenue and recipients of expenses don’t draw attention. It’s all about the numbers.

Mueller’s forensic accountants and investigators will dig deep. They’ll search for sources of revenue and recipients of financial obligations not listed on Trump’s returns. They’ll seek to uncover layers of shell companies to find the real people and organizations behind Trump’s business dealings.

When Mueller and his staff reach conclusions, they’ll know if Trump sought to enable Russians to profit from equity positions in some of his projects and to collect on large debts he owes Russian banks, oligarchs and mobsters. The truth is out there. To find it, Mueller will follow the money.

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LOUISIANA

Most Californians think about Louisiana—New Orleans aside—as God, guns and gumbo. Carolyn and I spent Thanksgiving week in Baton Rouge with our son Seth, a graduate student at Louisiana State. The visit demonstrated that there’s more.

Our hotel room overlooked the Mississippi River. We were thrilled. Here flows one of the hearts of America—a highway meandering 2,300 miles and antedating the railroads and interstates. Long strings of barges still carry goods up and down the big river. No surprise—I’m now re-reading Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

West lies Cajun country. People were unfailingly cheerful and polite*. I like southern Louisianans, who differentiate themselves from folks further north. The owner of the company with which we took a swamp tour asked Seth if he lived north or south of Interstate 10. Seth lives south. Our welcome was confirmed, although our host asked the question tongue in cheek.

I enjoy food in southern Louisiana, although I eat kosher-style. That eliminates shrimp, crawfish, catfish, pork and bacon. What’s left? I had fabulous fried chicken and a great biscuit at the Boudin Shop in the Cajun town of Breaux Bridge. Baton Rouge menus included steak, brisket, barbecue chicken and salmon. Also, very good pastries, including a wonderful carrot cake and a super-rich pre-birthday chocolate cake for Carolyn. Sadly, the beignets didn’t come close to those at New Orleans’ Café du Monde. Maybe it was a bad day.

Near our hotel, we discovered the Louisiana Art & Science Museum in a refurbished railroad depot. The planetarium offered a show about the constellations. Then—to our surprise—it played animated videos featuring classic (non-religious, fortunately) Christmas songs. The last video filled the dome with five-pointed stars. But in the middle floated one star with six points—the star of David! I don’t know if the audience got it, but we did. Someone on the animation team signaled that Jews also exist.

*Asterisk time: Yosi, who is transgender, felt uncomfortable in Breaux Bridge, where Santa Claus was about to start the Christmas Season. They don’t do “the holidays” there. Yet Yosi has lived in the South—including New Orleans—for years, previously stopped in Breaux Bridge on tour and traveled the state.

I’m a realist. Donald Trump won 58 percent of Louisiana’s presidential ballots. Behind the smiles and good wishes lie different points of view and possibly some awkwardness. A garrulous Lyft driver mentioned that all the quarters at plantations had fireplaces because owners were good to “the help.” Carolyn used the word “slavery.” He continued referring to “the help” as if we spoke different languages.

I conclude that America remains a patchwork of diverse regions and cultures. Our problem consists of too often dwelling on the differences—and equating different with bad—rather than acknowledging what we share. A timely symbol of the latter may be the cell towers that rise above flat, swampy Cajun country just as a similar tower peers over the Presidio National Park blocks from my house.

Yes, differences do matter. They can’t be sugar-coated like beignets. Still, we might spend more time listening to each other and getting past stereotypes. Real human connections could unite Americans and help the nation offer life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to all its citizens.

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WHAT PUTIN TOLD TRUMP

A week ago, at an economic conference in Da Nang, Vietnam, Donald Trump met with Vladimir Putin to discuss vital issues concerning the United States and Russia. According to President Trump—again—Russia did not attempt to sway America’s 2016 presidential election. At least, that’s what Putin said and, according to Trump, Putin’s a stand-up guy. And if you haven’t heard, Putin also cleared the air with Trump on several other important matters.

— The “little green men” who fought in Eastern Ukrainian for Russian-speakers’ separation from Kiev were Martians. Russia long has been a global leader in astronomy and space exploration, and communicated with Martian visitors well before “The X Files” became a hit on American television. Russia and the Martians kept the matter quiet to avoid panicking our planet.

