Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Much Ado About Nothing

   The title of this Shakespeare play actually sounds better in Hebrew than in English: Rov Mehuma Al Lo Me’uma (רוב מהומה על לא מאומה), and it summarizes the latest rabbinical “scandal” eagerly reported in a New York Times “expose” and just as eagerly picked up by The Jewish Week.  It was reported that Jonathan Rosenblatt, the rabbi of long standing at Riverdale Jewish Center, a prominent Orthodox synagogue in the Bronx, had played squash and racquetball with young male congregants, then showered with them naked (that’s how men usually shower) and sat with them in a sauna or steam room, naked or wrapped in a robe (as men usually are when they use saunas and steam rooms).  This had gone on for decades and reporters at both publications had known about it for decades, but did not report it until now because only now was one person man enough to speak for attribution.  Plenty of others were ready to bad-mouth the rabbi, but only behind a veil of anonymity.
   Among the words used to describe Rabbi Rosenblatt’s conduct are “disturbing,” “inappropriate,” “unusual,” and words of that ilk.  Never “illegal” or “criminal.”  By all accounts there was no sexual touching or other sexual misconduct, as occurred in other well-publicized sex scandals involving rabbis.  The New York Times article itself states that “parsing [the rabbi’s conduct] is an exercise in ambiguity.”  If so, and given Rabbi Rosenblatt’s stature, are we not required to be דן לכף זכות, to give the rabbi the benefit of the doubt?
  Up until the middle of the 19th century it was unusual for any observant Jew to play organized sports.  Then Jewish consciousness began to be raised by the Zionist movement and men such as Max Nordau.  Young Jewish men, first secular and then observant, began seeing their bodies and minds as an integrated whole, each feeding off the other.  Orthodox rabbis, however, remained the black-suited, black-hatted purveyors of scholarship and dared not step out of that realm, except maybe to escort congregants to Soviet Jewry demonstrations or Salute to Israel (now Celebrate Israel) parades.  Rabbi Rosenblatt, it seems, was the first to think and act outside of that box, and more power to him.  Several years ago the chief rabbi of Warsaw was attacked and beaten by anti-Semitic Polish hoodlums.  Just imagine if he had been able to give those goons a proper rabbinical butt whooping.  It would have been a tremendous kiddush Hashem, a veritable earthquake, with aftershocks rippling with his muscles through the length and breadth of Poland.  No more would the few Jews left in Poland be seen as easy marks.
   One of the anonymous complaints concerned the rabbi lingering in a post-workout shower with the boys and young men with whom he was bonding; there was no rush.  Why should there have been a rush?  Were they expecting a trainload of Jews arriving and having to use the shower?  A shower after a hard fulfilling workout may be routine for others who take their physicality for granted, but for us it is a mystical experience of supernal joy.  That’s water coming out of those shower heads, not gas.  We draw water with joy from the wells of salvation (see Is. 12:3).  Take as long as you want.  Sing, whoop and holler if you feel like it.  Savor the experience as you would good wine.  I remember running races in the summer heat and makeshift showers would be set up along the course.  I’d pump my fist in the air, run through and shout “l’chaim” – to life.  Who needs drugs when you can get high on pure Jewish joy?  It is said that at the entrance to the gas chamber at Auschwitz hung a sign reading  זה השער לה' צדיקים יבאו בו  - This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter it (Ps. 118:20).  Perhaps the showers of gyms at yeshivot and Jewish community centers should have signs reading יבואו בו זה השער לגאולה חזקיםThis is the gate of redemption; the strong shall enter it.  I remember taking showers in school after gym or swimming, naked with my classmates in full view of one another, and thinking nothing of it.  I don’t remember if the teachers showered with us, but if they had it would have been no big deal.
   The person who apparently was leading the charge against Rabbi Rosenblatt is female and, not surprisingly, knows nothing about male bonding and male fellowship.   She does not understand why the rabbi “didn’t get”  his alleged judgment error.  Actually, it is she that “doesn’t get it.”  We men need to be with one another where females are absent, to be “out with the boys.”   Time was when construction workers, longshoremen (those brawny fellows who unloaded ships before modern containerization) and such working in Lower Manhattan would, after a hard day’s work, repair to McSorley’s Ale House and enjoy some salty man talk in one another’s company over a pint or two.  No more.  Since 1970 McSorley’s must, per court order, be open to women.  In Russia, Eastern Europe and Turkey the steam bath (and in Scandinavia the sauna) filled the role of McSorley’s.  Jewish men coming here from that part of the world brought the “shvitz” culture with them, and passed it on to their progeny.  So here we have an Orthodox rabbi who worked out with boys and young men, then showered and spent time in the steam room or sauna with them, discussing matters of faith and philosophy in a relaxed atmosphere where they could let their guard down.  Why would any man or boy get uptight over it?  Mothers did, and that is understandable.  Among other functions, these male-only get-togethers removed boys, if only temporarily, from the influence of their overbearing Jewish mothers, taking them out of the world of women and into the world of men.  That can be traumatic for women who can’t let go of their little darlings, but for their sons it is liberating and healthy.
