For this year’s observance of the festival of Shavuot, I would like to offer a real-life parable of sorts, one that hopefully evokes thoughts about love, compassion, the power of music, empathy for society’s disenfranchised, human connections and mutual respect. I know, it’s a tall order.
A few months ago, I was driving home from work, about to get on I-83, at a stoplight on North Avenue. A gentleman wearing tattered jeans and a homemade sign around his neck proclaiming himself a homeless war veteran stood on an island, asking motorists for spare change.
Now this might sound horrible but I don’t usually give money to these folks, because I really prefer not encouraging panhandling. Plus, I never seem to have any spare change in my car. But I was in a good mood on this particular afternoon, and maybe he saw a welcoming glint in my eye, so he came over to my vehicle.
After I gave him a couple of quarters and he blessed and thanked me profusely, he stopped suddenly and seemed to stare right through me for a few suspended moments. Nervously, I asked him what was wrong, and he pointed at my passenger seat. I turned my head, and there on the passenger seat were a couple of harmonicas.
Now look, anyone who knows me knows that I love the humble Mississippi Sax, and even play it occasionally while driving to and from work. It keeps me sane; I call it my “tin shrink.”
Anyway, I was a bit embarrassed, but I said to the man, “Yeah, I like to play in the car sometimes, to the radio or to myself. Just for fun, and to practice.” He gave me a look of pure and utter joy, and said, “OK, well, come on, son, play it! Let’s hear ya, brother!”
Sheepishly and hesitantly, I picked up one of my harps and vamped a few blues riffs, with my fellow motorists watching intently (they must’ve thought I was nuts). At this point, the homeless man started dancing up a firestorm – right there in the middle of the street – and yelling, “Hey, buddy, you’re good! You’re good! Keep playin’!”
Naturally, I was a bit uncomfortable (after all, it was a rush-hour street scene, not a jam session at a Fells Point tavern), but I kept blowing harp and he kept dancing, singing and screaming the whole time. Finally – thankfully! – the light turned green and I stopped playing and wished him a good evening and drove off.
When I looked in my rearview mirror, about to get on the expressway ramp and en route to my home and family, the man was still dancing in the street as cars sped by, a great, big smile on his face. He no longer seemed to care about the couple of coins I gave him. We’d had an encounter that even my lousy harmonica playing could diminish. It reminded me that even with all of the pain and suffering going on in this world, especially these days, we still have the power to touch and move each other.
Such is the stuff of life. He made my day, and hopefully I made his day. For a fleeting instant, we developed a fellowship of the soul. And isn’t that what Shavuot is all about?
A few weeks ago, a guy – who identified himself as being Jewish—called to tell me about what he considered a prime case of religious and ethnic discrimination. It seems that a local Catholic high school was holding a prom for its seniors, and one of the students wanted to bring her platonic Jewish male friend. The school, however, forbade it, because the friend was not Catholic.
“Tell me, is that blatant discrimination or what?” the caller asked. Yes, I responded.
Then, the caller admitted that the whole scenario was a fabrication, a great big lie. Never happened.
He said the “real” story was of a friend’s son who attends a local Jewish high school and wanted to take a platonic non-Jewish female friend to the prom. The school basically said, “Um, sorry, ain’t gonna happen. It’s against our policy.”
“Well, is it still discrimination?” the caller challenged me. He then noticed a long pause on my end of the phone.
I tried to explain to him that I can understand that the Jewish school is in the business of promoting Jewish values and beliefs, which include keeping Judaism and the Jewish people going and thriving. “I understand where they’re coming from,” I said, “even though it certainly does have a discriminatory aspect to it. But from a Jewish communal perspective, it’s about survival.”
The caller, however, was having none of it. “If someone pulled this on the Jews, we’d be screaming bloody murder and calling the Anti-Defamation League and every media outlet in town,” he said. “This is point-blank bigotry.” He went on to say that the whole matter has turned him off to the Jewish community and Judaism in general, and he was even thinking of quitting his temple (which is not connected in any way, shape or form to the Jewish school.)
