Archive for the ‘AMERICAN LIFE’ Category


People become attached to certain words. They—particularly slang words—can help someone display distinctiveness or demonstrate belonging to a group. Many decades have produced cool, dig it, boss, bitchin’, yo, wassup, Bart Simpson’s partee and the now widely accepted— and often-used F-word. For some years, I’ve been partial to grace and dignity. Now, I have a new favorite word—and it isn’t English.

My new fave appears in the Torah’s story of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:1ff). For it, I’m indebted to Cantor David Frommer of San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel and last week’s citing of commentary by Rabbi David Fohrman.

Our story: God becomes angry at the “stiff-necked” Israelites after they compel Aaron to make a young bull of gold to replace Moses, still meeting with God atop Mount Sinai. Knowing of the calf, God says He will destroy the children of Israel and make a great people of Moses’ descendants. Moses’ response: Why? Why be angry at Your people? Why enable Egypt to say You freed Your people only to slaughter them in the wilderness? What will that do for Your reputation?

The Hebrew word used here for why is lamah (rhymes with mama). Yet there’s another word for why in the Torah—madua (ma–doo-ah). Why (madua) lamah?

According to Rabbi Fohrman, “Madua, from the word mada, is the scientific ‘why’. … When Moses looked at the burning bush … [he asked] what is it about this bush that causes it not to burn? It is a question about the past that would explain the present.”

Lamah,” Rabbi Forhman explains, “is a contraction of ‘le mah’, to what, for what, for what purpose. It is a question about the future.”

I’m into lamah. When I get angry or down, when some disappointment induces me to react negatively, I ask myself, lamah? Not why I feel angry, down or disappointed. That’s a madua question. Rather, what purpose will be served by lashing out at someone—or myself?

Lamah constitutes more than a lesson in linguistics. We’re talking real life. Berating others might make us feel better momentarily when we feel questioned or put down. But how will we feel later if we damage or sever a relationship? How many times do we fly off the handle only to regret our words and deeds? Often, we apologize. Maybe the offended person forgives. But does that person forget?

Most of us learned the wisdom behind lamah as children: Think before you speak. If you get angry, count to ten. But in adults, the desire to get in the next word or the last—and do it immediately—often overpowers our learning and judgment.

The rabbis of the Talmud considered gossip—lashon hara—and negative statements sins akin to murder. They kill the soul. Thoughtless words, they advised, resemble arrows. Once released, they can be regretted but not recalled.

If only we, from the humblest citizens to those at the pinnacle of power, could remember daily that lamah can prevent fomenting confusion, resentment, hatred and violence. That words matter. That measuring our responses to others’ words can defuse rather than fuel challenging situations.

If only.

This post marks number 350 since I began since September 2010. It marks a good time for me to take a lengthy break and focus on some other things for a while. The post will resume on April 20.

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The famed evangelist Billy Graham was buried today. As a kid in the ’fifties, I saw bits of his massive TV revivals. Later, more evangelical leaders spoke publicly in the name of God. Is God pleased?

Since the social upheavals of the ’sixties, many evangelicals have circled the wagons. A movement that shunned politics turned highly political. Issues ranging from abortion to gun control became emblematic of Christian identity.

The result? Many evangelical leaders will back any politician—no matter how un-Christian his speech and behavior—who supports their objectives. If the president of the United States—or any other politician—talks and acts in ways ecumenical leaders would condemn in their own families and churches, they give him a pass. Why such tolerance for sin?

David Brody, evangelical author and host of “Faith Nation” on the Christian Broadcasting Network, explained in last Sunday’s New York Times, “… the goal of evangelicals has always been winning the larger battle over control of the culture, not to get mired in the moral failings of each and every candidate. For evangelicals, voting in the macro is the moral thing to do, even if the candidate is morally flawed.”

In the name of God, proponents of morality support immoral men and excuse their iniquities to control America—Brody’s word. Sadly, some politically conservative Jews do the same. If Donald Trump professes staunch support for Israel, Torah doesn’t matter. Barack Obama’s $38 billion aid package to the Jewish State? Dismissed.

I have no desire to bash evangelicals. The movement includes Christians of good faith. I understand their pain that the percentage of Americans identifying as Christians continues to fall. But many evangelicals also fear the demographic reality that whites soon will comprise less than fifty percent of the population. Women can exercise their own judgment to have an abortion. LGBTQ Americans maintain their right to live unhindered by others. And most Americans support common-sense gun control.

There’s a meaningful difference between upholding a religious mandate for yourself and forcing your views on others. Evangelicals should feel free to interpret the Christian Bible any way they like. They owe the rest of us the freedom to uphold our own views—religious or secular.