   To be sure, there were minor errors in judgment.  Most of them stem from not adhering to a fundamental part of the masculine mystique in America, dating from the Old West, that exhorts us to never say behind a man’s back what you would not say to his face.  Interestingly, this echoes a saying of one of the European ba’alei mussar of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Don’t talk about people; talk to them.  In Israel men are expected to “talk dugri,” i.e. direct and to the point.  Some of the young men were uncomfortable with the rabbi’s style, or so they told reporters years or decades later.  With the passage of time, memory can play tricks, but it is perfectly reasonable that some people would be uncomfortable.  In modern societies (but it would seem not in the primitive ones that renowned anthropologist  Margaret Mead visited) puberty and adolescence is characterized by a great deal of Sturm und Drang.  Young people are prone to read into situations what is not necessarily there.  What one person experiences as a glance, or even thinks nothing of, can be experienced by someone else as gawking.  When I was in high school, a male biology teacher once remarked to a classmate, “those biceps [mine] are unreal.”  Having been lifting weights for several years,  I took it as a compliment, large biceps still being unusual in American yeshiva boys in the 1960s.  Given the anxieties teenage boys experience about their sexuality, anxieties not addressed by the limudei kodesh teachers (only one specific act is Biblically prohibited), some other boy might have experienced the same remark as “creepy.”  The boys and young men who were uncomfortable with nudity in the shower and/or steam room should have simply told the rabbi.  Alternatively, they could have asked him if this was appropriate behavior for a rabbi, perhaps citing sources if they could.  It could have opened the door to some interesting and healthy conversation.  One student recalled getting sick in yeshiva and being driven home by the rabbi, with pleasant conversation in the car.  When they arrived at the student’s home (the parents were not present), the rabbi suggested the boy might be more comfortable if he changed into a bathrobe.  This was not far-fetched; yeshiva clothes can be distinctly uncomfortable, especially when one is not feeling well to begin with.  The boy did not want to change, and told the rabbi.  According to the boy’s recollection, the rabbi stayed in the student’s house (is there any yihud issue between two males?) and persisted in trying to get the boy to change.  With 20/20 hindsight I understand and sympathize with the boy feeling put in an awkward spot.  Some of the people involved were so put off that they chose another synagogue to attend.  This too is nothing out of the ordinary; in any community where there is a choice of synagogues congregants come and congregants go.  Leaving is the best solution when a personality clash between congregant and rabbi is so deep that remaining together becomes untenable.  Others, however, benefited a good deal from those encounters and are appalled that the rabbi, to their way of thinking, became the object of a malicious smear campaign (lashon ha-ra) years later.  Students in Yeshiva University kept coming, of their own volition, to do rabbinic internships with him even when the university stopped sending students his way due to complaints, some of which were justified.  The power relationships between rabbi and intern could create the appearance that the scantily clad shvitz sessions were necessary for the intern’s career advancement.  Similar situations could occur between professors and undergraduate or graduate students at a secular university; today professors assiduously avoid any interaction that can give any such appearance.
   The entire matter seems to have been resolved to most everybody’s satisfaction.  The rabbi will be staying out the few years remaining on his contract.  This resolution was reached after a frank exchange between rabbi and congregants, accompanied according to press reports by self-flagellation on the part of the rabbi that I think was unnecessary given that few if any people came to any serious harm.  I fail to see any hillul Hashem here, nor any reason for the rabbi to feel broken. We all recall positive and negative interactions with authority figures in our lives, interactions as inevitable as they are universal.  If there is anybody among us who never committed errors in judgment, he or she may cast a stone.  The rest of us mortals live in glass houses.