Trump’s response: “Who knew that Martians spoke Russian? But it makes sense since Martian and Russian end in the same three English letters.”

— The gas purportedly used by Syria’s Assad regime on its own people—with Russia’s knowledge and guidance—was not Sarin or anything else poisonous. Instead, Assad sprinkled war zones with laughing gas to raise the spirits of people whose neighborhoods had been shattered, those suffering grievous injuries from purported barrel bombs (“no wine casks were damaged in the bombings”) and refugees. The gas was purchased from the Russian Institute of Advanced Dentistry over a decade earlier, and the Kremlin has all the receipts. Humanely, the gas did not prompt belly laughs which injure internal organs but produced only small chuckles as revealed by the grimaces grins on the faces of motionless Syrians photographed while napping.

Trump’s response: “I bet you and Assad also mixed in some pixie dust like I brought with me on Air Force One. I hear it’s a hell of an aphrodisiac.”

— Accusations by international sports doping bodies that Russian athletes take banned drugs reveals fake news at its most fake and un-newsiness. Russian athletes do test new types of vitamins, which Russian scientists continually refine for the betterment of health worldwide. This further proves Russia’s advanced research and production capabilities. History has long acknowledged that Russians invented baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet along with rhythm and blues, the button-down shirt and Buffalo chicken wings.

Trump’s response: “Can you invent something that makes Robert Mueller disappear?”

— Like George Washington, Vladimir Putin has never told a lie. Honor and integrity represented key values in his training and career with the KGB, the Soviet Union’s intelligence agency responsible for keeping foreign powers—aka the United States—from soiling the spirit and legacy of Communism. Such admirable traits—and the occasional doing away with journalists and political opponents opposed by 99.9 percent of the people—impelled Russians to keep Putin in power since 1999 with no end in sight.

Trump’s response: “If I tell only the truth, do you think my fantastically high approval ratings of 38 percent will go even higher? And can you make Robert Mueller disappear?”

This straight talk should enable you and people across the globe—including Kim Jong-un—to sleep better. Or, as Mr. Trump tweeted on his “personal” account: “Nothing wrong with a man-crush as long as you still try 2 grab women by the pussy.”

With a snafu patched, my novel THE ODD PLIGHT OF ADONIS LICHT again is available for the Kindle at Amazon as well as in softcover.

The blog will take off for Thanksgiving and return on Friday, December 1.

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MONOTHEISM AND MYTH

Jews, Christians and Muslims know that monotheism began with Abraham, the Hebrew patriarch whom Torah students have studied these past three weeks. But like Elvis sightings, that’s an urban legend.

Secular scholars point to monotheism’s birth in what Karl Jaspers termed the Axial Age—700 to 200 BCE. Karen Armstrong writes that as urban civilizations developed, “people ultimately began to find that the old paganism, which had served their ancestors well, no longer spoke fully to their condition.”

The biblical narrative offers a third view, as I detail in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible. The book of Genesis plants monotheism’s roots in the sixth day of creation, presenting Adam and Eve as the original pair of monotheists long predating Abraham. They enjoy a personal relationship with God, Who instructs Adam not to eat from a specific tree and makes clothing for Adam and Eve to cover their nakedness after they do. And yes, He also expels them from Eden.

Their sons also know God. When God accepts Abel’s offering but not Cain’s, Cain sulks. God offers parental advice: “Surely if you do right, / There is uplift. / But if you do not do right / Sin couches at the door; / Its urge is toward you, / Yet you can be its master” (Gen. 4:7).

With Abel dead and Cain banished, Adam and Eve have a third son—Seth. Genesis makes no mention of Seth’s relationship with God, but there’s every reason to believe Adam and Eve informed Seth about their Creator. Why?

When the earth becomes populous, Genesis states, “It was then that men began to invoke the Lord (YHVH) by name” (Gen. 4:26). This induces Nahum Sarna to write, “This text takes monotheism to be the original religion of the human race, and the knowledge of the name YHVH to be pre-Abrahamic.”

