Twenty-six years ago, I received a phone call from Gary Rosenblatt, then the editor of the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES and now the editor and publisher of the New York Jewish Week. Gary wanted to let me know I’d made the cut, that after writing a tryout piece on a Tu B’Shevat gathering at the Owings Mills Jewish Community Center, I was hired for a staff position at the JT.
Ecstatic and overwhelmed, I raced over to tell my buddy Paul, who lived in a garden apartment around the corner from me in Randallstown. He opened the door, looking a bit grim-faced, as I blurted out my news. “Have you seen the TV news yet today?” he asked. “The space shuttle exploded. All the people on board are dead.”
That was my first real life lesson that a) the world is a lot bigger than just me, and b) the latest news (personal or otherwise) can be eclipsed by something far more profound in mere seconds. It’s a fickle universe, and especially today with the information technology revolution and news dissemination operating at breakneck speed, our lives often seem to be swirling in some sort of existential blender.
Since then, I’ve covered nearly every story imaginable for the JT, from zoning meetings and talks by Soviet refuseniks to breaking news about arsons and hate crimes at shuls to controversial neighborhood patrols and death row inmates. I’ve written articles about Holocaust survivors and interfaith relations, of heroes and quirky characters, about spirituality (or the lack thereof) in contemporary congregational life, about Israel and the challenges of sustaining Zionism in American Jewish life.
I even had the opportunity to travel to Louisiana in 2005 and chronicle Jewish communal rescue efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
And I’ll never, ever forget the sight of empty plates dotting the landscape on Reisterstown Road after the blaze at the old Suburban House, left there by older patrons who exited the building still noshing.
There’s not enough space here to reminisce about all of the stories I’ve written for the JT. Don’t worry, I’ll spare you.
But even more than the articles, what’s given me the greatest pleasure has been getting to know the people who live, work and give their life’s blood for this community. They are what makes Jewish Baltimore special. They value community in a way that may be unlike any other Jewish community in North America.
Oh yes, they can be a vexing, demanding bunch. Over the years, we’ve often half-joked here about how our readers feel that the JT isn’t owned by any particular family or business group, but by them. When something appears in the paper that comes off as inappropriate, inaccurate, demeaning or just plain dopey, they often let us know in a frank, no-holds-barred way.
Trust me, I’ve done my share of listening to incensed readers. But that sense of “ownership” and entitlement is what’s made working here so incredibly rewarding and enriching.
I’m leaving the JT after 26 amazing years here. I take with me wonderful, poignant memories and a wealth of meaningful knowledge and insights.
But the most gratifying aspect of this job has always been serving the readers and community. You’ve allowed me to come into your homes, neighborhoods, workplaces and shuls, to help tell the ever unfolding story of Jewish Baltimore. You’ve opened your hearts and souls to me, to share your tragedies and triumphs. And I will always be grateful.
Larry Carton is searching for Torah. Or to be more precise, one Torah in particular.
An amiable Social Security retiree and amateur genealogist who lives in Pikesville with his wife, Mical, Larry first heard about what he’s dubbed “the Morstein Torah” from his bubbie in the late ’70s. It was a sefer Torah that his great-grandfather Harry Morstein commissioned while visiting Palestine in 1927-1928. Harry, a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant who owned several movie theaters in Baltimore, was an inveterate traveler and a flamboyant personality. He had the Torah shipped to Baltimore and gifted to the old Agudas Achim Synagogue in Lower Park Heights, to which he belonged.
In 1983, fueled by curiosity, Larry decided to locate the Torah. He learned that Agudas Achim had merged with Randallstown Synagogue Center on Church Lane. The spiritual leader there, the late Rabbi Israel O. Goldberg, helped him find the Torah, which featured the name of his great-grandfather inscribed in Hebrew into the wooden handle holding the scroll. “It was in perfect condition,” Larry recalls. “I’ve never seen another Torah like it. It was so identifiable and distinctive.”