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Monday, June 08, 2015

Don't be fools - vaccinate your children

משוט בארץ ומהתהלך בה. . . .    
From flitting about the earth and traversing it (Job 1:7). . .

The American Council on Science and Health, a watchdog group that ferrets out junk science and overhyped claims in the media and in the utterances and writings of public figures, released a report recently about a speech by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at a public screening of an antivaccine film.  The ACSH report states as follows: 


Well-known vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. attended the Sacramento screening of anti-vaccine “documentary” Trace Amounts on Tuesday and gave a speech to the audience, and as expected, it was filled with dangerous and unscientific misinformation. In light of the upcoming hearing for California Senate Bill 277, which eliminates the personal belief exemption for vaccines, RFK Jr. told the audience that public health officials and policy-makers can’t be trusted.

“They can put anything they want in that vaccine and they have no accountability for it,” he reportedly told the crowd. “[Children] get the shot, that night they have a fever of a hundred and three, they go to sleep, and three months later their brain is gone. This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country.” Kennedy left the stage to a standing ovation.

“Trace Amounts” tells the story of filmmaker Eric Gladen, who believes he suffered mercury poisoning from thimerosal after receiving a tetanus vaccine in 2004. RFK Jr. has long been spewing out misinformation regarding thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative that was used in vaccines up until 2001. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Institute of Medicine have all determined that thimerosal is safe, it was removed from vaccines (with the exception of some flu shots) as a precautionary measure due to backlash by misguided parents and the anti-vaccine hysteria fomented by advocacy groups and dangerous demagogues like RFK Jr.

Yet he and his followers are still vehemently against vaccines, even though this preservative that was determined safe was removed from childhood vaccines almost 15 years ago. In response, Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, a pediatrician, and author of SB 277, called Kennedy’s continued activism deceitful. “I think it is dangerous that he is spreading misinformation about something that’s very important for public health,” he said. “Autism rates have continued to rise even though we are not using thimerosal in vaccines for children. We still haven’t figured out exactly what causes autism. We do know it’s not vaccines.”

Despite the facts, “Trace Amounts” and RFK Jr. are unfortunately still making an impact on the vaccine “debate.” Kennedy has credited the documentary with helping to stall Oregon’s mandatory vaccine bill. And although RFK Jr. has no scientific credentials, people continue to listen to him because of his name. 

This is astounding and infuriating, in part because the son of our martyred Senator stated that the alleged damage done to children by vaccines amounted to a holocaust (in fairness to him, the "h" was not capitalized).  The real Holocaust snuffed out the lives of one and a half million Jewish children and their future progeny to the end of time.  Today the Orthodox community seems to be experiencing more than its share of outbreaks of totally preventable childhood diseases like measles and mumps. Rumors fly thick and fast through Jewish media whose editorial staffs are, to put it mildly, not well versed in science, that vaccines are dangerous and cause autism.  Many haredim seldom if ever avail themselves of secular media that might disabuse them of that notion.  Most of the hysteria originates with a report in a medical journal supposedly documenting a link between vaccines and autism.  That report has since been thoroughly discredited and retracted from the journal.  Such retractions rarely happen, but here it turns out that the authors of the discredited report were in cahoots with lawyers who were ready to sue vaccine manufacturers  for millions; the authors presumably were to share in the proceeds (yes, scientists, physicians and lawyers can have a taavah [unwholesome craving] for money).  Of course, many children are vaccinated, some children contract autism (we don’t know why) and the two sets have a small intersection, but that is to be expected.  It does not prove that the two are in any way related.

  We do know that our present situation of most children living to have their own is unprecedented in human history.  The normal human condition was for childhood mortality to be horrendously high.  Some of our siddurim contain selihot l’tahaluei yeladim, penitential prayers to be recited during an epidemic of a children’s disease.  I cannot recall those prayers ever being recited in our community or in any American Jewish community.  But I have visited old Jewish cemeteries in New York and have seen large sections containing little tiny gravestones for little tiny children.  Most of these children doubtless died of childhood diseases that have since, praise God, been conquered by vaccines.  I might add that those vaccines were developed by people, many of them Jewish, who attended college and studied science.  Some of those gravestones are in the process of sinking into the ground; the parents of the deceased were too poor to pay for perpetual care and are long since gone.

Babies’ graves at Union Field Cemetery on the Brooklyn-Queens border

  Before my granddaughter was born, my daughter told me to get a “T-Dap” shot; pertussis (aka whooping cough) was making a comeback and the vaccine we received as children loses its effectiveness as we grow older.  This was not optional; either I got the shot or I would not be allowed anywhere near the baby.  I got the shot – a very minor inconvenience for my granddaughter’s and other babies’ well being.  Since then, I had my blood tested for antibodies for measles, mumps and rubella.  I still have adequate antibodies against all three and will not need boosters.  I do not want to see tragic sights like the one in this picture in newer Jewish cemeteries and there is an easy way to avoid it: EVERY CHILD MUST BE VACCINATED AGAINST CHILDHOOD DISEASES AS PER PROTOCOLS OF PUBLIC HEALTH AUTHORITIES.