Humanity descends into wrongdoing and idolatry. Still, Enoch, the seventh in Adam’s line and great-grandfather of Noah “walked with God 300 years” (Gen. 5:22). Noah, in the tenth generation, receives God’s instruction to build an ark.

After the Flood, people again turn away from God. The Talmud (Berachot 33b) explains, “Everything is in the hand of heaven except the fear of heaven.” Eden now consisting of only of a myth as humanity drifts into various forms of polytheism and idol worship. Monotheism, like a buried seed, lies dormant. Still, as God’s Others relates, pockets of monotheism lived on.

Twenty generations after Adam and Eve, Abraham appears. The biblical text never explains why God chooses him, but it now seems clear that Abraham rekindles monotheism rather than discovers it. Yehezkel Kaufmann writes that primeval mankind from Adam on “appears to have been monotheistic.” Gunther Plaut notes of Abraham, “The Torah does not depict him as the founder of a new religion.”

From the biblical perspective, monotheism constitutes humanity’s natural religious state. This prompts us to consider a corollary. All people contain the Divine spark. The Parent loves all His children. In a nation—indeed a world—torn by hatred and violence, we would do well to remember that to which Abraham sought to return us, however we might define God and the unity of the universe.

You can order God’s Others from Amazon, your local book store or—such a deal!—from me.

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CANARIES IN THE COAL MINE

A major announcement or carefully placed leak from the Mueller Commission linking Donald Trump to Russia’s attempts to sway the 2016 presidential election will hit the media between February 1 and March 31. The news will come as the nation prepares for Congressional primary elections. How do I know? Some canaries are about to sing.

This week, a federal grand jury indicted former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his business (lobbying) partner Rick Gates on a dozen charges, including conspiracy. Only a jury can determine guilt. Yet it’s unlikely either man will go to trial.

Further, unsealed court documents reveal that a former Trump campaign adviser on foreign affairs, George Papadopolous, pleaded guilty to lying about Russia offering the Trump campaign emails containing dirt on Hillary Clinton. Don’t expect Papadopolous to receive prison time.

I don’t suggest that the Justice Department will overlook evidence secured by Mueller. Quite the opposite. Manafort and Gates were arrested and released on bail of $10 million and $5 million respectively. They’re under house arrest, their passports confiscated. Mueller would not have sought indictments if he didn’t believe he had conclusive evidence.

Of course, Mueller could have waited. But it appears that at this point in the investigation, the time is right to offer Manafort and Gates a choice: come clean or face harsh prison sentences. And let others involved in the matter know about it.

The Papadopolous disclosure sends an added message: If you stuck your toes in the muddy waters of collusion with Russia or know anything about it, speak up. Papadopolous doubtless has sung. Were you named? Come forward now or risk a federal indictment.

Two arrests and a plea bargain represent not the end of the investigation but the beginning. Its pace likely will pick up. Robert Mueller and his staff doubtless know more about possible collusion with Russia than does the public. When these three canaries sing, the commission may learn a lot more. And additional canaries may flock to Mueller to warble about people higher in the pecking order.

Why wouldn’t they? Men of integrity might take the hit to protect another man of integrity wrongly accused. But Manafort, Gates and Papadopolous look no more like men of integrity than Harvey Weinstein. It’s just that they preferred to screw the United States instead of Hollywood stars and wannabes.

Moreover, they know that Trump would never take the hit for them.

The arc of the Mueller investigation likely will bend towards a faster, rather than slower, conclusion. This will enable Americans to go to the polls this primary season and make better-informed decisions regarding candidates who deny collusion and support Trump versus candidates who remain open to the Mueller Commission’s investigation, see the pattern that keeps emerging and distance themselves from Trump.

Will this entail politicizing the commission? Withholding information could bring the same accusation. Better to enable voters to make important choices based on knowledge—at least those voters who don’t believe in alternative facts.

Trump’s base? They’ll close their eyes to Mueller’s findings, no matter how blatant the violations of ethics and the law. But Trump’s hard-core supporters will be unable to silence the bittersweet chirping of more canaries who prefer coming clean to being caged.

