Archive for the ‘BOOKS/ART/CULTURE’ Category

REALITY REDEFINED

As a kid, I played sports. I also was a fan. And, having a vivid imagination, I created my own sports reality. America’s doing the same. It could lead in unexpected directions.

I loved board games played with dice or spinners and based on actual player statistics. Later, I created my own generic baseball, basketball and football games. I ran my own leagues. Today, pro sports are shut down, but the hunger for games remains. Video and board games satisfy that.

Moreover, the media, particularly newspapers, need stories. The San Francisco Chronicle briefs readers on the Giants and A’s during Strat-O-Matic’s simulation of the 2020 baseball season. The Chron co-sponsors APBA’s series between all-time NorCal and SoCal baseball players. In game two, the Giants’ Barry Bonds (NorCal) homered twice off legendary pitcher Walter Johnson (Washington Senators, 1907-27).

It’s like following baseball before television. Even during radio days, most Americans never got to major league baseball parks. They experienced the national pastime in their heads.

Literature understood. In 1968, Robert Coover published a fascinating novel, The Universal Baseball Association: J. Henry Waugh, Prop. A lonely man lives through his dice baseball league—teams and players his own creations. One roll of the dice presents that most rare phenomenon—it happened only once: Cleveland’s Ray Chapman, 1920—a player struck by a pitched ball and killed. J. Henry Waugh faces an agonizing decision. The player is a young star, who has renewed his lagging interest. Should he let him die? If he rolls the dice again, he negates the game’s integrity. We could go on and on about God’s role in history.

Actual baseball, basketball and hockey may resume by July, football in September as scheduled. As with baseball now in South Korea and Japan—and German soccer; English soccer’s coming soon—no fans will attend. Games will be staged for television. Of course, professional sports originated and grew with paying customers filling seats in ballparks, stadiums and arenas. But gate receipts, important as they are, lag behind TV dollars. TV presents reality at a distance, but sports fans long have embraced that.

As play resumes, athletes face real health concerns. They also pose a major expense to franchise owners. Might they and their salaries be replaced with avatars—digital fictions? J. Henry Waugh created his own players, including detailed biographies. They were as authentic to him as the actual Henry Aaron and Mickey Mantle, both 1968 baseball all-stars.

Sports leagues could eventually use holograms of faux players while filling stadiums with real crowds. The action, based on advanced algorithms, would be as exciting as it is now. Outdoor games might be rained out but be played in-studio and on TV. Seasons would avoid interruption by labor strife and—pandemics. Over time, as long as the software remained uncompromised, would anyone miss flesh-and-blood athletes?

Today’s Zoom business meeting, worship service, classroom and family get-together create a new—at least different—sense of reality. What if the people we see and speak with on our devices, not just athletes and entertainers but family members—the ones we wish we had—also were digital fabrications? What if we had a role in creating them? Would we perceive them to be any less real?

Would wefeel any less real?

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“CURLY”—A SHORT-SHORT STORY

“Yul Brynner,” said Norman, while his wife Stacy stood open-mouthed after releasing a small scream—squeak, really. “He was the king in The King and I and the Cossack chieftain in Taras Bulba. Remember those movies?”

Stacy remembered Yul Brynner’s shaved head. He wasn’t bald. He’d shaved it and stayed with that look. It worked. On him. But Norman had all—almost all—his hair after 75 years. What now? “Baldy,” she managed to utter. “People will call you Baldy. Your name is Norman.” Not Norm. Never Normy. And God help anyone who called her husband by a nickname.

“How about Curly?” Norman asked. He liked the humor of it. The irony. “There was this basketball player with the Harlem Globetrotters, the comedy team. Curly Neal. The dribbler who could control the ball maybe an inch off the floor. No hair. We saw him in Oakland. Maybe the Cow Palace. He died recently.”

Stacy’s hand shot to her mouth. Death was not up for discussion. Not during the COVID-19 pandemic. Okay, she and Norman were sheltered in place about as safe as you could be. Food delivered from Whole Foods and Amazon Fresh. Walks in their quiet neighborhood, including the Presidio National Park a block away. An occasional drive to see the ocean, keep their cars’ batteries up. “Why?” she asked.

“Beats a crappy haircut,” he answered. He’d had a hair-clipper set delivered by Amazon. Plenty of guards for different lengths. Foolproof. He even watched a few videos on YouTube. But nothing was foolproof. After going down to the garage, setting up a mirror, covering himself with a garbage bag and going at it, he wasn’t satisfied. His hair was shorter but the cut was patchy, uneven. Maybe not bad for someone sheltered in place, but—. Then inspiration hit.

