Archive for the ‘AMERICAN LIFE’ Category

LARRY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CRAFT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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LAURA AND DUKE—A HATE STORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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 SMALL THINGS

This Thursday, Americans will consume meals that leave us more stuffed than our turkeys. Hopefully, many will actually give thanks for the big things in their lives. Me? I’ve been lucky. But I’ll also give thanks for the little things.

Admittedly, I’m boring. (Read “The Least Interesting Man in the World.”) My day starts with a bowl of cereal topped with banana, blueberries and strawberries. Plus the sports section. I love it.

Then I take a walk of about a mile. I’m grateful I can still do that and pick up coffee, which I take home in a 49ers mug my son Seth bought me. I drink while I read part of the weekly Torah portion. I love that, too.

Then I write. It’s not about fame (yes, I fantasize) but passion. I had an earlier fiction-writing career decades ago, but in the face of constant rejection—even my agent couldn’t sell anything—I took a break to meet the demands of a growing family and the growing business supporting it. Years later, I wrote two non-fiction books. Solo Successwas published by Crown, New York. I independently published God’s Others—a fabulous learning experience. Then, moving towards retirement, I turned back to fiction and wrote Slick!

Another highlight of my exciting day. Carolyn and I eat dinner watching the news. (Are you nodding off yet?) Sometimes, we have leftovers. I’m thankful we can prepare enough food to have leftovers. Also to have meals delivered by Munchery for Friday night.

Shabbat delights me no end. I put the week, such as it is, to rest and seek new perspectives on life—the big picture if you will. At unfinished Friday business meetings, clients often said let’s continue tomorrow. I explained I didn’t work on Saturdays, but Sunday would be fine. We always continued on Monday.

I’m tickled about TV shows we enjoy. Cable unleashed myriad creative opportunities enabling many series to equal top independent films and novels. (Just finished Homecoming.) And reading. Especially in bed. I have a friend in Connecticut who was director of the Norwalk Public Library and sends or recommends outstanding works of fiction and non-fiction. Not everyone has their own literary curator.

I love having friends. As I’ve written before, I’m an introvert. But introverts can have very close friendships. My week’s highlight? Torah Study with my friends on Saturday morning followed by coffee and conversation ranging from deep (theirs) to inane (mine).

On Thursday, Carolyn and I will host family and friends for Thanksgiving. The sites I’ve seen include Stonehenge, the Colosseum, the Western Wall, Petra, Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal, the Grand Canyon, Waimea Canyon and Yosemite. The most awesome? Family and friends around the table.

And I haven’t yet mentioned 30 years of The Simpsons, the view of Lobos Valley and the Pacific two blocks north of my house, praying in my synagogue Friday night followed by ice cream for dessert, doing research on the Internet (an author once told Terry Gross the Net is catnip for writers; true!), sunning (with a broad-brimmed hat) in my backyard and having ten people reading the second draft of my current novel.

Happy Thanksgiving! It’s a day to give thanks for the small stuff. To me, that’s a pretty big deal.

I’ll be teaching Torah Study tomorrow morning at Congregation Sherith Israel, 9:15–10:15 am. Join me. (Bagels and lox include.) It’s going to be “magic.”

The post will take off next weekend. It will return November 30.

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WHAT’S IN A NAME?

People often ask me how I pronounce my name: Perl•stine (long “i”) or Perl•steen (long “e”). The latter is accurate. I appreciate the inquiries. Most people try to get others’ names right as a mark of respect. Some self-important people don’t.

As it happens, my family name was probably pronounced Per•el•shtine when in 1906 my grandparents landed at Ellis Island from Warsaw with three young children, including 2-1/2-year-old Moishe Chaim (my father). Moishe became Morris, and everyone else took an Americanized first names. Still, the family’s naturalization certificate (1914) displays the name Perelstein. Shortly after, the second “e” disappeared.

We value our names. The Torah relates that people sought to build a tower to the heavens (the Tower of Babel) to make a name for themselves (Genesis 11). In Genesis 12:2, God promises Abram (later Abraham), “I will make your name great.”

Shakespeare throws this tenet a curve. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” says Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. She’s a Capulet and loves a Montague—the name alone sufficient to earn her family’s displeasure. Call Romeo “a Montague,” and you label him a monster.

As kids, we defended ourselves from schoolyard bullies who mangled our names or hurled epithets with “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names (or words) will never harm me.” This lesson seems lost on our Schoolyard Bully-in-Chief.

At a recent political rally in Iowa, Donald Trump errantly referred to California’s Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein as Fein•steen. It’s Finestine(long “I” in both syllables). Am I quibbling? I think not. Senator Feinstein has become the latest object of Trump rallies’ chants of “Lock her up.” Because she opposed Trump in the matter of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Trump sought a way to lash out. What better way for a 12-year-old to advance political discourse than to mispronounce the name of an opponent.

