Archive for the ‘AMERICAN LIFE’ Category

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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A GENERATION ENDS

My aunt, Rita Nachem, died two weeks ago at 97. A generation ended. Last Friday night at my synagogue, I said Kaddishfor her. But as much as I mourn, I celebrate her life and those of all my aunts and uncles.

Aunt Rita was the last survivor of six Finkle children, including my mother Blanche. My grandparents, Lyon and Minnie, had three children in quick succession then paused before bringing into the world another three. Each older kid was assigned a younger sibling to assist Grandma. Aunt Rita, ten years younger, was my mother’s “baby.”

All my aunts and uncles on both sides of my family are gone. Added together—counting only first spouses, eliminating one I never knew, and including my great uncle and aunt, Moe and Anne Horowitz, who I consider second parents—they numbered twenty. Until I became an adult, I never considered my aunts and uncles by marriage distinct from my parents’ siblings. I never felt less than their nephew.

Uncle Larry Nachem died some years ago. Carolyn and I called him a day or two before his death and chatted. He did not fear the inevitable. Actually, he sounded pretty good. People in their final days often experience a resurgence—if for only a moment. While it’s not always possible, we got to say goodbye. We were glad.

Over the years, we called Aunt Rita regularly as did my other cousins, and spoke with her two weeks before she died. Obviously declining, she sounded tired. Nonetheless, as the matriarch of the family, she asked about us and our children. She uttered no complaints.

We often visited Aunt Rita in the Boston area—the last time in May 2017 during an unusual cold spell. She lived in a wonderful independent-living community near my cousin Sue (my cousin Bev lives in far northern California) and maintained an active life—bridge, movies, discussions. When she turned 90, all the cousins who could—it’s a long trip from Israel—gathered to celebrate.

I mentioned relationships going beyond “blood.” I’m proud that Aunt Rita was fully Carolyn’s aunt, too. No “by-marriage” asterisk there. Aunt Rita was always interested in Carolyn’s storytelling and acting career, as well as Seth, Yosi and Aaron. Carolyn was always fascinated by Aunt Rita’s travels—she and Uncle Larry traversed the globe—and her thoughts on opera, books and current events.

At seventy-four, I harbor no illusion about living forever. My parents’ generation is gone. Mine will leave the stage, as well. Each survivor will endure the pain of loss until we are no more. But memories of my family stay with me. Live in me. I’ve been lucky to have a large and loving family. And with three adult children plus nephews and nieces, and all those remaining cousins—I’ve lost a few—there’s plenty of family left.

Death represents no mystery. We all die. Life after? That’s a mystery to the living. Ultimately, we’ll be forgotten save for those with a passion for family trees. But for as long as we survive in someone’s memory, we’ll enjoy something of an extended life. I don’t believe in heaven. But being remembered—hopefully positively, if only for a short time—works for me.

For you who are celebrating Rosh Hashanah starting Sunday night, Happy New Year. May you enjoy health, peace and prosperity.

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BROWN PEOPLE

On August 8, Fox News’s Laura Ingraham stated, “In some parts of the country, it does seem that the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore.” She also said, “Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American people…” Changes “…most of us don’t like.” Who are the “most of us” upon whom such changes have been forced?

Ingraham clearly referenced white anxiety—white Americans suffering growing numbers of brown people in “their” country. According to CNN, Fox’s fan base is almost 100 percent white. The immigration issue disturbs whites. (Months ago, President Trump asked why more immigrants don’t come from Norway. He might find the answer in his mirror.) The next night, Ingraham denied her comments related to race or ethnicity. Rather, they expressed her desire for secure borders following the rule of law and shared goals of “keeping America safe and her citizens safe and prosperous.”

Three words to Ingraham (which she will reject): Get over it. American immigration policy doesneed a thorough (which does not mean not racist) review and overhaul. I do notbelieve that the United States should—or can—circle the wagons and compel white dominance. Of course, I’m selfish. A white, Christian America excludes me and my family. I’m also a realist—and a humanist.

Last weekend, Carolyn and I visited our son Yosi in Los Angeles. We had dinner at a brown (Colombian) restaurant. Brown people ran it—and well. The next day, we went to L.A.’s revitalized downtown to browse The Last Bookstore, which occupies an old bank. So did many other people of all ethnicities—people who share the love of reading.