Over the years, Larry thought about the Torah occasionally. Last year, his sister, Eileen Samberg, visited from Massachusetts and happened to ask about it, re-igniting Larry’s interest. Initially, he inquired about the Torah at Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Hebrew Congregation, which at one time was located on Church Lane, too. The folks at MMAE told him they had no records of the Morstein Torah.
When learning that Agudas Achim was never part of MMAE but Randallstown Synagogue—and the latter shul disbanded about eight years ago—Larry contacted Rabbi Leonard Oberstein, former spiritual leader of Randallstown Synagogue. Rabbi Oberstein said the shul donated its Torahs to different synagogues and Jewish schools in need of sifrei Torahs. But he said there are no records of where they were sent. Larry also checked with the Jewish Museum of Maryland about possible leads on the Morstein Torah, but the JMM doesn’t keep records on such matters.
That’s why Larry, 65, who in his “retirement” has a side business of antiques dealing and chair caning, recently called the Baltimore Jewish Times. “I once found it and it seems I’ve lost it again,” he says of the Morstein Torah.
Larry, who grew up at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation but doesn’t belong to a shul these days, says he doesn’t want to find the Torah for spiritual reasons. He’s not looking to acquire or claim it, or write it off on his taxes. He simply looks at the Torah as a special connection to the great-grandfather he never knew, a man known for hobnobbing with Hollywood stars and being a schmoozer and bon vivant of the highest order.
Like many of us, he has an unquenchable thirst to know more about the family members that came before him. “This is part of my family lore,” Larry said. “And it has disappeared.”
Years ago, in the early ’90s, I covered an event at the Park Heights Jewish Community Center that I’ve never forgotten. The AIDS Quilt had come to the JCC, and there was a special presentation. I don’t recall who the keynote speaker was, but there was a good-sized turnout in the auditorium. And the quilt, of course, was amazing.
When the time arrived for questions from the audience, one gentleman stood up. The passage of time obscures his exact words, but the man basically said something to the effect that it seemed highly inappropriate and offensive that the JCC would bring the AIDS Quilt to a Jewish institution, since he said the Torah expressly forbids homosexuality. When the organizers asked him to sit down, the man steadfastly refused and continued to pose the question, over and over. Eventually, as the rest of us watched in utter amazement, the man was literally picked up by the then-executive director of the JCC and the head of another Jewish agency and carried out of the building, kicking and screaming.
What seemed innocuous to the rest of us—the AIDS Quilt, a symbol of loss and hope, bearing the names of victims of an epidemic—to this man was the manifestation of just about everything wrong in the world. He simply didn’t want to see it at his JCC.
But times do change.
Recently, I saw a notice that among its summer programs, the JCC—this time in Owings Mills—is offering a discussion session in June for parents and friends of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning or transgender.
Like I said, times do change. And what was once alien or unusual to us is now, for the most part, commonplace.
When he first came to Baltimore from New York in 1960, my dad used a public bathroom downtown. He suddenly heard a big commotion, to find a cop beating up a man in the bathroom. The man’s “crime” was that he was born African-American. It turns out my dad, a native New Yorker, had wandered into a “whites-only” restroom and received a firsthand lesson in segregation-era Baltimore.
It’s easy to talk the talk, it’s another to walk the walk. Recently, I heard from an old friend, a woman I haven’t seen in two decades who moved from Baltimore to California. It turns out she at some point decided that she was living a lie and decided to become a he.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was a bit blown away with this development. After all, we’re not talking about someone just switching shuls or making a job change. But I wrote back and said I was glad he was doing well and would love to catch up over a beer the next time he was in town. And by the tone of his response, I could tell my acceptance meant a lot to him.
These issues coming before us as individuals and as a society are not easy ones. They require struggle and contemplation. But what’s important is being open and welcoming to these folks. Because someday, our discomfort will seem as antiquated and inane as a “whites-only” bathroom.