Also, to “dog whistle” a key message to his supporters. I suspect Trump well knows how Senator Feinstein pronounces her name but wanted to remind his supporters that the Senator is—gasp—Jewish. The real pronunciation might mislead them into thinking her background (and that of her second husband whose name stayed with her) German.

As it happens, Trump’s paternal grandfather Americanized his name from Drumpf. Nothing wrong with that. But Senator Feinstein had to be called out since a significant segment of the far-right exudes anti-Semitism, including those who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia last year chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”

Ah, you say, the President’s daughter Ivanka is Jewish. She converted to marry Jared Kushner. Good luck. When Trump stated re Charlottesville that there were good people on bothsides, he threw Ivanka and Jared under the bus. Unless he numbers these particular Jews among “the good ones” who toe the Republican line enumerated by Christian conservatives and white supremacists (they sometimes overlap) lamenting white people’s loss of their “rights”—a euphemism for monopolistic political, economic and social power.

Yes, sometimes people address me as Perl•stine. I correct them. They appreciate it. They understand the integrity names because they hold others in regard. Such esteem was offered a few years back in the Oval Office. I hope it will be again—soon.

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THE CORROBORATION CONUNDRUM

In February 1942, the notorious gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel went on trial in Los Angeles for the 1939 murder of fellow mobster Harry “Big Greenie” Greenberg. One of the killers, Allie Tannenbaum, agreed to cooperate. However, District Attorney John F. Dockweiler faced a problem.

California law demanded corroboration by a second witness. The state had that witness: Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, a feared hit man for New York’s Murder, Inc. (Yes, there once were a lot of vicious Jewish gangsters.) Before the trial, the New York Police Department stashed Reles away under 24-hour guard at Coney Island’s Half Moon Hotel. Somehow, the canary flew out the sixth-story window. Lacking wings, he was unable to reach L.A. to sing.

No mob historian would exonerate Bugsy Siegel (a character in the new novel I’m writing). But the requirement for corroboration—or hard evidence—handcuffed Judge A.A. Scott. He dismissed the case.

The recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing—not a trial—on now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh brings the Siegel trial to mind. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified under oath that as a teenager, she’d been sexually assaulted by a drunken teen-age Brett Kavanaugh. The charges came late in the day, and the committee reassembled to probe the matter. The hearing seemed awkward and incomplete. At the last minute, the FBI ran a short, limited investigation. No corroboration appeared.

Democrats, believing Dr. Ford, supported her. Republicans, with no corroboration to spoil their likely victory, supported Judge Kavanaugh. The 50–48 confirmation vote fell almost strictly along party lines with one crossover on each side: Republican Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) against and Democrat Joe Manchin (West Virginia) for.

The Kavanaugh nomination and hearing divided America. The Great Divider, aka Donald Trump, first found Dr. Ford’s testimony credible, then cited the lack of corroboration, then ridiculed Dr. Ford, then called her testimony a Democratic hoax.

Does corroboration matter? Trump declared that young men must be wary of being victimized by women who attack their character with false claims. He’s hardly a reliable source for such advice. Moreover, millions of women have horrible stories to tell. But Republicans correctly cited corroboration as a basic tenet of American jurisprudence. The accused is presumed innocent; the burden of proof lies with the state.

Still, lack of corroboration did not disprove Dr. Ford’s claim. Moreover, women who have survived sexual assaults ranging from thoughtless and disrespectful to violent often cannot provide corroboration. When they do, their complaints frequently are dismissed, generally by men too busy with “other important matters” and, frankly, unconcerned.

I believe that Brett Kavanaugh assaulted Susan Blasey Ford. However, I do not knowit. This I doknow: The oft-scowling Mr. Kavanaugh, through his belligerence, disrespect towards Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee and partisan statements, resembled a teenager caught with his pants down, snarling and screaming to apply a verbal fig leaf. For this alone, I would have voted against confirmation.

That said, corroboration matters and hence America’s conundrum. We must follow our judicial principles in spite of what we “know” about the accused. That’s why Bugsy Siegel had his case dismissed.

Justice, however, sometimes is served in other ways. In 1947, Ben Siegel met his through a gangland assassination. Regarding Brett Kavanaugh, history may render an unkind verdict.

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HOOPS, GENESIS AND CANCER

Last Monday, Boston Celtics basketball star Kyrie Irving apologized for saying that the earth is flat. A plethora of questionable beliefs challenge science. They threaten our individual and national health.

The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky dismisses evolution. Its website states, “The Creation Museum shows why God´s infallible Word, rather than man’s faulty assumptions, is the place to begin if we want to make sense of our world.” Its exhibits include the Garden of Eden. Adam is seen only from above the waist—and he’s ripped! Down I-75 in Williamstown, Ark Encounter offers a life-size Noah’s ark and all the animals—including dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs? Despite the work of paleontologists, creationists believe the world is 6,000 years old. This is consistent with the Rabbis of the Talmudic era, whose math included the lifespans of the first humans, Abraham and his descendants plus various events and later monarchial reigns. So this past Rosh Hashanah, the world turned 5,779.