He had visions of Telly Savalas, TV’s bygone Kojak. Michael Jordan. Cate Blanchett once went bald.

“Why can’t make a statement?” Norman asked. Stacy’s face didn’t so much betray confusion as broadcast it. “That you’re suffering a late-life crisis? What’s next? A sportscar? Or are you looking for sympathy? People should think you’ve had chemo for some terrible cancer?”

“It’s more a life-affirming thing,” said not-Norm. “We just celebrated Passover and the deaths of the Egyptian first-born. Holocaust Remembrance Day is coming up. And the news. Every day, it’s how many people have been diagnosed with coronavirus, how many people died. All those deaths and memories of deaths create fear. Not necessarily unjustified but not the best road to travel either. So I took my own road.”

The thing was, Norman assured Stacy, hair was a renewable resource. Like grass. Like the sun. “The sun goes down, it also rises.” Yes, it came up on a world reeling in pain. He was no Pollyanna. “Still, it’s a win-win thing. I look cool or my hair grows back. Like I have faith that the country will come back. Not without loss. Not without grief. Not without struggle. But because we refuse not to go forward.”

“From your lips to God’s ears,” Stacy said. “Hopefully from more lips than mine. Than ours,” said Norman. “Reminds me of my favorite quote from Torah. Deuteronomy. Two words.” He ran his right hand over his cue ball-smooth scalp and smiled. “Choose life.”

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APU AND ME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BANANAS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I HEAR AMERICA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE DIRT ON “AMERICAN DIRT”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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QUEENS SYNDROME

I’m not spoiling season three of Amazon Prime’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel when I say I love the show, but one episode offended me.

Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) declares that her son will attend private school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and not a public school in Queens. With those people. I’m one of those people—P.S. 174, Russell Sage Junior High (J.H.S. 190) and Forest Hills High. I’m no big deal, but many outstanding people (and some less so) come from Queens and the other “outer boroughs”—Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island.

As a kid, I never heard the term outer boroughs. It’s a pejorative used by Manhattanites—many from Ohio, Nebraska, Alabama and California—describing the uncouth working people whose sole function is serving the interests of the educated, taste-making elite living on the only island worth inhabiting. Until rents forced many trendy, stylish citizens to flee to Brooklyn (Park Slope, Williamsburg) and from there to—gasp!—Queens (Astoria, Long Island City).

Actually, I’m not all that terribly put out, but— Okay, I am. Queens Syndrome is typical of attitudes throughout America. Manhattan looks down on Queens. New York City looks down on New Jersey and, well, almost everywhere. The coasts look down on the heartland. The East Coast looks down on the Atlantic shore south of Washington, D.C. excepting South Florida.

Those put down as near-Neanderthals (who were quite accomplished) return the favor. The heartland condemns coastal elites as fake Americans surrounding themselves with dangerous immigrants (to garden, work in restaurants).

Note: Chicago is the hub of the Midwest, but Cook County’s Mexican-American population numbers over 750,000. Then there’s the Windy City’s huge African American population. And history as a Democratic bastion. For many conservatives, Chicago is a city to scorn along with New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. Faux-heartland cities like Dallas and Atlanta are also upsetting the conservative apple cart.

America’s problem is that many people refuse to look past geography and ethnicity. Different becomes a synonym for bad. Differences exist among varying cultures but also considerable similarities. Still, how can you possibly talk to thosepeople. Those Queensites!

Sadly, America’s divide—hardly new but more public these past three years—has encouraged the rest of the world to widen its own long-standing rifts. It’s okay in Europe to be anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant. Look at the U.S. It’s fine for India’s Hindu nationalists to bar immigrant Muslims from citizenship. (As it stands, India has 200 million Muslim citizens.) And if China terrorizes its Uighur Muslims, so what? Hiding behind security concerns, Donald Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants, refugees and visitors from seven nations, five predominantly Muslim.

Of course, Islamists seek to impose their version of Islam on fellow Muslims. Blood flows. They also target others. Christians in Muslim lands are suffering. Jews—not only Israel—remain objects of hatred. But don’t confuse Islamists with Muslims who wish to live in peace with the world.

Entering 2020, my Queens soul offers bad news and good. The bad: Baseless hatred will continue. Half the world believes I’m going to hell. The good: We can abate such hatred if only we demonstrate the will.