Yesterday afternoon, I walked into a courtroom on the sixth floor of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse with a good deal of trepidation. Preparing for the verdict to be rendered in the Eliyahu and Avi Werdesheim trial, the Jewish brothers accused of assaulting an African-American teenager in Northwest Baltimore in November 2010, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Downstairs in front of the courthouse, I didn’t see any protesters, just TV cameras and some cops. So I knew it wasn’t going to the L.A. riots of ’92. But I also knew that a racially-charged case like this, coming so soon on the heels of the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, could prove to be a volatile situation if folks on either side of the aisle were vehemently displeased with the verdict.
So opening that chamber door, I knew the courtroom would probably be packed with media people, black and Orthodox activists, clergy, family members, attorneys, concerned citizens, etc. But I wasn’t sure what the mood in the air would be.
To my surprise, there was an air of civility and respect that filled the courtroom. Not to sound too “We Are The World,” but I saw African-Americans schmoozing with frum and secular Jews, laughing and discussing matters not even related to the case. I’m not saying it was like a country picnic, but you would’ve never known that the verdict was about to be announced for a divisive case that has chilled relations between African-Americans and Jews in this town.
I made my way through the courtroom—only a half-hour before Judge Pamela J. White cleared Avi Werdesheim of all charges but found Eliyahu guilty of false imprisonment and second-degree assault (although cleared of carrying a deadly weapon with intent to injure) – and found a seat next to a woman I didn’t know.
After a few pleasantries, I learned she was Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore City branch of the NAACP. A longtime educator and activist, Tessa spoke to me about how the wheels of justice should’ve turned more quickly in this case (something probably most local African-Americans and Jews would agree on), and then about her organization. We discovered we had several people in common, and she was delighted when I told her I grew up in the Gwynn Oak-Woodlawn area, which is where she lives.
A proud Forest Park High School graduate, Tessa told me she’s had Jewish friends all her life and still keeps in touch with old pals from Forest Park. She asked me if I was old enough to remember Gwynn Oak Amusement Park. Old enough? I told her my family’s timeworn story about when as a 4-year-old, I ran away from home because I wanted to go to Gwynn Oak. After learning I couldn’t get on the rides without a ticket, I came back home in a police squad car. (But that’s another story.)
Tessa had a good laugh about that story and informed me that her son – now 30 and like me an alum of Powhatan Elementary School – sort of did the same thing, playing hooky from school with a buddy to catch fish and worms in a stream at the park. (Ironically, he now works for the Baltimore City Bureau of Water & Wastewater.)
In the midst of these anecdotes and revelry, a member of the sheriff’s office came into the courtroom and bluntly told us all to clam up, because the judge was coming. But I couldn’t help but think how my conversation with Tessa, as well as the other exchanges going on in that courtroom, is the true heart of black-Jewish relations, not these incidents that occasionally arise and (with the assistance of carnivorous fanatics, lawyers, media and politicians) threaten to tear us apart.
That’s where true relations begin and end – out of the glare of the spotlight.
Like any working journalist, I feel a great debt of gratitude to Mike Wallace, the hard-hitting “60 Minutes” investigative reporter who died yesterday at age 93. Wallace was the epitome of the take-no-prisoners journalist who wasn’t satisfied with canned, fluffy answers. In his storied career, he taught all of us to probe harder, ask deeper questions and not settle for press release statements, all with a sense of fairness, honesty and integrity.
Of course, the testimonials for the legendary, hard-charging Wallace are ubiquitous right now, as they should be, given his profound impact on contemporary journalism, broadcast and print.
Here’s my own little reminiscence of him.
Back in March 1987, when I was a cub reporter for the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES, “60 Minutes” did a controversial piece on the status of Jews in the former Soviet Union that was denounced by several national Jewish organizations as being highly imbalanced and distorted. Remember, these were the days when leading American Jewish activists were routinely being arrested outside of the Soviet embassy in D.C. Former refuseniks speaking about the harsh treatment and persecution of Jews in the FSU were a common sight in Baltimore and other Jewish communities around the nation. The liberation of our brethren living under communist totalitarian rule was a unifying mission among American Jews of all denominations and stripes.