But other than perhaps some ultra-orthodox sects, Jews don’t take Genesis literally. Maimonides (1135-1204), the great Spanish physician/philosopher, even declared Torah to be metaphor.

The first chapters of Genesis (B’reishit) pose question after question that delineate Torah as mythos, not science. The sun was created on the fourthday. What constituted days one through three? A different concept of “day.” It required no sunrises and sunsets. “There was morning and there was evening” because God created light apart from the sun and separated it from darkness.

And who were the people Cain feared after he killed his brother Abel? Where did his wife come from? This puzzled the Rabbis, too. Some posited that Cain and Abel each had twin sisters, although the biblical text doesn’t mention of them. Adam and Eve conceived Seth, from whom all humanity descends. Did Seth have incestuous relations with one or more of his aunts? His uncle’s daughters? Or did God create other humans right after Adam and Eve and keep them in reserve? Beats me. But it’s fascinating.

Questioning has been the key to studying Torah for two thousand years. I deeply appreciate the scholar Richard Elliott Friedman (Commentary on the Torah) writing of Gen. 1:17 (“in the image of God”), “Whatever it means…” and of Gen. 5:24 (“and he [Enoch] was not”), “I do not know what this means.”

That’s precisely because Torah involves something other than science. According to Friedman (on Gen. 2:1), the biblical creation story “…conveys a particular conception of the relationship between humans and the cosmos, of the relations between the sexes, of the linear flow of time, of the Sabbath.” This provides lots to think about, which is why I’ve read the weekly Torah portion for the past 25 years and attended Torah Study at Congregation Sherith Israel for the past 20.

Science also thrives on questioning. Theories evolve. They must be proved. They can be disproved. New theories take their place. Empiricism, not faith, guides critical decisions. That’s why, despite the recent outbreak of global anti-vaccine hysteria, Australia just announced it could eliminate cervical cancer in the next two decades by vaccinating children against the cancer-causing papillomavirus.

Faith need not make apologies. It has its place. But faith should render unto science what is science’s. As when creationist theme parks harness computer science to advertise on the Internet.

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I BELIEVE IN AMERICA

The film begins with the screen black. A man’s voice declares, “I believe in America!” His Italian accent tells us he’s an immigrant. The camera then reveals him in closeup—mustache and suit as black as the background in which he seems suspended. A humble if successful undertaker, he pleads with someone we cannot see: His daughter has been dishonored. He seeks justice. But it will not be in the American way. Or will it?

The Godfather presents America as the land of opportunity. For many millions born on foreign shores and their first-generation American children, it has been just that. But the irony of the undertaker’s speech soon hits home. The Godfathermakes clear that in America, hard work and risk-taking offer great rewards. These values may be applied to a great many enterprises. Not all need be legal.

Those who saw opportunities by breaking the law are duly noted in downtown Las Vegas’s Mob Museum. I was there last week, since I did a small portion of the research for my next novel on their website. Moreover, I admit to a fascination with the Mob—particularly Jewish gangsters of the first half of the 20th century. They were legion. Money guys like Arnold Rothstein and Meyer Lansky? Sure. But many more were stone-cold killers like Ben “Bugsy” Siegel, Dutch Schultz, Abe “Kid Twist” Reles and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter. (FYI, Lansky and Siegel appear in the novel.)

The Mob Museum details the rise—and fall—of the Sicilian Mafia and its affiliates, including the Jewish gangs, which provided murder—and lots of it—for hire. (Protestant and Irish gangs terrorized New York and Boston before them). For many young immigrants lacking education and living in slum conditions, crime paid. Death often came early; success comes with a price.

Ultimately, the FBI squeezed and put away the classic Mob bosses. Vegas cleaned up its act. Other ethnic groups stepped in. Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Dominicans, Mexicans, Chinese, Russians and Vietnamese, as well as groups native to the Heartland, carved out their own American opportunities.

This nation will always face the Mob in some form. But ordinary criminals—even the drug cartels—will not destroy our democracy. We’ll rot at the hands of corporations and the super-rich. They buy politicians and virtually write our laws to eliminate regulations protecting ordinary citizens and reduce their taxes and liabilities, society be damned. In the process, they brush crumbs to the floor. Some people lap them up.

In the musical Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye the milkman advises, “It’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor, either.” I support ambition. I succeeded financially because I risked working for myself and pushed to meet my goals—honestly and ethically.

I also support a sense of balance. The Christian Bible tells us that not money but theloveof it is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10). The Mishnah offers wisdom through a Jewish lens: “Who is rich? He who appreciates what he has…” (Avot 4:1).

I believe in America. I also believe that keeping the pursuit of wealth from devouring ethics requires making wise choices. November will reveal whether greed outweighs goodness and lemming-like, this nation marches off a cliff.

For you who are celebrating Yom Kippur starting Tuesday night, may you have a meaningful holiday and be sealed for good in the New Year.

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