When I asked him if the family of the Jewish student would talk to me, possibly for an article, he said they would absolutely not. They didn’t want to make waves or criticize the school publicly. They were just fuming quietly.
But meanwhile, the caller was quite frustrated with my lack of outrage and disgust, and called me on it. He basically called me another communal stooge who hides behind Jewish assimilation and intermarriage fears to promote discrimination and prejudice.
“I understand what you’re saying,” I told him, “but this is an issue that goes straight to the heart of modern Jewish life. It’s complex. If a Jewish institution says, `Jews only,’ is it discrimination? Or is it a matter of survival, considering that the demographics show that the Jewish community is practically vanishing before our eyes? I know that sounds alarmist, but there are no easy answers here.”
The man, highly annoyed with me, ended the conversation by noting that of all people who should know better about exclusionary practices and the very high price of only accepting someone by their genetics and lineage (something beyond their control), it is Jews.
Fair enough. But one thing is for sure: this conversation will go on. For a long time.
Many years ago, I covered a Baltimore Jewish Council lunch gathering at which the keynote speaker discussed apartheid and how it was affecting South Africa’s Jewish community. After the talk, I grabbed the speaker in the hallway for a moment and asked a few questions, including one about whether he felt a holocaust was imminent in South Africa. Remember, these were the days when Nelson Mandela was still in prison and the white minority ruled.
One older audience member, Chiae Herzig, who was eavesdropping, came up to me afterwards and said, “Excuse me, Alan, but you asked him if there could be a holocaust in South Africa. I don’t mean to butt in, but you need to know that there was only one Holocaust, and to ask if there could ever be another one is incorrect. There could never, ever be another Holocaust.”
Maybe Chiae, God bless her soul, was being a tad reactionary in her comments, but she was right. My usage of the term “Holocaust” was inappropriate. After all, what was going on in South Africa was horrific and terribly wrong, but to compare it to the systematic genocide of European Jewry during World War II was woefully misguided and naive. The Holocaust was and is a singular tragedy unlike any other in the annals of human history.
I feel somewhat similarly about 9/11. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were also a singular historical event, one that my generation (hopefully) will never, ever forget.
Now I’m a big fan of Wanda Sykes. I think she’s hysterical, and I always enjoy her performances on TV talk shows and “The New Adventures Of Old Christine.” And like many people, I absolutely loathe Rush Limbaugh. His comment earlier this year that he hopes President Obama fails, to me, is tantamount to treason, regardless of your political stripes.
However, to say at last week’s White House Correspondents dinner – even jokingly – that Limbaugh was originally going to be the 20th hijacker on 9/11, “but he was just so strung out on OxyContin [that] he missed his flight,” is just way over the top and way over the line. (Even Sykes herself asked the president from the podium, “Too much?”)
First of all—and I know I say this at the risk of sounding like a wet mop—someone’s past substance abuse problems is nothing to giggle or snicker about. But more importantly, the subject of 9/11 should in every way, shape and form be officially deemed off-limits for even the most extreme, edgy and outrageous comedian.
My guess is that Sykes, as a brilliant, left-leaning entertainer, wanted to one-up and/or woodshed Rush for his “I hope Obama fails” comment. Fair enough. But somehow that needed to be done without alluding in any way to that horrible day in September of 2001.
Some things are just sacred. Like Chiae said to me those many years ago, some things are far beyond comparisons.
The story pulls at the heartstrings and reminds you that in such a world of darkness, there is some light.
Nancy Lichtig Frederick was Michelle Harf-Grim’s best friend for 36 years. According to Michelle, “Everyone was like family to Nancy. When someone would first meet her, she always made them feel like they were her best friend. She had a way of including you so you would never feel alone. She took care of those around her.”
But in July of 1995, Nancy was diagnosed with late stage-3 ovarian cancer. Now, it was Nancy who needed someone to take care of her.
Nancy, according to Michelle, never stopped battling the disease, and her courage was inspirational. She called herself a “stubborn Hungarian,” and her thirst for life was unquenchable. She often gave speeches about her situation (and the symptoms and risks of ovarian cancer) for the American Cancer Society, and helped raise money for Relay for Life fund-raisers. In addition, she co-founded the Cancer Support Foundation, which helps people battling the disease.
