SLALOM WALKING

Pre-COVID-19, I took three walks a day to reach a minimum of four total miles. I still do. I’ve noticed some things.

Home-sheltered, more people walk, run and bicycle weekdays. On the first day of shelter-in-place, sidewalks and streets were relatively crowded. The second day, walkers, runners and cyclists tapered off. People are still out but not as many. Is pollen season to blame?

Maybe it’s Zoom. I never heard of Zoom before the pandemic. Now, my family Zoom-gathers Thursday nights. I Zoom Friday-night Shabbat services and Saturday-morning Torah Study. Congregation Sherith Israel has more worshippers and students online. Congregants and guests can stay home. Older folks don’t face a shlep.

After Torah Study, friends and I, who have coffee together, meet digitally. Our jibes, as always, are often juvenile. Correction. My jibes. You grow up in Queens, you retain a measure of adolescence but eventually become a mature, empathetic adult. Well, most Queensites.

As to getting out of the house, I walk in slalom mode. Simply put, I maintain at least a six-foot distance between myself and anyone else (except Carolyn) and so do a lot of zigging and zagging. Maintaining a straight line is impossible due greatly to, what we referred to in the army as that ten percent.

Some folks—the ten percent can be any age—don’t comprehend the safety of six-foot distances. Or maybe how six feet measures out. Often, they’re cell-phone distracted. Chatting or music makes them oblivious to the fact that other people live in San Francisco. Note: The City has grown to almost 900,000. Decades earlier, a stumbling economy pushed us down to near 700,000. Will we see a repeat?

Runners can be exceptionally out to lunch—even after breakfast or before dinner. I ran for decades, so I get that runners hate to break stride or veer, taking themselves out of the zone they’ve entered or fearing a sudden stop or turn will lead to injury. The latter poses no problem. City streets and trails in the Presidio National Park a block north of my house offer great sightlines. People don’t jump out from behind trees to surprise you. Not yet.

Some people—ignorant or self-consumed—exhibit a predilection for walking or running down the middle of a sidewalk or path and not budging even when they see you. Maybe they feel that a two-foot detour will lead them to drop off a thousand-foot precipice. Which might not be all that bad. They leave me two choices. Expose myself to a deep exhale or cough loaded with coronavirus-filled droplets or move over.

I move.

The Mishnah—Judaism’s ancient Oral Law—includes a section called Pirke Avot, often known as Wisdom of the Fathers. The Sages recommend building “a fence around the Torah.” To avoid violating a commandment, stay far from temptation. This can be carried to absurd lengths to avoid going down the slippery slope, but the concept also can be positive.

I say, if six feet is good, eight feet is better. Granted, that’s not always possible. What ispossible is for people to show common courtesy by keeping to the right and moving away, envisioning a world existing beyond themselves. That’s a good guideline in ordinary times. It’s a great one now.

Six feet apart beats six feet under.

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MARKING TIME

Einstein was right. Time is relative. Now, with much of the nation sheltering in place, time takes on a whole new dimension.

When I was 10, relativity seemed clear—in a childlike way. School days were long. Saturdays and Sundays short. A year? Endless. It took all of January to correctly write the new year—say 1955 instead of 1954.

My friends and I marked the seasons. Nature gave New York the classic four. We augmented them. We played each sport at its time. March also brought baseball card season along with far-off spring training. Note: In 1954, the major leagues had 16 teams playing 154 games, not 162, NFL teams played 12 games, not 16 or 17 scheduled for 2021, and NBA teams 72 games, not 82. No baseball playoffs. The World Series—day games only—concluded in the beginning of October, not at the end.

Warm weather brought another seasonal marker—water-guns. We sprayed each other with tiny plastic pistols that needed constant refilling. They looked like comics detective Dick Tracy’s or the small ray guns used by Flash Gordon and TV’s Captain Video. (My opera-loving mother Blanche was one of Captain Video’s Video Rangers.) Winter meant taking sleds out of storage. Bourton Street sloped enough so that we could go belly flopping—take a running start, toss your sled down while hanging on, flop on for the ride down to 63rd Drive. And stop before you got squished by oncoming traffic.