We could start by trashing the term outer boroughs.

In spite of what you just read, Happy New Year!

The post, following this feverish bout of writing, will take two weeks off and return on Friday, January 17.

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“JOJO RABBIT”

Each November, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) provides members like my wife Carolyn with screenings, discs and streaming codes to see the year’s best films and TV shows. This precedes nominations and the January election for the SAG Awards. The first movie we saw left a lasting impression.

Jojo Rabbit, set in wartime Austria (could be Germany, not made clear and doesn’t matter), presents the relationship between a 10-year-old boy, Jojo (played wonderfully by Roman Griffin Davis), an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth with a good heart, and a young Jewish woman, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his house. Sounds like quite a drama, right? It is—and it isn’t.

There’s nothing amusing about the Third Reich and the Holocaust, but there’s everything downright funny about Jojo Rabbit, directed and co-written by New Zealander Taika Waititi. Taika’s name? Maori. So what connection could he have to this material? His birth name is Taika David Waititi, and he’s also known as Taika Cohen (his mother is Robin Cohen).

Here is a film filled with humor but not for cheap laughs. JoJo Rabbit offers satire at its best. The day before we saw it, I presented a talk to members of my synagogue, Sherith Israel, about the uses of satire and comedy in a political context: “Chuckles, Laughs, Guffaws: Autocrats’ Biggest Fears.” Tyrants can fight violent rebellion with more violence. They can counter logical arguments with opposing arguments, no matter how illogical. They can choose to ignore protest, though attention is generally paid. They can even survive a dramatization of the plight of their country. But no tyrant can stand to be ridiculed and laughed at.

Taika Waititi bought the rights to the novel Caging Skies by the New Zealand-Belgian writer Christine Leunens. It’s a serious piece. Waititi loves comedy. He made a movie in which humor dominates, heightening rather than obscuring the drama inherent in the story. (Some of his approach seems inspired by the offbeat filmmaker Wes Anderson). Waititi also plays Hitler—an insecure clown, who speaks with Jojo in the boy’s imagination.

Some things we know. The Allies won the war. Hitler committed suicide. Six million Jews perished in camps, in ghettos, on city streets, in forests. Some survived. Joao Rabbit makes a point of demonstrating that some Germans/Austrians resisted. Many paid with their lives. When Jojo sees several men and women hanged and left on display in the town square, he asks his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) what they did. In one of the best lines of dialog I’ve ever heard, she answers succinctly, “What they could.”

I’m not about to give details away, although I must give a shout-out to Sam Rockwell, in my judgment one of America’s finest screen actors, as Captain Klenzendorf. Let me just say that you will laugh at the idiocy of Nazism and its ferocious anti-Semitism, and you’ll cry.

Satire can be a two-edge sword. Poorly wielded—too obvious, too crude—it can injure its creator and those it wishes to help. Sharpened to a fine edge, it can do what drama often can’t: tell a truth that explodes autocrats’ inflated ego and hypocrisy. As with Humpty Dumpty, all the kings horses and all the king’s men can’t put them back together again.

The post will take off next Friday for Thanksgiving. Enjoy the holiday.

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OUR BOYS

The dust-up in Israel regarding HBO’s 10-part mini-series Our Boys began even before its August 12 premiere. Israelis on the right, having seen only the trailer, were incensed. They remained so when the show aired. Were they correct?

Our Boys, a Jewish-Arab Israeli collaboration, explores the 2014 arrest and trial of three Orthodox Israeli men—an uncle and his two nephews—for the murder of a Palestinian youth. It’s important to recognize that as faithful to events as the creators tried to be, the recounting is fictional. Some actual personalities were merged into a single character, the scope of TV and film having limits. The writers also created dialogue, revealing conversations they’d never heard, to add to the drama. I don’t know if they accessed transcripts of interrogations and the trial.

Critically, the show’s opening scenes lay the groundwork by marking a painful moment—there have been many—in Israel’s history. Eighteen days before Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s murder, Palestinians kidnapped three young Israeli Yeshiva students: Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaar. Israelis prayed and demonstrated for their safe return. When the students were discovered murdered, the nation mourned. Many on the Israeli right erupted.

Had the creators begun with the killing of Mohammed, ignoring the Yeshiva students’ murders, negative response to the show would easily be understood. Israelis would see themselves simplistically rendered as haters of Arabs (some are, hardly all) and wanton killers.