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Sunday, February 22, 2015

   I notice that I have not added to my blog since Purim.  Actually, a Jewish publishing house based in Germany (of all places) noticed and asked me to send in samples for possible publication.  I would welcome my work being introduced to a wider audience, and a foot in the door of commercial writing would also be welcome. 
   Probably the most significant event affecting the Jewish world since Purim 5774 was the war in Gaza.  Israel finally had enough with the daily rocket fire from Gaza, which they evacuated in 2005 in return for empty promises quickly repudiated by Hamas once it violently seized power.  In addition, Hamas was busy digging tunnels under the border, with the intention of kidnaping Israeli civilians and committing other acts of terror.  So the Israelis invaded Gaza, destroyed the tunnels and some of Hamas’s military assets and returned.  Israel seems to do this every few years, as Hamas quickly rearms and the world does nothing. This strategy is sometimes referred to as “lawn mower operations” since despite all the rhetoric on both sides everybody knows that the “grass” will regrow and Israel will have to enter Gaza later to re-mow it.  Every time Israel conducts one of these operations it is excoriated by the United Nations, the European Union and the liberal mainstream media in the United States for the heavy collateral damage, particularly the deaths of many children.  This damage is made inevitable by Hamas’s cynical tactic of placing its military assets in hospitals and schools full of children, as well as in private homes whose occupants are not allowed to leave, in order to score propaganda points with the above-named entities.  Israel has always done, and still does more than any other army on earth to prevent civilian casualties.  It even drops flyers and knocks on roofs to warn civilians of the precise buildings to be attacked, so that civilians may leave.  Those civilians must then choose between leaving and being killed by Hamas if they are discovered, and staying and being killed or injured in the military operation.  Imagine the United States and its allies doing that in World War II.  I say that next time Hamas’s shenanigans force Israel to invade, it should leave the lawn mowers behind, enter with overwhelming force, clean out the vipers’ nests once and for all and STAY.  Show the Arabs as much mercy as the allies of World War 2 showed the Germans.  Destroy any buildings used to attack Israelis, no matter who else is inside.  If so much as a cap gun goes off from a mosque, level said mosque.  Let the world rant and rave all it wants to, remind the media that they went in because the enemy deliberately targets Israeli civilians, including children, and that no other country would tolerate such conditions.  The world will condemn us anyway, so who cares?  Rebuild the settlements that were evacuated; no doubt most of the evacuees will be only too happy to return to their homes and make the land flourish as it did before the expulsions.  The war sparked outbursts of anti-Semitism all over western Europe, especially in France.  French Jews are still afraid to walk the streets wearing kippot (skullcaps) and police must be deployed around synagogues so that Jews can enter and leave peacefully.  Many of them decided that they have no future in France and are leaving for Israel.  They can be helped to build homes in Gaza (city and strip) and strengthen the Jewish presence.  Same goes for the haredim with their high birthrates and low levels of education; let them work the soil and justify their existence. 
   Close on the heels of the Gaza war came the Yamim Noraim (high holidays) and my own personal misfortune.  On the Sunday morning of Selihot (penitential prayers recited during the season) I missed a step at home, fell sideways and twisted my knee.  Somehow I made it to the nearest emergency room, where they took x-rays, ascertained that I did not break a bone, gave me a brace and a cane and told me to see an orthopedist.  The orthopedist ordered an MRI and diagnosed a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and meniscus (cartilage).  I already had two arthroscopies on the same knee to repair damaged cartilage.  So another arthroscopy was done to remove the damaged cartilage and replace the ligament with tissue from a cadaver.  The ACL injury is the same one suffered by professional football and basketball players; it inevitably sidelines them for the season and I was promised a similarly long recovery.  I am still assiduously doing physical therapy to rehabilitate the injury. 
   On the evening before my accident I attended the Selihot at Kingsway Jewish Center.  For several reasons I found it difficult to relate to.  Many of the piyutim (liturgical poems) are very difficult to understand because they are written in an abstruse style of medieval Hebrew (unlike the amidot, which anybody who understands Hebrew can comprehend) and the authors assume a broad knowledge of Talmud and Midrashim that we moderns do not possess.  These poems are valuable, but are better studied than recited in prayer.  Sefaradim begin Selihot on Rosh Hodesh Elul; perhaps we should convene starting then to study the more esoteric texts.  Many of the poems that we do understand portray the Jewish people as weak, helpless and hounded, which was true when they were written but not today, when Barukh Hashem we are witnessing and participating in the unfolding geula (redemption).  One in particular describes two nations, Sheba and Dedan, which refer to Arab provinces where Jews were living as dhimmis (second-class citizens), as possessing mighty armies while we are helplessly subjugated to them.  Huh?  In my mind’s eye I see the piles of shoes and burned-out equipment that the Arab armies left for us in June 1967.  Sometimes changing the tense of a verb or two will make the poem consonant with reality on the ground, but sometimes it will not.  In that case I cannot get the words out of my mouth; doing so would show a crass ingratitude to God, Who is turning our fortunes around before our very eyes, just as the Prophets told us He would.  Finally, the hazzan (cantor) pronounces the holam (vav with a dot above it) as if it was followed by the letter yod, i.e. an “oy” sound.  He also, as is customary on the Yamim Noraim, sprinkles “oy vey,” liberally throughout the text.  All of this has an unmanly, and therefore unwelcome, ring.  We are not an “oy vey” people anymore; we have earned the world’s respect and admiration for our ability to kick butt.    Neither the pronunciation nor the textual emendation is wrong per se; I cannot fault a man for following his family minhag (custom), but every “oy” and “oy vey” grates on my macho ears, and the older I get the more it grates.  I would like to hear the Selihot and the services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur from an Israeli hazzan who pronounces a holam the Israeli way and does not add “oy veys” that are not found in the printed text.  I would also like the piyutim that describe our past subjugation as if it were present, and that cannot be fixed, simply passed over.  Perhaps people more creative than I am can compose piyutim expressing our gratitude to God for the unfolding geula; these can be substituted for the traditional piyutim that, praise God, no longer have a basis in reality. 
   On a happier note, I became a grandfather for the first time when my daughter gave birth to a daughter on the first day of Shavu’ot 5774.  My granddaughter was named Lianna Batya or Lilliana Beth, but we call her Lily.  We’re all delighted with our cute little girl, but I want her to grow into a big strong girl, in body, mind and spirit, able to advance the geula.  My son got married in Israel on 27 Tevet 5775 to a Sabra girl from Yemenite stock.  They live in Petah Tikva.  I and my wife traveled to Israel for the wedding and sheva brakhot.  May it be God’s will that I should soon return to Israel for a brit milah and pidyon ha-ben, and that we all merit to see the completion of the geula and, before I get too old and weak to put one brick on top of another,  the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash.