The “60 Minutes” piece, now largely forgotten, was condemned by major American Jewish groups for depicting life for Soviet Jews as being fairly pleasant and upbeat, save for those pesky, troublemaking refuseniks.
My editor at that time, Sherwood Kohn, assigned me to write a story about the controversy and even suggested I call Mike Wallace, who anchored and reported the segment. Initially, I felt that Sherwood’s suggestion to call Wallace had no merit whatsoever, that I might as well try to climb Mount Everest barefoot in a half-hour. But wisely, I kept my feelings to myself and called CBS in New York.
“`60 Minutes,’ please,” I said to the receptionist there who answered the phone. (Remember, this was back in the days when human beings actually answered phones at companies and corporations.)
A few seconds later, I said to the “60 Minutes” receptionist, “Mike Wallace, please.” To my great astonishment, about 10 seconds later, I heard, “Hi, this is Mike Wallace. Can I help you?”
I probably stuttered for a second or two – completely in shock that I was interviewing arguably the most famous and influential journalist of the latter half of the 20th century – and then I identified myself and my publication. Wallace couldn’t have been any kinder or more charming, probably noticing I was a bit young and nervous.
“Hi Alan, so nice to talk to you. Hope you’re doing well. Tell me about yourself and the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES.”
We spoke for about a minute about the JEWISH TIMES and its circulation and such, and then I explained to him why I was calling. Again, Wallace couldn’t have been more pleasant, even though I was calling to say that the leaders of American Jewry were really steamed with him (born Myron Leon Wallik to Russian Jewish immigrant parents) and his piece, even to the point of calling him a traitor.
Calmly and thoughtfully, Wallace defended the piece as well-researched and balanced, noting that he and the producers had intermittently spent six months on the project to make sure it was done right and thoroughly. “To say this story wasn’t well-researched or [was] one-sided is absurd,” he said. “This was done with a lot of care. I don’t think there was any distortion or lack of balance.”
When I pointed out to him that many Soviet observers strongly felt the piece completely bought into the Kremlin party line that Jews were treated quite well there – maybe in my naivete I was trying to “out-Mike Wallace” Mike Wallace – the veteran reporter didn’t even flinch or balk for a moment.
“Why isn’t the other side of the story ever covered? I deplore the Soviet Union’s policy of denying exit visas,” he said. “But as a reporter, I try to find interesting stories and shed light on our society and world.”
As far as Jewish communal criticism of the segment, Wallace said, “We don’t calculate what effect a story has with our audience. That’s up to the public. We don’t anticipate or second-guess.”
In the long run, history might now take issue with Wallace and his segment’s depiction of a sanguine life for Jews in FSU. Maybe Mikhail Gorbachev and the boys in Moscow did somehow pull the wool over the characteristically jaded eyes of the planet’s best-known “gotcha” reporter.
But on a personal level, I’ll never forget Mike Wallace’s easygoing manner, grace and spirit of generosity toward a young, nervous reporter who couldn’t begin to fathom that he was merely chatting on the phone with one of the field’s true giants.
People ask me occasionally what it’s like to work at the JT. (That is, when they’re not grilling me about our recent legal woes.)
Working with the Jewish community here, of course, can be fun and intriguing, and it can be challenging and vexing at times. And sometimes, you get a good laugh when you need one. Here’s a sampling.
Yesterday, I got a phone call from a very nice woman who sounded like she was in her 30s or 40s. She said she had a great human interest story for me. “I’m not a writer myself, so I can’t write it for you,” she explained. “But maybe you or one of your people will be interested.”