School and summer mark time for kids. When I was five, my family started spending summers at Kappy’s Kottages, a bungalow colony in the Catskills. In lieu of vacation, my father Morris drove up Thursday evenings and heading back to the city Monday mornings. At 12, I went to sleepaway camp in Massachusetts, then in Pennsylvania. College summers varied—camp counselor, selling souvenirs at the New York World’s Fair, office work in Manhattan for Family Weekly, a Sunday newspaper supplement.

Post-college, I enlisted in the Army. Summers were hot—one at Fort Dix, New Jersey, two at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. The next summer, Carolyn and I drove from Texas to California to New York, then spent 11 autumn weeks riding trains throughout Western Europe. Then summers faded into work and what to do with the kids (day and sleepaway camps).

When I moved my office home 15 years ago and shifted from writing advertising to fiction, I established a new routine. Breakfast and the newspaper, a walk, reading Torah, writing, lunch out combined with a walk, more writing, walking before dinner. Evenings, Carolyn and I watch one of our TV shows. And read.

Even without sports, my week maintains its rhythm. Monday: AMC’s “Better Call Saul.” Thursday night: family Zoom get-together. Friday morning: posting these thoughts. Friday evening: Sherith Israel’s Kabbalat Shabbat services on Zoom followed by Shabbat dinner with Carolyn. Saturday morning: Zoom Torah Study then Zooming with friends. Sunday night: Showtime’s “Homeland.”

I’m fortunate. Many Americans haven’t the financial resources or familiar tasks to anchor them. They’re adapting. They must.

Eventually the pandemic will end. We’ll heal our wounds. Not to make light of the suffering now being endured and what may follow, the nation, as always, will move forward. I hope to be part of that. Time will tell.

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SICKENING

I almost tossed my cookies in front of the TV Tuesday. No, I wasn’t sick. It’s just that I saw part of Donald Trump’s live remarks to journalists on CNN. Sickening.

The president told the assembled reporters and government officials that he called the COVID-19 problem a pandemic before anyone else did. I’ll repeat that. B-e-f-o-r-e. So let’s take a brief look at Trump’s record, detailed exhaustively by New York Times columnist Dave Leonhardt.

On March 13, Trump announced a national emergency. Good. That freed up federal funds for a variety of sound uses and streamlined various health care procedures to fight coronavirus. But if Trump recognized the pandemic long before, why did he wait?

And wait he did.

Two days earlier, Trump addressed the nation during a special telecast. “I want to speak to you about our nation’s unprecedented response to the coronavirus outbreak,”he said. Prune-faced, he looked like a man who’d soiled his boxers but was duct-taped to his chair. Unprecedented? That word applies only to ignoring public health advisors and underplaying cases of COVID-19 by not yet declaring that national emergency. Trump wanted to keep the stock market and economic numbers up. And how has that worked out?

But surely, the president had been forthcoming, resolute and far-sighted before that? Well, no. On March 7, Trump stated, “I’m not concerned at all.” Do the math. That’s all of six days before the declaration of a national emergency.

On February 26, three days after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic—Trump’s judgment obviously having preceded theirs—he said, “We’re [U.S. cases] going down, not up.” At a February 10 campaign rally and in an interview with Fox Business’s Trish Regan—since dismissed from her show—“Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” By next month? Miraculously?

Let’s go back to February 2. Trump banned most foreigners who’d recently visited China from entering the U.S., something he bragged about last Tuesday. He told Fox’s Sean Hannity, “Well, we pretty much shut it down coming in from China.” Which presumed that coronavirus hadn’t appeared elsewhere. Too little, too late? On January 22, Trump said from Davos, Switzerland “… we have it totally under control.”

Our nation’s response to coronavirus says a lot about how we as Americans see reality. Some of it has been, yes, sickening.