But Our Boys portrays the revenge murder as wrong and a violation of Jewish values. Yet it never condemns Israel. Rather, it calls to task those who would kill illegally in the name of the state and lauds Israel as a nation dedicated to morality, law and peace.

What’s the problem? As I mentioned, pushback began when Israelis saw only the show’s trailer. Seventy years of attacks by Arab states and Palestinian terrorists have left their mark on the Israeli psyche. Yet to be legitimate, dramas like Our Boys must present complexity and subtlety. The reason is obvious: Human beings are complex and subtle. Murder horrifies us yet we’re often struck by the desire for revenge—more murder. We can celebrate our best attributes only if we confront our worst.

Speaking of complexity, Our Boys presents Mohammed’s parents, Hussein and Suha, sympathetically. They’re human. They’re Mother and Father! Yet the right may fail to note that the show also presents many Palestinians as ardently desiring Israel’s destruction and in thrall to the concept of martyrdom that fuels terrorism against Jews in Israel and (non-Jews included) elsewhere. Many Palestinians disregard the wishes of the mourning parents. Israelis who don’t see the show can’t know this.

Three months after the deaths of the three Yeshivah students, Israeli forces killed two Palestinian suspects in a shoot-out. The three killers of Mohammed Abu Khdeir received prison sentences ranging from life down to 22 years for the youngest, an emotionally disturbed teen.

The challenge any people confront when struck by violence is that killing, or convicting and imprisoning suspects, doesn’t necessarily bring matters to a close. Deep wounds heal slowly if at all.

Five years later, Israelis and Palestinians remain at loggerheads. Peace—true peace—seems unreachable. Our Boys touches emotions still raw. If negative Israeli responses seem off the mark to me, they’re nonetheless understandable.

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WHALES, DOLPHINS AND AWE

I read Moby Dick ages ago and found myself fascinated by Herman Melville’s lengthy discourses on cetology, the study of whales. Last Wednesday, I joined my friends Ira and Dan on a whale watching trip hosted by the Oceanographic Society. In a word: awesome!

We departed on the Salty Ladyfrom the yacht harbor at the Marina Green off Scott Street. The two naturalists onboard and the captain all emphasized the incredible weather we’d have at sea: clear skies and mild—a relative matter—temperatures. (San Francisco hit 94 degrees that afternoon.)

On the way out, we spotted dolphins, porpoises, humpback whales and sea birds, including more than one albatross, and a rarely sighted skua. Because of the great weather, our captain decided to bypass the Farallon Islands at first and sail to the edge of the continental shelf. There, the seabed drops precipitously from 300 feet to 3,000. An upwelling of water brings nutrients and food sources providing great feeding to whales and other sea life.

Jaws dropped as humpbacks spouted then rose out of the water. We’d see their backs then a huge length of white foam as they submerged. Several jumped out vertically well past their heads. Others displayed their flukes—tails—as they dove.

At the peak of activity, we sighted a pod of at least three whales and maybe five. Spouts rose like the fountains at Las Vegas’ Bellagio Hotel. Dolphins and porpoises leapt by the boat with great frequency. A huge turtle came close—another rare sighting. An ocean sunfish swam alongside. I called out to the sea life, “Guys, slow down. There’s more to see here than we can take in!” They didn’t listen. No complaint from me.

Almost everyone missed the best sighting. After stopping by the Farallons to check out the birds and sea lions—we also saw houses for researchers and Coast Guard personnel—we headed back to San Francisco.

As we sat and chatted, Ira, who’d been seasick until noon and missed the action out at the continental shelf’s edge, spotted a humpback leap entirely out of the water and expose its white belly. By the time he called out, Dan and I could see only the splash. Only one or two others onboard saw the event. We were glad for Ira and had no problem missing what we’d love to have seen because we’d seen so much.

Sunday night, the Jewish world will observe Rosh Hashanah, marking the New Year 5780. The whales, dolphins, porpoises and birds I saw provided me with much added meaning. The ten-day period from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is known as the Days of Awe. As we contemplate how we’ve lived our lives and acknowledge the Source of Creation, the majesty of the synagogue service can raise our spirits only so far. We need perspective.

Being out on the Pacific, rising and falling with the swells, witnessing the sea’s sheer size and power, and seeing the magnificent creatures with whom we share the planet showed me how small I am and how huge is creation.

At this, or any, time of the year, a little awe-inspired humility can bring us closer to the marvels we can see and the mysteries we can’t.

The post will take next week off and return on October 11. For everyone celebrating Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, may you be written and sealed into the Book of Life.

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