On our flight home, we sat among thirty-five new UC Berkeley freshmen on their way to orientation—brown, yellow, black and white members of the class of ’22. All bright and eager—the successful professionals, business people and artists and citizens of the next decade and beyond. Not “the white stuff”—“the right stuff.”

Ethnic diversity also impacts my own Jewish community—although we’ve been a diverse people for millennia. A visit to Israel reveals Jews with roots in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, India, China, East Africa and the Americas—North and South. Skin tones and hair color run the range from dark to light. Features vary all over the place. All are Jews.

San Francisco-based B’chol Lashon  (“In every language”) provides summer-camp and other experiences for Jewish kids with other than total—or even partial—Ashkenazi (Eastern European) background. They can see themselves clearly in the Jewish mirror. They’re in my mirror, too, because we’re all a single Jewish people with many backgrounds and customs.

My synagogue, Congregation Sherith Israel, embraces Jews of all genetic types—those born into Jewish families and Jews by choice. We’re now running an ad on the outside of San Francisco’s MUNI buses to make our position clear that there’s room for everyone under our awe-inspiring dome:

(photo) CHICKEN SOUP + (photo) SRIRACHA BOTTLE = (logo) SHERITH ISRAEL

To be an American is to adhere not to any particular ethnicity but to American values. It’s time to reaffirm that our flag of red, white and blue pledges the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to the red, white, black, yellow and brown.

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THE SUITCASE

Retrieving the newspaper from my front steps last week—I’m a dinosaur—I saw a white suitcase on the sidewalk. My first reaction? As a native New Yorker and a Jew with family in Israel (I was last there in March/April), I’ll attest that the risk of confronting a bomb is real. But who would target my leafy street? I waited.

Several hours later, I went for a walk. The suitcase? Still there. I noticed it lacked one wheel. I concluded that someone—perhaps a homeless person; they wander the neighborhood—didn’t want to lug it any further. An hour later, the suitcase was gone. I felt relieved.

This wasn’t the first abandoned suitcase I’ve encountered. Several years ago, for example, I saw two—open and stuffed with clothing—in the Presidio National Park near my house. Who leaves packed suitcases in a park? My imagination produced a short story, Two Suitcases By the Side of the Road.

The protagonist, a retired executive, encounters two suitcases on a short hike in—yes—the Presidio. A widower who writes fiction to occupy his time—with little success—he imagines the person who left them: a woman he names Grace. He envisions his character fleeing marriage to a dull dentist in Marin County to live with a woman in Santa Barbara. Grace’s plight spurs him to examine his own figurative baggage—an early infidelity and a ruined friendship.

We all carry baggage—errors and indiscretions tucked into hard-shell cases securely locked. But refusing to acknowledge the deeds we regret can haunt us. The protagonist wonders if his imagined Grace can handle her own past transgressions and find happiness. He concludes the story with this observation:

“I’d like to say I know more about how things with Grace will turn out, but that’s asking too much. Particularly of Grace. We each look at our life—turn it over, dissect it—and arrive at a pretty good sense of where we’ve been and a decent idea of where we are. Where we’re going? That’s pushing it. We try to write the stories of our lives, but our lives write us.”

My baggage could fill an old-fashioned steamer trunk. Maybe two. I deal with it by periodically hunkering down in a quiet corner of my mind, unpacking my trunks and sifting through their contents. Repressing awkward matters that mar our past only nourishes them until they sprout so large they burst from their confinement and do additional damage. A little fresh air and sunlight keeps them from metastasizing.

On the other hand, I find objectionable the desire of people to spew endless streams of detailed confessionals. (This commentary represents a one-time general statement; I retain the option to return to it in the future.) The penchant—common here in California—to constantly air one’s blemishes to friends, family and the public constitutes a narcissism I find overwhelming and alienating.

So, I keep my balance while keeping my failings to myself. In doing this—and risking the ire of therapists everywhere—I leverage my mistakes as learning tools while keeping them at a sufficient distance to avoid plunging me into depression. That would result in life writing a chapter for me I won’t appreciate.

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