A variety of conservative politicians and pundits have linked coronavirus to domestic and foreign plots. At a February 28 campaign rally, Trump promoted their conspiracy theories. He called coronavirus a hoax and added, “The Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus” to damage him and his administration.

I’m waiting for conservative Christian ministers to declare coronavirus God’s punishment of a sinful nation allowing a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

I wrote last week that we’ll come through this. To do it, I suggest we replicate the attitude of the Israelites in the wilderness who, in this week’s double Torah portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, demonstrate the strength of community by all bringing abundant gifts for the building of the Tabernacle.

Our task is to come together and respect fact, science and truth. The big question we’ll face when coronavirus is done: What did we learn? We’ll have part of that answer in November.

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PRECAUTION, NOT PANIC

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine wrote as America struggled to birth itself. Now, we face the coronavirus pandemic. To strengthen our souls, looking back may offer a clearer picture of the future.

Is the sky falling? Gray clouds have gathered and they’re darkening. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, “It is going to get worse.” At my age, Covid-19 poses a risk, although my health is excellent. Still, the world won’t come to an end.

Am I a Pollyanna? No, a realist. Major events of my 75-year lifetime provide some perspective.

When I was six, Americans were fighting in Korea—wherever that was. At P.S. 174 in Queens, I joined classmates in duck-and-cover drills to protect from a Soviet nuclear attack on New York. Polio still took a heavy toll on children. A friend survived it but emerged with a limp.

Jim Crow was alive and well in the south and practiced unofficially elsewhere. This, too, was a health scare since African Americans’ health was imperiled by being hung from a tree or shot or burned while at home.

The Cold War produced Vietnam. The American toll in Southeast Asia totaled 58,000, including my friend 1LT Howie Schnabolk, an Army medevac pilot shot down on 3 August 1967. Killed and wounded GIs were just part of the story.

The nation was coming apart at the seams. Nightsticks and dogs attacked civil rights marchers. Martin Luther King was assassinated, which led to riots producing death and destruction in urban ghettos. Political unrest forced Lyndon Johnson to forego running for another term as president in 1968. Which gave us Richard Nixon.

American industry took a header. Japanese cars battered Detroit. Then all sorts of industrial jobs fled the Midwest—soon to be known as the Rust Belt—for the American south and then Asia. AIDS emerged in the 1980s. It took the lives of as many as 700,000 Americans, including three of my fraternity brothers.

In the ’90s, the Dot.com Boom lifted a lot of people’s spirits—until the Dot.com Bust sent them plummeting. On 9/11, the Twin Towers fell and turmoil reigned. The nation rose up yet launched a foolish and costly war with Iraq. The stock market soared again until, in 2008, the financial industry collapsed with the market hitting its low point in March 2009.

Yet even recovery from the Great Recession wasn’t enough to calm a deeply divided America. Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016.

I’ve seen a lot, but so did my parents: The First World War, the Spanish flu (1918-20) which killed over 50 million worldwide and more than half a million Americans, the Depression, World War Two.

In time of crisis, I turn to the English writer Rudyard Kipling: “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you . . . you’ll be a Man my son!”

Keep washing your hands. Keep maintaining your social distance. Keep your head on your shoulders and your chin up. Male, female or nonbinary, you’ll be a mensch. And as a nation, we’ll get to sing along with another Briton, Elton John: “I’m Still Standing.”

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APU AND ME

If you’re a fan of TV’s The Simpsons (if not, keep reading anyway), you may have noticed something during this thirty-first season. Apu, the Indian-American owner of Kwik-E-Mart, may be missing. At least, vocally. Hank Azaria, who’s voiced Apu since 1990, believes the character is inappropriate. I understand. But based on two other characters I love, I disagree.

Apu, with his South Asian accent, indeed is a caricature. Yet in India, English-speakers evidence a similar accent. Only there, you have the accent. So that feature of the caricature is fact-based. Also, many non-U.S.-born Indian-Americans run convenience stores, motels and restaurants. It’s a typical immigrants’ story.