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SEEING THUNDER, HEARING LIGHT

Many men see women as objects of sexual predation. Following recent reports about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, many women have come forward to relate their experiences. My wife Carolyn will tell hers in a performance she began working on two years ago.

Carolyn will present a cabaret piece, “Seeing Thunder Hearing Light,” on Saturday night, November 4, at the Hotel Rex in San Francisco. Showtime is 8 pm. Doors open at 7. Dinner and drinks are available.

I’ve long witnessed the damage done to Carolyn in her childhood. We’ve been married 48 years. But she’s worked hard to deal with that ordeal. Yet “Seeing Thunder” isn’t about the details of what happened. It’s about how taking up acting in her fifties—she’d been a children’s theater performer after college and a storyteller for three decades—enabled her to confront her demons.

More women than we can imagine struggle to survive, let alone thrive, in a world in which men publicly place women on a pedestal and privately pull them down into the mud. Carolyn has been fortunate to have escaped terrible encounters as an adult. Still, she’s fended off a few unwanted approaches. As an actor who auditions for television and movies in Los Angeles and San Francisco—and has earned several roles—she’s fortunate to have been spared the attentions of Hollywood’s Harvey Weinsteins.

But Carolyn never underestimates the danger lurking for women—not only among strangers but co-workers, acquaintance and even friends. “Many men aren’t aware of what they’re doing,” she says. “The full-body hug, the forceful kiss on the lips, the supposed compliment. These make women cringe.”

Why the medium of cabaret? Carolyn loves to perform. Cabaret also offers a form of therapy, although for several years Carolyn has been seeing a therapist who specializes in trauma. A while back, she scratched an itch by studying singing with the late San Francisco teacher Richard Nickol. She continued with his successor—an outstanding musical theater performer—Mindy Lim. Carolyn learned about cabaret, which mixes songs with patter, and found it fascinating. Moreover, combining her storytelling skills with singing felt natural. Eventually, she began to write her own show.

Carolyn’s performance includes a variety of music tracing the pathway of her life. Some of it includes our relationship. Maybe a lot. I only have an idea since I’m usually upstairs writing while Carolyn’s downstairs working on one song or another.

As important, Carolyn—accompanied by pianist and noted cabaret performer Barry Lloyd—will not only provide lots to think about but also plenty of entertainment.

Sure, this is a plug for my wife. But it’s also another wake-up call. Human trafficking and sex slavery span the globe. In primitive societies—and I use primitive deliberately—old men buy and marry children. In advanced societies like ours, sexual abuse abounds but gets swept under the rug. A Harvey Weinstein, as Carolyn notes, draws our attention for ten minutes. Yet the damage from which women suffer lasts a lifetime.

So, if you’re free November 4, discover why Carolyn came up with the title, “Seeing Thunder, Hearing Light.” And find out how she fights back one day—and one acting or singing class—at a time.

“Seeing Thunder, Hearing Light” takes place through Society Cabaret. Dynamic ticket prices keep rising, so order now: online, or at 415.857.1896.

Carolyn will donate her share of the proceeds to the North Bay fire-relief efforts of:

Redwood Credit Union

Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, The Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties

Jewish Family and Children’s Services of San Francisco, The Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties

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IMMIGRATION AND CULTURE

Twenty years ago, Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order posited that the post-Soviet world consisted of nine distinct civilizations. Their cultures and values were different and often in opposition. Huntington was hailed and later assailed. Regarding today’s immigration issues, attention to Huntington must be paid.

Huntington’s new world order consisted of the West, Latin America, Africa, the Islamic world, China, Hindu India, Orthodox Christian Eurasia (Russia and environs), the Buddhist world and Japan. Three assertions—among many—bear study.

— “International organizations based on states with cultural commonality, such as the European Union, are far more successful than those that attempt to transcend cultures.”

— “The philosophical assumptions, underlying values, social relations, customs and overall outlooks on life differ significantly among civilizations.”

— “Global politics has become multipolar and multicivilizational.”

Nations and peoples are not all just the same, and American values don’t dominate the world. This sheds some light on Donald Trump’s position on Muslims—which I do not share—and the European right, which seeks to limit or halt Muslim immigration. Let’s first look at Europe.