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Dodgers to Return to Brooklyn

Shushan News Service – 14 Adar II 5774


    It’s been 57 years since the Brooklyn Dodgers broke our hearts by moving to California.  They will remain there for the time being, but Brooklyn is getting a new bunch of Dodgers from Israel.  A groundswell of disgust at the thousands of young Israeli men who evade army service apparently came to a head yesterday when large groups of secular youth raided synagogues and yeshivot in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and elsewhere.  Wearing masks and colorful costumes and gregging up a cacophonous din, they rounded up all the draft dodgers they could find, most of whom were in a state of intoxication from the Purim festivities.  When this reporter asked several yeshiva rabbis how they could allow such drunkenness in the name of a Jewish celebration, they replied that the young men are forbidden all year to have fun: no movies, no hip-hop, no meeting girls without the permission of a matchmaker, no secular books, no short pants and short-sleeve shirts in the hot summer. . .they need some outlet for all that pent-up energy.  Before the Dodgers could get their wits about them, they were loaded onto waiting lorries and brought to the port of Ashdod, which was undergoing a rocket barrage from terrorists in Gaza.  When the more sober yeshiva students wept and wailed that they were all going to die, their captors replied, “We have everything well in hand, no thanks to you and your draft dodging ilk.  We have Giants here.  Our soldiers are shooting the rockets out of the sky with the Iron Dome, and our flyboys are over Gaza bringing justice to Haman, oops, Hamas.  We have the best flyboys on earth, you know.  They don’t even have to look at girls when they’re on a mission, since there are no lady pilots.” 

“So where are you taking us?”

“To Brooklyn, in America.  It’s the best place for Dodgers.  There’s no draft in America, and the streets are paved with. . ., well, the streets aren’t paved with gold but you’ll be able to learn in yeshiva and nobody will force you to learn a little English, math and science so you’ll be able to get a job and earn some dough.” 

“Science?  Feh!  Apikorsus!  And dough?  Goyishe dough?  We can only smoke Pot Yisrael, and what do we know about growing the stuff?” 

“Feh you say?  You schmoes have no problem using refrigerators, cars, medicines and all the other goodies science gave us to make our lives easier, do you?”

“Oy, oy, what are we going to do?  Soon we’ll all be strangers in a strange new place.”

“Don’t worry.  You won’t have trouble finding a Jewish face.  They look like dumb Polacks from the 17th century.  Come to think of it, they look a lot like you.  Oh, I almost forgot to tell you.  Brooklyn is crawling with black dragons three times your size and built like Greek gods chiseled out of granite.”

“Voos iss Greek gods?  Every chayder boy knows there’s only one God.”

“You’ll find out soon enough.  They knock nebbishes like you out with one punch and eat them for breakfast.  Over there you won’t have the protection of the state you don’t recognize and the army you refuse to serve in.  Well, here’s the ship.  We have a passable navy too, you know.  Our sailors will get you to Brooklyn and serve you great glatt kosher food on the way.”


   While the Dodgers were boarding the ship this reporter sought out Lazer Gantzashvantz, self-styled chairman of the Bring the Dodgers Back to Brooklyn Committee.  “So Mr. Gantzashvantz, shalom Aleichem.  How are things going on your end?”

“Oy vey is mir.  We found an empty lot and we’re building the Ebbets Yeshiva with all the modern conveniences, even a baseball diamond for your Sandy Koufaxes to use in their ten-minute recess, but where are all these boys going to live?  Housing isn’t the easiest thing to come by in Brooklyn, and what with our women popping out a baby every year starting at age 18 our neighborhoods are already packed like sardines.  And the cost?  These people are poor.  They have nothing.  Absolutely nothing.”

“They’re our very best Torah scholars.  They have more under their big toe than American yeshiva bochurim will ever get in a lifetime of learning.”

“Very good, but that won’t pay the rent and it won’t put food on the table.”

“So there’s no room Lazer?  That’s your headache.  And as for poverty I say to you, Lazer, that’s your headache too.  It won’t be as hard as settling tens of thousands of refugees from backward Arab stink holes coming to us with nothing but the clothes on their backs.”