Billy Graham saw the light. Laurie Goodstein wrote in The Times last Monday that Graham admitted in his later years he had been mistaken in becoming too close to politicians. He also admitted that as a confidante of Richard Nixon, he not only listened to Nixon’s anti-Semitic remarks without protest but responded with anti-Semitic remarks of his own. It takes a big man to fess up.

These days, big men are hard to find. Franklin Graham runs the ministry his father began. In the name of God, Franklin called Islam “a very wicked and evil religion,” proclaimed Barack Obama a Muslim and loudly supports Donald Trump.

Sweeping immoral acts and offensive speech under the rug to advance causes in the name of God only undercuts religious leaders’ credibility. That’s why so many young evangelicals are turning away from their sin-blind elders.

They say politics makes strange bedfellows. Toss religion under the covers, and the nation winds up with the Golden Calf—or at least, Rosemary’s Baby.

What? You don’t know Rosemary’s Baby? Check it out!

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On HBO’s Homeland, they attempted to assassinate the president of the United States. Another they—the president herself—curbed Constitutional rights. In real life, survivors of the mass shooting at Parkland, Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School demand greater gun control. In response, some Americans believe they have created a conspiracy against gun owners.

Pioneer America accepted citizens’ possession of rifles and pistols. The closing of the frontier and growing urbanization necessitated curbs on weapons for public safety. Over recent decades, the gun lobby pushed back, exhibiting religious reverence for the Second Amendment: A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a  free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Questions abound. Must the right to bear arms be unmindful of technology? Muskets and muzzle-loading, single-shot rifles are relics. Who, boar hunters included, needs an AR-15 semi-automatic weapon—adaptable to automatic—designed for combat? Can any ad hoc group call itself a “well-regulated militia?” What is the National Guard? And are our armed forces our defenders or oppressors?

A large majority of Americans favor stricter gun control rather than abolition. Hunters and people in self-defense mode would not be affected. But a minority holds sacrosanct the position of the National Rifle Association, a political donor with major clout. The NRA, as does President Trump, points to mental illness as the cause of mass shootings. Their solution? Arm teachers.  

Per capita, the U.S. suffers no more mental-health problems than the rest of the world, which experiences far fewer per capita mass shootings. Further, as Dr. Amy Barnhorst of the University of California, Davis, wrote in Tuesday’s New York Times, “The mental health system doesn’t identify most of these people because they don’t come in to get care. And even if they do, laws designed to preserve the civil liberties of people with mental illness place limits on what treatments can be imposed against a person’s will.”

It’s our stock of weapons—about one for each of us—that’s sets America apart.

Still, the slippery slope theory underlies opposition to common-sense gun measures: They want to ban assault-style weapons first—then confiscate all guns. The NRA and its adherents support that position with a second theory.

They plot against the people. On Wednesday, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre excoriated Democrats and liberals: “Their goal is to eliminate the Second Amendment and our fire arms freedoms so they can eradicate all individual freedoms.”

Stoneman Douglas survivors disagree. These young people, at the muzzle-end of real horror, have been eloquent in calling for banning assault-style weapons and determined in confronting politicians. So?

A Florida legislative assistant claimed that two students are actors; he was dismissed. A YouTube video singles out one student as an actor; it may still be online. Rush Limbaugh claimed that the students are being used by the Democrats; he’s still on the air. And Internet broadcaster Alex Jones—on whom Homeland based a major character—preaches that the dead children of Sandy Hook, Connecticut (2012 shooting) and their parents were actors.

Top that? Last Tuesday, as Stoneman Douglas students bused to Tallahassee, the Florida House voted 71–36 against discussing banning assault-style weapons and large-capacity magazines.

Now I’m wondering, exactly who are they?

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Soon after the president of the United States reminded us of his “stable genius” by asking why America wants immigrants from “shithole” countries (if he said “shithouse,” does that make a difference?), a friend asked if I was speechless.

My answer, even recovering from a bad flu (haven’t kicked it yet): “Hell, no!” The latest racist blather by Donald Trump offers lots to write about. Failure to do so would make me a traitor to the nation I’ve sworn to uphold and defe.

I am what The New York Times’ Bret Stephens terms a “Holer.” So is he. Our grandparents came to America in what were clearly called shithole countries over a century ago. Mine from Poland and Belorussia, parts of the Russian Empire. For that matter, my father was born in shithole Poland. Worse, we’re Jews! To many Trump supporters, we’re still Holers.

Fortunately, America at the turn of the 20th century continued welcoming—if often grudgingly—Holers from eastern and southern Europe: Jews, Greeks, Italians, Slavs. A growing nation needed more people to work on farms, and in mines and factories. But the picture wasn’t perfect. Although we Holers eventually became successes, we weren’t White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Grassroots anti-Semitism swept over the nation. In 1924, Congress through the Johnson-Reed Act basically banned Jews and southern Europeans from entry.