In September of 2007, Nancy’s doctors told her that the cancer had spread to her esophagus and they were out of options for her. They gave her a prognosis of six months to a year, but with the strength of her spirit and will to live, she exceeded that projection.
In the last 18 months of her life, Nancy sought spiritual solace, although she did not belong to a synagogue or temple. According to Michelle, the only response Nancy, a Baltimore native, received from the local Jewish community in her inquiries was from Cantor Nancy R. Ginsberg, formerly of Har Sinai Congregation. The cantor visited Nancy in her home every other week for months, and also at Gilchrist Hospice, Michelle said.
Nancy lost her fight on April 19, at age 41, leaving behind many grieving family members and friends. One of them was her husband of eight-and-a-half years, Trevor Frederick, who last January was diagnosed with stomach cancer that was found to have spread to his liver.
As things happen, one morning last month, on the day of Nancy’s funeral, Michelle’s husband, Michael Grim, stopped by a convenience store that he frequents, for a cup of coffee. While there, he chatted with the owner of the store about the Fredericks’ tragic situation, including the fact that there weren’t quite enough funds available yet to pay for Nancy’s funeral (because of Trevor’s expensive treatments). The proprietor, a Jewish man, immediately made a sizable contribution, even though he barely even knew Nancy.
When I called the store owner this week about possibly writing an article on his incredible act of generosity, he immediately turned me down. “I did this out of my heart, out of instinct,” he said. “I’m not looking for attention or compliments. It’s just something I did, that’s all.”
Of course, I’m not going to tell you this man’s name. But in my opinion, he is a living embodiment of Maimonides’ precept that the highest form of tzedakah is giving anonymously.
And it goes without saying that the world would be a far better place if there were more people like this gentleman … and Nancy Lichtig Frederick.
Jack Kemp’s passing late last week, of cancer at age 73, didn’t get as much attention as you’d think it would. After all, we’re talking about a guy who ran for president (in ’88) and vice-president (in ’96, with Bob Dole), played professional football (an NFL quarterback, no less), and spent virtually his entire life in the public eye.
I guess with so much going on these days – economic turmoil, Swine flu, “American Idol” heating up, Jessica Simpson’s fluctuating weight (poor dear) – a guy like Jack Kemp snags precious little ink when he dies.
But I vividly recall being in attendance at Chizuk Amuno Synagogue 11 years ago when Mr. Kemp spoke passionately and eloquently at an Associated gathering about his deep commitment to Israel and how being a Zionist informed him as a human being.
“People sometimes say to me, `Why would a guy from suburban Los Angeles have had this love affair with human rights and Israel?’” Mr. Kemp said. The answer was touring Auschwitz in ’72 as a freshman congressman, he said, and later visiting the Jewish state, receiving a tour of the country from future Israeli President Ezer Weizman, then an Air Force general.
“You don’t have to be Jewish to love Israel or the Zionist dream. … Israel stands as a beacon of hope in the Middle East,” Mr. Kemp said. “When it comes to supporting Israel, there’s no Republican Party or Democratic Party. There’s only one party – the United States party.”
Not surprisingly, Mr. Kemp, a Republican known as a “progressive conservative,” wasn’t too keen on the Oslo Accords. In fact, he felt that Israel was already receiving too much of the blame for the collapse of Middle East peace process.
“Israel gave up the Sinai, the oil fields, Hebron, 490 towns and villages, and seven cities,” he said. “And now Israel alone is being called into account for the failure of Oslo.”
You might not agree with all of Mr. Kemp’s views on the Middle East or other matters (I certainly don’t). But looking back on everything that has transpired since that brisk November night in 1997 when he spoke at Chizuk Amuno, it’s hard to disagree with a lot of his comments. Israel still gets most of the blame for everything, and the Palestinians are still viewed as victims, even though their so-called moderates admit in public that they will never, ever recognize a Jewish state. So much for peace accords.
Thank God for friends like Jack Kemp. We need more of ‘em.