Ten days ago, Germany’s conservative political parties reached an agreement limiting the number of immigrants allowed to enter each year. This from a nation that in 2015 welcomed one million immigrants from the Middle East, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Last Sunday, Austria’s election produced Europe’s youngest prime minister, 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz. His People’s Party wants to strongly curtail immigration of Muslims.

Europe has never exhibited the United States’ ability to integrate immigrants from different cultures. Decades ago, Europeans loved accusing America of racism when Europe’s non-white, non-Christian populations were small enough to seem colorful rather than threatening. What makes Europe and the U.S. so different? I asked my friend Manfred Wolf, author of a provocative book of essays, Muslims in Europe: Notes, Comments, Questions.

Europe puts up cultural obstacles to assimilation, says Manfred. The French, for example, created a highly secular society. (Europe is heavily secular.) Anyone can be French, but religious identity must be kept private. At the same time, he notes, a significant minority of Muslins in Europe are not sure they wish to assimilate. They live in Europe but may not be of it.

America has never had a major influx of immigrants who refused to submit to the nation’s reigning culture and values, according to Manfred. The Amish and ultra-Orthodox Jews have ways that are entirely different, but their numbers are comparatively small. “In America, if Ahmed and Yasmina live next door and don’t make trouble, they’re Americans. We don’t care.”

Manfred’s take on immigration and refugees is personal. As a child, he fled Holland with his family to escape the Nazis. Eventually, they settled in Curacao, Netherlands Antilles. He came to the U.S. at 17 to attend college.

He succeeded. “I’d learned English,” Manfred says. “I knew about America. I wanted to accept American culture, which made me a perfect immigrant.” If culture and personality match, he notes, assimilation becomes easy.

It may seem disheartening that immigrants often bring with them values that clash with those of their new country. And yes, much bigotry exists in nations taking in—or rejecting—migrants from other cultures. But solutions to this complex problem require understanding that the problem is, indeed, complex.

My novels, including The Odd Plight of Adonis Licht, currently are unavailable in Amazon’s Kindle store (a publisher matter soon to be rectified). You can still purchase the softcover versions from Amazon—or directly from me.

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ECCLESIASTES AND US

The world seems to be coming apart. Massive fires in the wine country of Napa and Sonoma counties and elsewhere in California represent the latest “disaster of the week.” Fortunately, a biblical text attributed to King Solomon (died 931 BCE) and probably written 600 years later, offers us the strength to endure.

We’re tempted, of course, to declare that things have never been this bad. But we—and every generation preceding us—have experienced trying times. The book of Ecclesiastes (Hebrew: Kohelet—gatherer/teacher/preacher) reminds us, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

One of five “scrolls” in the Hebrew Bible along with Esther, Song of Songs, Ruth and Jonah, Ecclesiastes is traditionally read during the festival of Sukkot, which begins five days after Yom Kippur. Ecclesiastes often is viewed as negative and cynical. Not so, according to scholars. They include Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, a hillside community in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley.

Last Monday night in San Francisco, I attended a dinner talk by Rabbi Feinstein. He broke down the text of Ecclesiastes to offer several heartening concepts. Importantly, Rabbi Feinstein never claimed his views were conclusive; Jews question, answer then question again.

Ecclesiastes advises that life and our various accomplishments and sufferings amount only to hevel—a puff of air, a mist, a transitory matter. Moreover, death awaits us all. Neither pleasure, riches, wisdom nor righteousness alter that. Equally disturbing if not more so, good people often suffer, while bad people often attain wealth and fame. (The book of Job offers another exploration of the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”.)

Does this paint a portrait of humanity too glum to bear? No. Ecclesiastes counsels, in this translation by my friend Dan Weiss and his study partner Israel Amrani: “I praise joy / Nothing is better for man under the sun / than to eat and to drink and to be joyful” (8:15). Let’s put this in perspective: Ecclesiastes does not extol gluttony, drunkenness and sexual indulgence. These, too, are hevel.