Now consider: All characters on The Simpsons are caricatures. From Homer down, they exhibit more breadth than depth. Their foibles make us laugh and sometimes cringe. Yet as each episode ends, they reveal a goodhearted humanity.

Granted, some characters have more trouble connecting with their better selves. Exhibit A: Krusty the Clown aka Herschel Krustofsky. I started watching The Simpsonsduring season three after virtually boycotting the show. I hadn’t liked what I read about it. But I saw thatThe Simpsonswould air an episode in which Krusty falls out with his father—a rabbi. I gathered the family in front of the TV. We were hooked.

Talk about caricatures! Krusty is the show-biz veteran—and ham—from Hell. He’s a serial abuser of alcohol, drugs, women and his fans. Worse, he’s not funny. Which makes him very funny.

Krusty is counterbalanced by Rabbi Krustofsky, voiced by the comedian Jackie Mason—also an ordained rabbi. Rabbi Krustofsky is kind, understanding and wise. Yet he’s a mild caricature, part of traditional Orthodoxy that’s a minority within American Jewry. Like the “Rally Rabbi” bobblehead the Giants give away on Jewish Heritage Night, he’s not typical. But so what?

Despite their caricature status, I love Krusty and Rabbi Krustofsky for two reasons. First, they place me in the American cultural mirror. Growing up, I rarely saw Jewish characters on TV or in the movies unless they were unfunny caricatures—stereotypes. They weren’t me and my family or anyone I knew. Reason number two: For more than half-a-century, Americans have seen Jews take their places across public life, including non-stereotypical roles in entertainment. Anti-Semites might see us as caricatures, but a great many Americans know better.

Apu requires some perspective. In 1990, when he first appeared, South Asians were rarely seen in the media and, if so, as caricatures. If there was a time to exclude Apu from The Simpsons, that was it.

Cut to 2020. South Asians are part of the fabric of American life. Many can be seen all over the airwaves and in film. They’re news reporters, anchors, comics, actors. They appear as expert commentators through their roles in government, the justice system and technology. Nikki Haley served as governor of South Carolina and ambassador to the U.N. In short, South Asians now appear as fully developed human beings.

So, maybe Hank Azaria’s and Apu’s critics will relent. I’d love to see Apu take his place alongside Krusty and Rabbi Krustofsky. Apu can be caricatured like the show’s other characters of all ethnicities, including Whites, because ultimately he comes from a group with an identity overriding all other ethnic considerations—American.

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THE PERLSTEIN SENATE

With Democrats selecting a presidential candidate—it might not happen until the convention—and November’s election looming, I’m puzzled by “one citizen, one vote.” This principle poses two key questions.

One: Why should a 75-year-old military veteran, husband and father, homeowner, holder of a master’s degree, retired businessman and long-time taxpayer have the same single vote as an 18-year-old high school dropout making sandwiches at Subway and living with his folks?

You elitist, you answer, fuming as you read this. Don’t you know that this is America? That the United States represents the ideal of democracy? That every citizen has an equal right to choose our leaders from the local to the national levels?

I respond with question number two: You’re right, but why doesn’t the United States Senate play by those rules?

Following the Great Compromise of 1787, the Constitution granted each state two seats in the Senate. The small states feared being dominated by the large ones in a single legislative body based on proportional representation. The large states believed that such a body based on equal state voting would be unfair to their populations. And here we are.

California, with a 2010 census population of 37 million has two senators. Wyoming with 560,000 people also has two senators. Given the 66-1 population advantage of the Golden State, my individual opinions reflected in votes cast by California’s senators carry a lot less weight than those of a resident of the Equality State, interestingly Wyoming’s official nickname.

I get it that the Founders were challenged to form a single nation from thirteen former British colonies, each with its own interests and none with experience of a republican—small “r”—national government. But America has been around for a while, and the Senate has become wildly unresponsive to the majority of Americans—of both parties.