“Well, we’ll have to manage.  We always have.  And at least when our bochurim secretly watch baseball, they won’t have to watch the Goyishe Dodgers in California.  They’ll have real Jewish Brooklyn Dodgers.”

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Monday, February 10, 2014

I need a little summer. . . .

I  need a little summer.  Right this very minute.

   I need a little summer. . . .

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Sunday, January 12, 2014

A New Year - A New Mayor

   An era ended two weeks ago for New York City.  Twenty years of Republican mayors are over and for the first time in a long time this city, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans four to one, is being governed by a Democrat, a Democrat for whom I voted with much hope and confidence.  When I vote for Republicans, which I do more often than I’d like, I vote for them with a heavy heart, knowing that if they win I and other liberals (there, I just said the L-word) would have to watch them like a hawk.  We are coming off eight years of Rudy Giuliani and twelve of Michael Bloomberg.  Their record is mixed, but far more positive than I would have expected from Republicans.  Giuliani entered City Hall with a city awash in crime and a deteriorating infrastructure whose middle class tax base was leaving in droves.  We all were resigned to double locking our doors, driving our cars in summer with windows locked and gas-guzzling air conditioners at full blast, and not letting our children out of our sight in a city which we simply assumed was ungovernable.  After Mayor Giuliani’s first term the city had done an about face.  Crime rates were the lowest in memory, children played outside, and we still double locked our doors but more from force of habit than fear of actual danger.  The city was never ungovernable; it was merely ungoverned for too darn long.  Giuliani appointed several get-tough police commissioners and a novel “broken windows theory” of policing; sweat the small stuff and you don’t get the big stuff.  Arrest petty vandals, grafitti “artists,” turnstile jumpers and such and they don’t graduate to armed robbery, rape and murder.  At the first sign of any trouble in Crown Heights, which suffered a terrible pogrom a year and a half before Giuliani took office,  a phalanx of riot-equipped police with a mobile command post and the whole nine yards descended on the neighborhood and did not leave until the trouble was over.  Cynical New Yorkers pooh-poohed the new policies but they worked.  Serious felonies took a nose dive and there were no Crown Heights riots in Crown Heights or anyplace else.  The City became a safe place to live and work, the exodus to the suburbs ended and people who had fled actually started coming back; there is little to recommend a long automobile commute on snowy highways and with gasoline prices sky high.  Freshly minted energetic and creative college grads flocked to New York and reinvigorated deteriorating neighborhoods like North Williamsburg, the Lower East Side and even Harlem.

   Giuliani’s second term brought still more reduction in crime, but there were stirrings of too much of a good thing.  Law-abiding people were being gratuitously harassed by the police, some of whom seemed to actually enjoy harassing them.  Being a teacher in an inner-city school, I would overhear the horror stories of students and teachers of color about being randomly stopped by cops and asked for ID (which no American civilian is required to carry), thrown up against a wall, invasively searched without a warrant, and the like.  Certain neighborhoods in the City were turning into a police state and affluent New Yorkers who held the power didn’t seem to care.  You did not even have to be black to be harassed by Giuliani’s cops; it happened to me.  I was attending teachers’ meetings in a high school in Bensonhurst, and was running north at lunch time to a kosher Dunkin Donuts to grab a bite when I was stopped by two people.  They asked me what I was doing in the neighborhood.  Being Jewish I answered their question with another question: What’s it of your business?  They showed me shields that identified them as police and resumed their intrusive questioning.  When I told them that I was in the neighborhood for teachers’ meetings at the high school, they told me the schools were closed for Election Day.  I replied that the schools are closed for students, but teachers have meetings and they can check that with the Board (now the Department) of Education.  What do you know about drug dealing over there (pointing south toward Coney Island)?  I don’t know what you’re talking about.  Why are you running?  I like to run.  They looked at me like I was crazy.  Never mind that I was wearing a baseball cap emblazoned on both sides with “New York City Marathon” and it was the week before the Marathon.  What freaking planet were those guys on?  They asked me for ID and I gave them my driver’s license.  What’s your address?  I told them.  That’s not the address on your license.  I recently moved; that was my old address and I filed the required form with the Department of Motor Vehicles.  One of them took the license into his car and ran it through the computer; of course it checked out fine.  Then one of them told me to open my mouth, and when I did so he swept the inside of my mouth with his finger (I don’t remember if he was wearing a rubber finger cot or rubber gloves), “checking for drugs.”  Of course he didn’t find a thing.  Only then did they let me go my way.  Several years later I recounted my experience to a lawyer acquaintance who told me that if the statute of limitations had not run out he would advise me to hire a lawyer and sue the city and the police department, as I had been subjected to an illegal and invasive search.

  Then came Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire Manhattanite aloof from New Yorkers in the outer boroughs who actually had to work for a living.  Never having had to deal with unions in his businesses where he made his billions, he made an art form out of demonizing the city’s unions and not bargaining with them in good faith, when he bargained at all.  At the end of his tenure he deliberately forced the unions into time-consuming and unwieldy impasse procedures so as to “kick the can” to the next mayor.