Rather, Ecclesiastes states that for everything there is a season. (Now you know the source for the Pete Seeger song covered by the Byrds.) We experience good. We also suffer, as do so many Americans now in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, Las Vegas and California. Basically, life happens. For the most part, we can’t control it. The world—indeed, the universe—is too big and complex. The best we can do is enjoy what we can while we can. As my mother, Blanche taught me: “You have to take the good times with the bad.”

We find additional hope in what this book does not say, according to Rabbi Feinstein. Ecclesiastes sees the world in the guise of a lone figure without family and friends (although not without wives and concubines). Family and community make a difference. While our lives are finite, we achieve a semblance of immortality—of something lasting—when we teach our children and others, display love and cultivate friendships. In Jewish tradition, we “live” so long as we are remembered.

I offer this final summary of Ecclesiastes paraphrasing Rabbi Hillel, the great sage of 2,000 years ago: Life crushes the ego. All the rest is commentary. Now go and study.

Rabbi Jessica Graf and Cantor David Frommer will present Ecclesiastes today (Friday), noon–2 pm for Congregational Sherith Israel’s Prime Time Club for people 65 and older. Complementary lunch is provided. While food has been ordered, we always find room for a few more people, members and nonmembers.

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LESSONS OF TIMBUKTU

America’s cultural divide runs deep. The far-right’s vote for Donald Trump protested the “elites.” Considerable danger lies in this. We find a prime example in a region of the world usually ignored—sub-Saharan Africa.

What are elites? Trump supporters generally consider them to be inhabitants of big cities on either coast and holders of college and post-graduate degrees. Diplomas concentrate heavily in science—hard and soft—medicine, journalism, the humanities and the arts. Education aside, elites include artists and those involved with the arts.

What’s the gripe? These educations and careers invite and require continuously questioning assumptions. Traditional thoughts may be toppled. This makes conservatives uncomfortable.

Note that many college graduates voted for Trump. Still, Hillary Clinton carried grads 52% to 43% (Pew Research). I suspect that most Trump supporters with college degrees studied business, law and engineering. Some computer science. Trump also found favor with graduates of Christian evangelical institutions.

Where might dissatisfaction with elites lead America? Joshua Hammer offers an intriguing view in his New York Times (fake news?) best-seller (read by elites?) The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts.

Timbuktu in the West African nation of Mali constitutes a symbol of remoteness. Yet in the late 14th century, the town emerged as a center for Muslim religious and cultural scholarship. Academics visited from many corners of the Muslim world. Trade grew. Timbuktu became a wealthy city of the Songhai Empire. It did business with North African camel caravans trekking south through the Sahara Desert carrying salt and boats plying the Niger River from the Atlantic coast bringing goods from Europe. In 1375, Timbuktu appeared on a European map drawn by the Jewish cartographer Abraham Cresques.

“Despite the dedication to religious scholarship, the Islam that took root in Timbuktu was never very strict,” Hammer writes. Scholarship, inquiry and the city grew together. Unfortunately, the city fell more than once to rulers demanding their strict interpretation of Muslim law. They looted and destroyed Timbuktu’s vast libraries. Yet area residents hid hundreds of thousands of manuscripts and passed them down from generation to generation. Many survived in reasonable shape.

Hammer details the efforts of a young archivist, Abdel Kader Haidara, who over three decades starting in the 1980s located, purchased and brought to safety 350,000 centuries-old manuscripts. Yet Haidara found himself having to move protect the manuscripts he’d collected from jihadists of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, who loathe science, philosophy and literature.

Hammer’s book suggests a parallel in the United States. Trump’s base sees their America facing an existential threat from liberal elites who question their views of the Constitution, the Gospels, Christianity and “accepted” values. Political activism along with private Christian schools and colleges, and Christian home schooling, seek to keep unwanted ideas at bay. Faith replaces empiricism to negate the acknowledgment and understanding of such issues as evolution and global warming along with separation of church and state.

Today, Timbuktu is a backwater of 55,000 people living in mud-brick homes. The desert has encroached.

If the United States is to thrive as a democracy capable of providing for the wellbeing of all its people and maintain global relevance, we must appreciate what once made Timbuktu great. We must also guard against what destroyed that greatness.

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