She said that she’s an interior designer – not an interior decorator, she emphasized when correcting me later in the conversation – who lives in the Jones Valley area. She’s about to move to Florida and get out of “Smalltimore,” as she put it. (When I asked where she was moving to in the Sunshine State, she seemed a bit unsure – just that she was hitting the gas the minute she settled on the sale of her townhouse.)
Anyway, she told me that about 15 years ago, her mom had a friend whose adult son was—um, how should I put this? – rubbed out by the Russian Mafia. (Well, allegedly, anyway.) Seems this poor fellow, a popular local hairdresser, had fallen into substance abuse and hard times, thus running afoul with the nefarious immigrant underworld. (Is there any other kind of immigrant underworld?)
The caller and her mom were invited to go through his belongings, to see if there was anything they may want or need, since the bereaved family was probably going to give much of it away to charity. While going through all of the stuff in his place, the caller noticed a custom-designed egg, artfully hand-decorated and with a loving, personal inscription to the deceased from the artist. The caller decided to keep it, as a quirky, rather morbid tchotchke.
But, alas, here’s the problem. She’s now flying down South and fears that the egg will not survive the car journey, especially since it’s already starting to crack with the cruel passage of time. She’s trying to find a good home in “Smalltimore” for it, but so far has been quite unsuccessful.
“So why, may I ask, are you calling the Jewish Times?” I said to her. She merely giggled, cleared her throat and said, “Well, you never know, maybe someone wants this egg and will take it in and take good care of it. Maybe someone remembers him and wants it, for some reason. I don’t know what to do with it, and I thought it’s a cool story. This egg has a special history and value. It’s funny, you know?”
As the caller herself might say, only in “Smalltimore.”
They say that a ray of sunlight can shine through even during the darkest hours. I always thought that was a bit of a cliché, but there are times when I can see what they mean.
On this week’s cover of the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES, you’ll notice a grouping of our previous covers, some old and some fairly recent. At the center is a JT dating back to Feb. 13, 1953, with its cover partially showing a well-dressed lady chatting with a man driving a car with logos on the doors: “MD. SCHOOL FOR THE BLIND” and “DONATED BY THE FRIENDSHIP SISTERS I.O.B.S.”
Our cover story this week is about the JEWISH TIMES’ current legal and financial situation, something that’s received a great deal of community interest lately. I won’t get into that here, you’ll have to read the cover story package.
But I want to give you a little background on that particular issue from 1953—and that lady in the photo.
Until about seven years ago, I had an elderly next door neighbor who lived alone named Jeanne Goldberg. We always called her “Miss Jeanne.”
Miss Jeanne was a wonderful neighbor: friendly, pleasant, thoughtful, generous, and mainly kept to herself and lived her life. When my kids were born, she sent over gifts. When I shoveled snow from her driveway and cleared off her car, she always later sent over chocolates to show her appreciation.
Miss Jeanne was all class.
She lived a full, rich life. She had lots of friends and interests, and even belonged to a bowling league well into her 80s.
Unfortunately as she got older, it became increasingly difficult for her to maintain the house where she’d lived for 40 years and raised a family. She eventually decided to clean out her house, sell it and move in with her daughter, Doris.
But at one point, Miss Jeanne called and asked me to drop by her house. She had something for me, she said.
When I went over, she handed me a mint-copy JEWISH TIMES from 1953. The editorial that week, penned by managing editor Bert Kline, was about anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union.
“I thought you would like this, since you work at the JEWISH TIMES,” Miss Jeanne said. I didn’t even know she knew where I worked. It never came up in conversation before.
Thumbing through the issue in utter amazement, I said, “Jeanne, why do you even have this?” She said, “That’s me,” and pointed to the lady chatting with the driver in the top right photo of the cover. “I belonged to the Friendship Sisters, so I was on the cover that week. I had it somewhere in the house for many years, forgot about it, and when I was cleaning out my stuff, I saw it and thought you would enjoy having it.”
