Posts Tagged ‘Franklin Roosevelt’

DEMOCRACY’S NOT DEAD YET

Several nights ago, I heard a symphony of foghorns. I live two miles from the Pacific and half that distance from San Francisco’s Baker Beach and the Golden Gate. Yet extended periods of time often pass between my visits to the beach to admire the ocean’s size, energy and mystery.

So it is with much in life. Beauty and wonder often are much closer than we realize. Politics, war and disasters—natural and man-made—attract our attention. We close our eyes and minds to the good that also surrounds us.

Another matter relates. Tomorrow (Saturday) night, Jews will celebrate Simchat Torah (Joy of the Torah). Then or on Sunday, synagogues will unroll a Torah scroll and read the last verses of the year’s final portion, V’zot HaB’rachah(And This is the Blessing), which concludes with Moses’ death. Without a pause, reading will continue with the first verses of B’reishit(Genesis) with which the Torah starts, presenting creation and life.

Why read the same text year after year? The scholar Jeffrey Tigay explains that we find new insights on every page (as we might at the beach or in a forest), “not because the Torah has changed, but because we have changed since we read it a year ago.”

Looking past immediate concerns, Americans can gain new perspectives on our present situation and our past—hear the call of the Liberty Bell too often drowned out by shouting. We may discover that the nation’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses.

I’m not wearing rose-colored glasses. As I write, I’m gazing at the cover of October’s The Atlantic. This special edition asks a disturbing question: “Is democracy dying?” Editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg titles his introduction “The Crisis in Democracy.” A toxic brew of populism, tribalism, Donald Trump and technology worries a number of The Atlantic’s writers and contributors. Nothing new here. A recent edition of Foreign Affairsconsidered the same matter. The non-Fox media continue to do so.

Sure, there’s plenty of worry to go around. Witness the hyper-partisanship surrounding yesterday’s Senate testimony by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanagh. Yet America weathered previous storms.

White people enslaved black people. The Ku Kux Klan promoted racism and segregation not just in the South but all over the country. Universities and medical schools restricted Jewish matriculation. Women couldn’t vote until 1920. In the 1930s, upwards of thirty million Americans listened to Father Charles Coghlan’s anti-Semitic radio broadcasts. After Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans. Throughout our history, the nation also suffered a series of economic depressions and, of course, 9/11.

Un-democratic, prejudicial laws and customs have always had strong proponents. Hence the secession of the Southern states leading to the Civil War, considerable opposition to women’s suffrage in Congress and later political maneuvering like Richard Nixon’s southern strategy. All these battered and bruised American democracy. We moved forward.

I’ll give the last word to New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, writing from Greece: “Democracy is stubborn. It raises our gaze. It is the system that best enshrines the unshakable human desire to be free. Athens reminds us of that. America reminds us of that. It fails. It falls short of John Winthrop’s ‘city upon a hill.’ It strives still to fail better.”

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DEFINING FAMILY

Two recent pieces in The New York Times speak to the new populism that threatens the United States. I find part of the solution within my family and my synagogue.

David Brooks’ June 28 column “Revolt of the Masses” quoted David Vance, author of the book Hillbilly Elegy. Vance writes about the Kentucky and Ohio coal regions in which he grew up and the value of intense family loyalty that’s not always healthy. Brooks quoted Vance: “We do not like outsiders, or people who are different from us, whether difference lies in how they look, how they act, or, most important, how they talk.” Such loyalty also forbids revealing wrongdoing, which lets some family members prey on others. And it generates a parochialism that can isolate families from their community, state, nation and the world.

On July 11, Robert P. Jones in “The Evangelicals and the Great Trump Hope” pointed out that white Christians—Protestants and Catholics—no longer make up a majority of Americans. They’re now 45 percent of the population, down from 54 percent in 2008. This drop is highly visible. When I was a kid in the 1950s, movies, TV shows and advertisements rarely portrayed other than white Christians—almost always Protestants—except as maids, shoeshine boys, train porters and humorous “ethnics,” including Irish, Italians and Jews.

Populism, which spawned Donald Trump’s presidential nomination, is not new. Populism has an economic agenda: spread the wealth, which tends to get sucked out of working-class regions. But it traditionally has constituted a movement to keep white Protestants in power. Now, pushed into a corner, many populists accept white Catholics as allies. Where populists once sought to keep white Americans on top of the pecking order, they now want to return white Americans to dominance. Ironically, the majority of the nation’s business and political leaders are white Christians. Still, “ordinary” people remain distanced from them while feeling threatened by a perceived lack of standing in a nation increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-religious and increasingly secular.

As to my family and synagogue, we open ourselves to others. We understand that while there’s nothing wrong with the Jewish, heterosexual home or congregation, these can be—going back to David Brooks—parochial. When Carolyn—a white, lapsed Catholic—and I decided to marry in 1967, we called my parents. Sight unseen, my father Morris welcomed Carolyn into the family. My mother Blanche flew down to San Antonio. She brought Carolyn a potato grater and a jar of schmaltz (chicken fat). It was love at first sight. Carolyn became a major non-Jewish Jewish mother.

When our youngest, Aaron, married Jeremy, Jeremy became our fourth son. Our fourth because our middle son Yosi was once Rachel. Yosi is transgender. Our love for Yosi remains unchanged. So, too, Congregation Sherith Israel boasts Jews of all genetic backgrounds and sexual identities. Maybe we don’t always “look” Jewish. We just do Jewish.

In the book of Numbers, Moses sends twelve spies to scout the Promised Land. He asks them to report whether Canaanite cities are fortified. A midrash offers commentary: A city surrounded by walls is weak. An open city is strong because its inhabitants aren’t fearful. We might look to Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself!”

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