   This analysis would not be complete without mentioning a sea change in quality of life in New York’s public places, besides the dramatic reduction in crime.  A city that was choked with pollution from automobiles now encourages people to ride bicycles, both for fun and to travel to and from work.  Bike lanes and even bike rental stations are now a common sight.  Herald Square and other heavily trafficked public places now have protected areas where pedestrians can sit down and enjoy a snack and unrushed conversation, weather permitting.  We no longer have to inhale poisonous cigarette smoke as a condition of holding a job, shopping for groceries, waiting on line in a bank or being in any other indoor public space.  Prospect and Central Parks are free of automobile traffic much of the time; Transportation Alternatives is trying to make that all of the time.  Organized running and bicycle races are now common in those and other parks on weekends and summer weekday evenings.  Children and adults now enjoy the parks without having to inhale automobile exhaust and dodge speeding automobile traffic.  New Yorkers resisted all of these improvements at first, but eventually got used to them and even began to like them.  

   After 20 years with the same party in power, Americans usually vote for change.  So it was in New York, as Democrat Bill de Blasio was sworn in January 1.  He lived in Brooklyn (as mayor, he will live in Gracie Mansion) and has a son attending prestigious – and public – Brooklyn Technical High School, “Brooklyn Tech” to New Yorkers.  Like most Democratic public officials in New York, he is union friendly.  He can be expected to drive a hard bargain, but he will bargain in good faith.  Perhaps the greatest change we can expect to see – and soon – will be in the quality of policing.  One of the major issues in de Blasio’s election campaign was Bloomberg’s “stop and frisk” policy, whereby police could detain anybody they deemed suspicious and frisk him for weapons.  Very few weapons were found or arrests made, but very much distrust and animosity was created between the police and the people they are supposed to protect and serve.  In theory the police had to have “reasonable suspicion” (a lesser standard than the “probable cause” required to obtain a search warrant) to perform a stop and frisk.  In practice “reasonable suspicion” could mean that the cop didn’t like the way somebody looks, the way he is dressed, or that he walks with a swagger (they should have seen me in the summer of 1967; I walked with the granddaddy of all swaggers).  In other words, breathing while black was enough to get you stopped and frisked in majority-black neighborhoods.  The new mayor pledged to end all that, and we have the technology to do so without sending crime rates into the stratosphere.  Policemen can be outfitted with cameras on their uniforms (the courts have held that there is no right to privacy on a public street) that can show a suspicious bulge in somebody’s pocket, gang signs or colors and similar bases for reasonable suspicion.  Another likely change will be “community policing,” whereby cops are taken out of their patrol cars and put on their feet, getting to know the area and its people, who the troublemakers are, who bears watching and so forth.  It works in most places where it was tried.  I don’t place much credence in fears of a return to the crime-ridden 1970s and ‘80s; New Yorkers simply won’t allow it.  For example, before Mayor Giuliani took office, “squeegee men” would hang out at key intersections offering to wash motorists’ windshields for a fee and harassing them if they declined.  Giuliani cleared them out.  During Bloomberg’s administration they tried to make a comeback.  The news made headlines in the tabloids, and the next day the squeegee men were gone.  We like our safe, people-friendly city and no official who values his political hide will allow a return to the bad old days.


תכלה שנה וקללותיה.  תחל שנה וברכותיה.

May the old year with its curses end, and a new year with its blessings begin.


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Friday, November 22, 2013

John F. Kennedy in His Own Words

   It's that time of year again, the terrible anniversary engraved forever in the minds of all those old enough to remember.  But this time it's the fiftieth, and the media are replete with retrospectives.  There isn't much I can add in that genre that I have not written in previous anniversary posts on this blog, so I will simply post one of his famous speeches, the "Negro baby" civil rights speech delivered in June 1963.  One might reflect on the progress we made as a nation since then; that American soldiers would have to be deployed on American soil to ensure that a black American could attend college seems almost unbelievable today, and who would have dared imagine 50 years ago that we would have an African-American president today?  Here is the speech that would bring this country closer to its founding principles:

Radio and Television Report to the American People on Civil Rights
President John F. Kennedy
The White House

June 11, 1963 

     Good evening my fellow citizens: 

     This afternoon, following a series of threats and defiant statements, the presence of Alabama National Guardsmen was required on the University of Alabama to carry out the final and unequivocal order of the United States District Court of the Northern District of Alabama. That order called for the admission of two clearly qualified young Alabama residents who happened to have been born Negro. 

     That they were admitted peacefully on the campus is due in good measure to the conduct of the students of the University of Alabama, who met their responsibilities in a constructive way. 
     I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents. This Nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened. 

     Today we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free. And when Americans are sent to Viet-Nam or West Berlin, we do not ask for whites only. It ought to be possible, therefore, for American students of any color to attend any public institution they select without having to be backed up by troops. 