She was right. A couple of days later, I brought the issue to work, left it on my desk and have shown it occasionally to people over the years.
Not too long after that, Miss Jeanne moved in with her daughter and passed away. The world lost a wonderful, gentle, kind soul.
Now fast-forward to earlier this week. Our art director, scrambling to put together a collage of images conveying the legacy and relevance of this publication, asked me if I happened to have any “loose” copies of old JTs. All of our back issues are bound in volumes in our storage area, and that would be hard to photograph independently and well. She needed a loose one, and it seemed no one had one available.
Immediately, I thought of Miss Jeanne’s copy in my office and gave it to the art director. This week, Miss Jeanne is again gracing the cover of the JT, albeit in a very different way.
But it seems to me appropriate that she’s on the cover, helping us out. After all, it was people like Miss Jeanne who helped make the JT what it is. They considered the paper an essential, integral part of their lives, read it voraciously every week, and took personal pride in the JT’s national reputation. They reported their weddings, kids’ births and other simchahs in the JT, not to mention the times when they were trying to do some good in the world (like the Friendship Sisters).
May that tradition go on for a long, long time to come.
May Miss Jeanne’s memory always be a blessing. And may the JT always be a relevant, authentic part of our lives.
On a cold, icy night in 1982, I went to see the film “An Officer And A Gentleman” at the old Pikes Theatre. I wish I could say I went with a gorgeous date – after all, that’s one of the greatest date movies of all time – but I have to confess I saw it with a buddy. Nonetheless, that was the night I fell in love with Debra Winger (mind you, this was before I even knew that she was Jewish and a former kibbutznik to boot), and the Pikes, of course, was a great place to catch a flick, with its plush seats, moody lighting and art deco flourishes.
After leaving the Pikes that evening (and watching in horror as that smarmy Richard Gere swept adorable, husky-voiced Debra off her feet), I immediately realized that I left my scarf in the theater, somewhere around the first or second row. Like I said earlier, it was a very chilly night, and back then I actually wore scarves. This was my favorite scarf. So I contemplated trekking back and begging an usher to be allowed inside to retrieve the scarf. But since it was late and the theater was likely closed, I bagged it and figured I’d return a few days later to pick up the scarf.
When I did so, however, I discovered that the Pikes had closed – for good, as a movie house.
So much for my scarf. And Debra Winger.
Of course, since then the historic Pikes has reopened in a multitude of fashions – as a kosher bistro, as an Italian-themed restaurant and as a diner. Owner Will Reich has worked hard to make the Pikes Diner a fun and unique dining experience, and he’s been a strong backer of revitalizing downtown Pikesville in the post-Suburban House era.
Now, as reported by Rochelle Eisenberg in this week’s Jewish Times, Reich is attempting to transform Pikesville’s nightlife – “What nightlife?” you ask—by showcasing live music at the Pikes.
With the paucity of live music venues in Northwest Baltimore, this is an idea that merits kudos and applause. For years, I’ve heard people kvetch bitterly about having to schlep downtown or to D.C. to hear live music or for some vibrant nightlife. Years ago, I even wrote a column about how synagogues and temples in the area should host post-Havdalah coffeehouse shows and live music performances at their facilities, as many with-it churches do on Saturday nights.
Everyone I spoke to about this matter heartily agreed with me, but nobody did anything. Zilch. Sometimes it feels like it’s easier for us all to complain than to actually follow up on decent, fairly obvious ideas.
It seems that Reich is putting his thoughts into action, recruiting live entertainment acts for after-dinner performances on weekends. Since January, the Pikes has featured such fine local bands as the Rube Goldberg Solution, Mister Wilson, JD and the Blades, Heads Up, and Shinola.
And lo and behold, people are coming in droves. Naturally, Reich is taking this on to help his business, but it’s also reminding people that downtown Pikesville is still a viable place to visit, shop, enjoy and maybe even be entertained.