So let’s amend the Constitution and create the Perlstein Senate. It works like this:

The Senate retains 100 seats. Following each ten-year census, adjustments give the ten largest states—the top five alone, California, Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois total over 119 million Americans—three seats. The ten smallest states get one. These now include Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, Alaska and South Dakota. Lots of miles there but few people—barely over three million, less than three percent of the five largest. The thirty states in the middle retain two seats.

Citizens in three-seat states will still be proportionally underrepresented. But the Perlstein Senate acknowledges that small states often have vastly different interests—though not all—than large ones. A non-proportional Perlstein Senate remains a buffer against the tyranny of the majority but constitutes one far more reasonable.

Conservatives will go ballistic. They’ll point out that the vast majority of American counties voted Trump in 2016. True. Also meaningless. This statistic favors sagebrush over people. Besides, nothing will stop a state like Texas or Florida—purple though they are now—from electing three Republicans each.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address proposed government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” It’s time America took that to heart. Acceptance of the Perlstein Senate might have a snowball’s chance in hell, but it’s worth the effort to eliminate the political hell an undemocratic—lower-case “d”—Senate puts this country through.

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BANANAS

Ten days ago, White House national security advisor Robert O’Brien commented on the removal of Army Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman and his brother Yevgeny from their National Security Council posts. Retribution? No, said O’Brien. But,“We’re not a country where a bunch of lieutenant colonels can get together and decide what the policy is of the United States. We are not a banana republic.” So why do I smell bananas?

President Trump views Alex Vindman as a traitor because he spoke about what he heard regarding Trump’s troublesome July 25 phone call to Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelensky. But the Army refused to investigate Vindman. Former White House chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly concurred. “He did exactly what we teach them to do from cradle to grave.” I know.

Just before my 1967 graduation from Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia, our battalion commander spoke about practical matters facing young lieutenants. They included illegal or immoral orders. (Sadly, the massacre at My Lai, Vietnam took place ten months later.) We were to refuse such an order and report it up the chain of command. We could not be “good Germans.”

Officers at all levels make life-and-death decisions. Law and morality must be guiding factors. Empowering young officers doesn’t make the United States a banana republic, a term referring to Latin American dictatorships supported by the U.S. and sometimes the result of coups by low ranking officers.

Take Cuba. In 1933, Fulgencio Batista, a sergeant stenographer, led the Revolt of the Sergeants that toppled the government. Batista promoted himself to colonel and later general then pulled strings in the background until becoming president in 1940. He cozied up to American corporations and the Mafia. Rebel forces led by Fidel Castro forced Batista to flee in the wee hours of January 1, 1959.

Is the U.S. a carbon copy? Hardly. Are we heading there?

Donald Trump, while a draft dodger, shares much with Fulgencio Batista. He sees himself above the law, worships the almighty dollar and uses his office for corrupt purposes. Seeking political help from other nations is only part of it. It seems Mar a Lago charges Secret Service agents the full room price when Trump stays there. So when Trump goes to any of his resorts, he profits.

Trump’s insistence that the president can do anything he wants reeks of bananas gone rotten. That includes undermining any sense of independence in the Department of Justice, which interfered with prosecutors’ sentencing requests regarding convicted Trump pal Roger Stone, who received three years and four months. That’s why over 2,000 former DOJ employees signed an open letter calling for Attorney General William Barr to resign.

What’s the worst that could happen? The possibilities are endless. For a glimpse of some—not as fanciful as you might think—I recommend an outstanding British TV miniseries, Years and Years (HBOGo). It peers into Britain’s near future, mirroring our own. The United Kingdom is driven into the ground by a “know nothing” prime minister aping America’s withdrawal from principled leadership under, yes, the second term of Donald Trump.

I love bananas in my morning cereal and as a snack. Also Woody Allen’s classic film from 1971, Bananas. But the fruit of the 2016 presidential election makes “Banana Republic” all too believable.

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I HEAR AMERICA

During election seasons like this one, words of patriotism pour out of people’s mouths. Candidates spew platitudes. Pundits and the public respond with their own. But what strikes me aren’t the words proclaimed during presidential campaigns but the music Americans play.