     It ought to be possible for American consumers of any color to receive equal service in places of public accommodation, such as hotels and restaurants and theaters and retail stores, without being forced to resort to demonstrations in the street, and it ought to be possible for American citizens of any color to register to vote in a free election without interference or fear of reprisal. 

     It ought to be possible, in short, for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color. In short, every American ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated, as one would wish his children to be treated. But this is not the case. 

     The Negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the Nation in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing a high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year, a life expectancy which is seven years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much. 

     This is not a sectional issue. Difficulties over segregation and discrimination exist in every city, in every State of the Union, producing in many cities a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety. Nor is this a partisan issue. In a time of domestic crisis men of good will and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics. This is not even a legal or legislative issue alone. It is better to settle these matters in the courts than on the streets, and new laws are needed at every level, but law alone cannot make men see right. 

     We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. 

     The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay? 

     One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free. 

     We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes?
     Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise. The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or State or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them. 

     The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city, North and South, where legal remedies are not at hand. Redress is sought in the streets, in demonstrations, parades, and protests which create tensions and threaten violence and threaten lives. 

     We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and as a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives. 

     It is not enough to pin the blame of others, to say this a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the fact that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all. 

     Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality. 

     Next week I shall ask the Congress of the United States to act, to make a commitment it has not fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law. The Federal judiciary has upheld that proposition in the conduct of its affairs, including the employment of Federal personnel, the use of Federal facilities, and the sale of federally financed housing. 

     But there are other necessary measures which only the Congress can provide, and they must be provided at this session. The old code of equity law under which we live commands for every wrong a remedy, but in too many communities, in too many parts of the country, wrongs are inflicted on Negro citizens and there are no remedies at law. Unless the Congress acts, their only remedy is in the street.

     I am, therefore, asking the Congress to enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public--hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments. 

     This seems to me to be an elementary right. Its denial is an arbitrary indignity that no American in 1963 should have to endure, but many do. 

     I have recently met with scores of business leaders urging them to take voluntary action to end this discrimination and I have been encouraged by their response, and in the last 2 weeks over 75 cities have seen progress made in desegregating these kinds of facilities. But many are unwilling to act alone, and for this reason, nationwide legislation is needed if we are to move this problem from the streets to the courts. 

     I am also asking the Congress to authorize the Federal Government to participate more fully in lawsuits designed to end segregation in public education. We have succeeded in persuading many districts to desegregate voluntarily. Dozens have admitted Negroes without violence. Today a Negro is attending a State-supported institution in every one of our 50 States, but the pace is very slow. 

     Too many Negro children entering segregated grade schools at the time of the Supreme Court's decision 9 years ago will enter segregated high schools this fall, having suffered a loss which can never be restored. The lack of an adequate education denies the Negro a chance to get a decent job. 

     The orderly implementation of the Supreme Court decision, therefore, cannot be left solely to those who may not have the economic resources to carry the legal action or who may be subject to harassment. 

     Other features will also be requested, including greater protection for the right to vote. But legislation, I repeat, cannot solve this problem alone. It must be solved in the homes of every American in every community across our country. 

     In this respect I want to pay tribute to those citizens North and South who have been working in their communities to make life better for all. They are acting not out of a sense of legal duty but out of a sense of human decency. 

     Like our soldiers and sailors in all parts of the world they are meeting freedom's challenge on the firing line, and I salute them for their honor and their courage. 

     My fellow Americans, this is a problem which faces us all--in every city of the North as well as the South. Today there are Negroes unemployed, two or three times as many compared to whites, inadequate in education, moving into the large cities, unable to find work, young people particularly out of work without hope, denied equal rights, denied the opportunity to eat at a restaurant or lunch counter or go to a movie theater, denied the right to a decent education, denied almost today the right to attend a State university even though qualified. It seems to me that these are matters which concern us all, not merely Presidents or Congressmen or Governors, but every citizen of the United States. 

     This is one country. It has become one country because all of us and all the people who came here had an equal chance to develop their talents. 

     We cannot say to 10 percent of the population that you can't have that right; that your children cannot have the chance to develop whatever talents they have; that the only way that they are going to get their rights is to go into the streets and demonstrate. I think we owe them and we owe ourselves a better country than that. 

     Therefore, I am asking for your help in making it easier for us to move ahead and to provide the kind of equality of treatment which we would want ourselves; to give a chance for every child to be educated to the limit of his talents. 

     As I have said before, not every child has an equal talent or an equal ability or an equal motivation, but they should have an equal right to develop their talent and their ability and their motivation, to make something of themselves. 

     We have a right to expect that the Negro community will be responsible, will uphold the law, but they have a right to expect that the law will be fair, that the Constitution will be color blind, as Justice Harlan said at the turn of the century. 

     This is what we are talking about and this is a matter which concerns this country and what it stands for, and in meeting it I ask the support of all our citizens. 

     Thank you very much.



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