Who knows, maybe other businesses in P-ville will open on weekend nights and give Reich a little run for his money and help build a reputation for Pikesville as a go-to place? Having a vibrant nightlife center would only benefit everyone in the area (except, possibly, those poor teenagers who might cringe at the sight of their parents “dancing” to classic rock tunes).
Let’s hope that Will Reich is on to something.
Now if I could only find my scarf.
Years ago when I first came to the JT, I couldn’t help but notice that, as a young reporter, I was by far the youngest person in the room when I went to cover public events, be they political debates, theological discussions, Middle East forums or cultural gatherings.
Now, I still find that to generally be the case, even though I’m a good distance from being characterized as remotely young anymore.
Recently, I went to Beth Tfiloh Synagogue to cover a talk given by Wall Street Journal reporter Lucette Lagnado on her new book “The Arrogant Years,” about growing up in Cairo and Brooklyn. The talk was absolutely fascinating, Lagnado was delightful, and BT’s Epstein Chapel was packed.
But still, frankly speaking, hardly a young person – or even a moderately young person – was anywhere in sight.
I hear this from people in the local Jewish community all the time. “I went to the such-and-such lecture, and I was the youngster person in the auditorium by a long shot.” Not long ago, my wife and a friend went to Chizuk Amuno Synagogue to hear Dr. Gershon Baskin discuss the clandestine talks that went on between Israel and Hamas to free abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
She told me that the talk was mesmerizing, but she and her friend were a bit surprised to be among the youngest in the room.
By the way, this is meant as no screed against the older generation, who tend to be more compelled by profound issues and intellectually-oriented discussions and are willing to come to these events. Unlike my generation and the generations coming up, they’re the ones that really keep dialogue and discourse thriving. God bless ‘em.
But I’ve been to New York, D.C. and other towns. I’ve gone to hear speakers at different venues in those cities, and I’ve seen young people come out in droves. I know young people are truly interested in matters other than the newest reality show bimbo, what happened on “American Idol” last night, and video games.
Nobody has ever been able to adequately explain to me why the Jewish under-55 set in Charm City tends to avoid intelligent and informative community talks and events at all costs. Is it all about marketing? Admission fees? Busy careers? A lack of curiosity or time? High gasoline prices? Mass apathy? All of the above?
I always thought that as time moved on (and I myself grew older), I’d see a change as people mature and evolve and get more interested in weightier topics. Of course when you’re in your 20s, you’re usually thinking about members of the opposite sex, creating an identity for yourself, members of the opposite sex, forging a career for yourself, members of the opposite sex, etc. (You get the picture.)
But now that we’re older, we can’t all be home reading books by Kierkegaard, can we? Why are we less willing to take out the time to stimulate our minds in a communal setting than our predecessors?
The question remains, post-Boomers, where are ye?
I must admit that I’ve only met a few Mormons in my lifetime. But theirs is a religion I just don’t really get. After all, how much fun and satisfying can it be to save souls after someone’s dead?
Lately, Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and other Jewish leaders have wasted their collective breath condemning proxy ritual ceremonies conducted by Mormons to posthumously baptize Jews. (Unfortunately, I seriously doubt anyone’s listening over in Utah.)
The latest victim of this bizarre practice? Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and savagely executed by terrorists in Pakistan a decade ago this month.
Seems that Pearl was baptized by proxy last June at a Mormon temple in Twin Falls, Idaho, according to the Boston Globe.
This news comes in the same month it was learned that the parents of Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal were recently baptized posthumously by those pesky, tenacious Mormons. Also, Anne Frank was posthumously baptized earlier this month, and the names of Wiesel’s father and grandfather were found to have been submitted for proxy baptisms.
OK, in the United States, there are nearly six million adherents to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Internationally, there are nearly 13 million of ‘em.
Really, do they need to recruit a handful of Jews in the hereafter? Don’t they enough members, living and deceased? What kind of religion is this, anyway? Is it like Facebook, where you want to snag as many “Friends” as possible?