Last Sunday, Carolyn and I flew down to Los Angeles to hear our son Yosi play violin. For years, Yosi played fiddle with a popular band performing Americana—an amalgam of bluegrass, country, folk and other musical forms rooted in our native soil. He traveled across the United States and Canada and on tour in the United Kingdom, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Now living in L.A., he determined to improve his technique by shifting gears and studying classical music.

Yosi worked with several teachers when on the road. At home in Los Angeles, he found Beth Elliott, who heads Kadima Conservatory of Music. Kadima—Hebrew for forward—teaches students from young children to adults. Many receive scholarships. They come from a range of backgrounds but share several key traits: They love music. They want to improve their playing. They’re committed to working hard.

How very American—people with a passion seeking to be and do their best. And Kadima is as American an institution as they come. Beth is Jewish, her staff Jewish, white (including Armenian-born), Latino, African-American and Asian. Kadima students mirror this ethnic mix.

Were the student musicians good? The elementary- and middle-school kids displayed both talent and, overcoming initial nervousness, poise. You could hear how they will grow. The older students and adults proved to be truly accomplished and on the brink of great things.

The key to my experience: When I closed my eyes, I didn’t hear the playing of one or another ethnic group. I heard Americans united in their love of music.

Now, let me brag. Yosi was awesome. He and Beth played Vivaldi’s “Concerto for Two Violins in A.” They would have made Vivaldi proud. Carolyn and I were delighted as was the audience.  After the recital, no one considered that any of the students didn’t belong on stage because they weren’t white—which some were.

An added note: Saturday night, Carolyn and two other women performed in a show produced by Society Cabaret, Tunes of the City, as a workshop for budding songwriters. The trio sang “Ladies of Alamo Square” by Jeff Becker about San Francisco’s fabled and fabulously painted Steiner Street Victorian houses. The harmonies are tricky, but the trio did them justice.

Society Cabaret audiences talk about songs and patter, never about performers’ ethnicities or gender preferences. When it comes to music of any kind, you exhibit talent and discipline or you don’t. Performances are judged by their quality, integrity and effort. That’s the reason orchestras now hold “blind” auditions during which musicians are screened off from their judges.

The 2020 presidential campaign will be marked—or marred—by comments about what it means to be a “real American.” Some voters will define that by ethnicity, religion and gender factors rather than core human values.

I hope that the next time those folks sing America the Beautiful at a ballgame or public gathering, they’ll listen to the voices around them. They’ll hear just how beautiful Americans sound when we’re singing together.

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THE STUMBLING BLOCK

The Senate’s acquittal of Donald Trump was expected. Some Republicans sought cover with Lamar Alexander’s (Tennessee) rationale: What the president did was wrong but didn’t rise to the level of removal from office. Unfortunately, Senate Republicans ignored Leviticus 19:14.

Torah commands Israelites not to place a stumbling block before the blind. Literally, one should never place a physical obstacle in front of a blind person for the cruel pleasure of seeing that person trip and fall. The Sages and later commentators expanded on this. One shouldn’t give bad advice to someone who can’t recognize it or place temptation in the way of the morally blind.

Senate Republicans scoffed. They decided that Trump’s betrayal of the Constitution by freezing congressionally appropriated funds—cited as illegal by the General Accountability Office—to coerce Ukraine into investigating political rivals should bring no direct consequence. While some senators condemned Trump’s actions, all but one left him free to repeat them.

Trump’s take? He gloated about vindication, still convinced he made a “perfect call” to Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky. Likely, he will abuse his office again given his July 23 comment regarding Article II of the Constitution: “I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” This sadly echoes Richard Nixon’s 1977 comment: “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”

Utah’s Mitt Romney disagreed. He voted for removal on the first of two articles of impeachment, abuse of power. His explanation: “I swore an oath before God to exercise impartial justice.”

It’s only right to uphold such an oath. Leviticus 19:15 commands, “You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.”