Still, we Holers retained our devotion to America and served it well. Ultimately, attitudes towards us changed. Following World War Two, some restrictions against Jews—refugees from the Holocaust—were lifted. Moreover, we could buy a house in most neighborhoods and attend almost any university.

The establishment of the State of Israel touched many American Christians, if perhaps because Christ’s second coming, according to many, depends upon the Jews being in their homeland so we can finally accept Jesus as our savior. Or perish. Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War raised the Jewish state to near-mythical status and brought American Jews a great measure of respect. Better late than never.

Holers from all over the world came to the U.S. Filipinos, Nigerians, Haitians, Dominicans, Syrians, Egyptians, Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese, Vietnamese—and sí amigo, Mexicans—became Americans. They worked at some of the hardest jobs available. Opened businesses. Served and died in our military. Earned college degrees. Cared for us as doctors, nurses and orderlies. Became actors, musicians and sports stars. And brought us new foods.

Now, the president seeks to return America to its white-supremacist ugliness of a century and more ago. He wonders why we don’t just take in a lot of Norwegians—16 percent of whom are Holers. Okay, white, ethnic Norwegians. I like Norwegians, and Swedes, and Danes. But the people Trump most wants coming to the U.S.—western and northern European Caucasian stock—won’t likely immigrate. Over seventy years ago, their grandparents learned the perils of racial animosity. Now, they believe that all human beings should be treated with equal rights and respect. The president of the United States doesn’t come close to sharing that value.

I’m proud to be a Holer. An added bonus: I can see and smell a pile of bullshit a long way off. For for the sake of accuracy, the distance between San Francisco and Washington, D.C. is over 2,400 miles.

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The flu clobbered me Saturday night. I’ve barely started to recover. As a result, this virus really got me thinking—when I was capable of thinking.

I see my mortality in sharper focus. Feeling so bad makes you feel old. Hell, I am old! Through the first few days, I wondered if I’d ever recover. Statistics from the California Department of Public Health didn’t help. This flu season, California experienced 27 flu-related deaths among people under 65—as of the week ending December 30. What about elders 65 and older? Health departments don’t count their (our) flu-related deaths. There are too many.

I hear my clock ticking. Like the clock in the belly of the crocodile chasing Captain Hook in Peter Pan, it’s damn loud. I wonder if I’ll spend my latter years feeling the way I do now—without the flu.

Brighter thoughts revealed themselves in brief bursts, offering more of an upside. Like the penny dish at my neighborhood 7-Eleven. If the clerk gives me pennies with my change, I leave them in the dish for others. If I’m short a penny or two, I’m covered. The penny dish represents a small courtesy we can offer one another. Of late, I’ve begun to see small things as increasingly important.

Big deals also entertain my thoughts. Basically, I’m not one. That’s okay. Most of us would like to be remembered for doing great things. Few of us will. Still, when we die, someone at our funeral or a local obituary will magnify our “accomplishments” until we’re unrecognizable. At many funerals, I’ve recoiled at the abundant lies spouted to gathered mourners who, almost to a person, must have wondered if they’d wandered into the wrong chapel. I wrote a short story about that.

I’ve long believed we don’t need to do great things to lead great lives. Donating to a hospital that in return plants your name across its entry and all its communications would be wonderful. Modest donations without recognition to fight prostate cancer or leukemia also mean something.  Running a program to feed the poor deserves praise, no question. Bringing a few cans of food to a local collection spot each week also makes a difference to people who will never know of you.

In the end, what counts is not a life lived well in terms of acquisition and comforts—although I’m quite comfortable, and don’t wish to mislead anyone. What counts is a life lived with decency and attention to the “small” stuff: family relationships, friends, community in its many forms, dropping in at the blood bank (yes, I enjoyed the donuts), helping visitors in the Presidio National Park find their way to the Golden Gate Bridge.

In a novel I recently concluded, Gold, by Chris Cleave, a 32-year-old British Olympic gold-medal bicyclist experiences an epiphany. Those several appearances on the podium to be celebrated as a world champion represented the only moments in her life when she was connected to the rest of the world. Her drive for gold stripped her of all feelings and doomed any chance of relationships.

Most of us never will receive great honors. But we can all work hard, love others and do the little things that, while easily unnoticed, make the world a bit better.

What you see is what you get. After posting this, I’m just going to sit and drool. And don’t think I’m not reflecting on President Trump’s remarks about shithole countries. I am. Oh, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Redwood Credit Union

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

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

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

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

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

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

— “Global politics has become multipolar and multicivilizational.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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