At yesterday’s National Prayer Breakfast, Trump said of Romney, “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong.” I acknowledge that only Jews are responsible for upholding the Torah’s 613 commandments. But Trump’s conservative Christian supporters—and Trump himself—often find Torah’s moral directives compelling when it suits their purpose.

The upshot? Self-professed religious Senate Republicans abandoned the Bible for politics. In doing so, they set an even bigger stumbling block in place. Trump now rationalizes doing whatever he wants without being held responsible. Short of shooting someone on Fifth Avenue—no, he couldn’t get away with that one—he can manipulate foreign and domestic policy to serve not the nation’s interests but his own.

Democrats, independents and even a Mitt Romney may call Trump out for seeking political dirt from Vladimir Putin or the representative of some other country delighted to see America’s political system in disarray. So what?

Gearing up for November’s election, Trump supporters hail the Senate’s unfettering the president to play bull in the china shop and continue overturning the order established by “the elites.” Many conservative Christians feel relieved that their anointed president remains free to do God’s bidding—as they define it and would impose it on the rest of us.

Americans—or more accurately, the Electoral College—will decide whether to place an even more massive stumbling block at Trump’s feet where so many grovel. I can’t see how the election will turn out, but I fear too many “God fearing” citizens cling to moral blindness.

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THE DIRT ON “AMERICAN DIRT”

They’re at it again. The new novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins has drawn lots of attention. Following a major publicity campaign by Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan, American Dirtreceived a number of terrific reviews. Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club (Flatiron published four of Oprah’s books), the ultimate U.S. sales driver. Then the dirt flew.

Although bestselling crime/mystery author Don Winslow (published by William Morrow) cover-blurbed, “A Grapes of Wrath for our times,” and other leading writers praised the novel, a number of Latino/Latina/Latinx authors, critics and social commentators stomped on American Dirt.

Many of those opposed to American Dirt haven’t read it. (Neither have I.) The issue: Jeanine Cummins is white with a single Puerto Rican grandparent. That should disqualify her from writing about Mexicans fleeing to America. Imagination? Empathy? Writing chops? Not in play.

From what I’ve read about American Dirt, the novel offers an inventive take on the Mexican migration story. The heroine, Lydia, owns a bookstore in Acapulco. She gets involved—at least regarding books—with a charming man, who turns out to be the head of a drug cartel. Lydia’s husband, an investigative reporter, writes about the drug lord. Cartel gunmen then slaughter Lydia’s family. Only she and her son Luca survive.

One critic asked why Lydia didn’t fly to Canada since she had the means. It seems there’s an answer. The drug lord can reach any nation but the U.S. (Why, I don’t know.) Traveling with poor migrants offers Lydia and Luca cover. But they discover that they must face the same horrors encountered by the poor and defenseless migrants whom they accompany.

So, Cummins offers a rationale for the story. Does American Dirtstand equal to The Grapes of Wrath? No idea. I suspect Cummins never asked for all the hype but, like all writers, welcomes it. I would. Of course, only by reading a novel can you judge it.

But these days, a story and writing skills aren’t enough. Opponents of cultural appropriation insist that particular stories can be told only by writers of proper race, ethnicity, sex or gender identification or preference.

Some critics of American Dirt don’t mind Cummins writing the novel she did. They just don’t want her to profit from it. (She received a seven-figure advance). A New York Times article quoted Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, whose new memoir covers crossing the border and growing up undocumented in California: “The problem isn’t that a non-Mexican wrote about migration.” It’s “the gross bastardization of the subject and the erasing of others who have written about this and are writing about it.

In short, American Dirt is being heavily promoted by its publisher and heading for great commercial success. Why should Cummins cash in and not Castillo and true Latinx?

Of course, the novel may be a literary dud. Times reviewer Paruhl Seghal writes, “The real failures of the book, however, have little to do with the writer’s identity and everything to do with her abilities as a novelist.”

Fair enough. Ultimately, readers and awards committees will decide the worthiness of American Dirt. I hope their decisions will be based on the content of Cummins’ characters, not the color of her skin.

Or am I, as an Ashkenazi Jew, appropriating Martin Luther King?

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