Not surprisingly Daniel Pearl’s parents, Judea and Ruth, told the Globe that learning of the proxy baptism was “disturbing news.”
“He lived as a proud Jew, died as a proud Jew and is currently facing his creator as a Jew, blessed, accepted and redeemed,” they stated. “For the record, let it be clear: Danny did not choose to be baptized, nor did his family consent to this uncalled-for ritual.”
Even Pearl’s French-born widow, Mariane, a Buddhist herself, called the baptism “a lack of respect for Danny and a lack of respect for his parents.” She joined Wiesel in calling for Mitt Romney, the world’s most famous Mormon (next to Donny & Marie), to apologize on behalf of the church.
Well, I’m not sure you can really expect ol’ Mitt—who’s pretty busy these days—to apologize for the policies and actions of his church. That’s a little like asking JFK to apologize for the Catholic Church’s pre-Vatican II policies, or Joe Lieberman to apologize for Adam Sandler movies.
But here’s the thing. Yes, it’s patently gross, insulting and offensive that Mormons indulge in this kind of behavior. We’ve been dealing with it for decades now. But on the other hand, it’s almost too ridiculous and inane to get too bent out of shape about.
I have this running argument with a good friend of mine. He can’t stand that fundamentalist Christians believe that he and every other Jew (and all non-Christians, for that matter) is going to hell because they refuse to be saved. It drives him nuts, and it also makes him meshugah that it doesn’t keep me tossing and turning at night.
My feeling about it is, if that’s how they feel, fine. I know who I am and what I am. They can talk as long as they want—just as long as they’re not rounding anyone up.
And that’s how I feel about the Mormons and their ridiculous, eccentric, ghoulish retro-proxy nonsense. If they wanna try and get me after I check out, that’s cool. Give it a whirl.
Just keep out of my face ‘til then.
Back in February of 2010, I wrote an article about allegations that first appeared in the Washington Post that Rabbi Menachem Youlus – the Baltimore-based Judaica/bookstore operator known as the “Indiana Jones of Torah scribes” for his swashbuckling tales of rescuing Holocaust-era Torahs from Europe and other places – had fabricated his stories for profit.
Frankly, over the years, I’ve dealt with a lot of head-in-the-sand attitudes in the local Jewish community. But this time, it felt different.
Several people told me that even though they had strongly suspected over the years that the rabbi’s stories were largely nonsense, he still didn’t deserve a negative write-up in the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES. After all, they said, this guy was a very mentschy person who was willing to go to shuls of every stripe – even though he was Orthodox – and even shake the hands of female clergy.
“Don’t take this away from us,” one person yelled at me. “This is a decent man. He doesn’t deserve this. He hasn’t done anything wrong.”
One rabbi told me that whenever Youlus spoke at his shul about the provenance of his Torah scrolls, he usually simply walked out of the room, preferring not to hear such fanciful tales that defied logic and reason. Another rabbi/educator complained that Youlus was being “crucified,” even though he admitted that he privately and quietly discounted some of Youlus’s stories.
“Should we judge him because he says things that don’t sound quite right?” he asked. “Do we stand behind him and support him, even if he’s not telling the whole truth since he did things that were not necessarily legal [to acquire and transport Torahs out of Europe]?”
Another Jewish communal official who’d bought one of Rabbi Youlus’s Torahs said of the accusations, “I’m saddened to hear this, but he has been so helpful with the continuing care of this Torah. I take it back to him once a year. I take it to his house, [and] he lives very modestly.” She attributed the rabbi’s alleged fabrications to the fact that “he wants people to feel good. This was a midrash.”
Misplaced loyalty may be admirable, but it’s still misplaced.
As you likely know now, Youlus recently made international headlines when he pled guilty in a Manhattan federal court to defrauding a charity he founded called Save A Torah Inc. of $862,000.
“Menachem Youlus concocted an elaborate tale of dramatic Torah rescues undertaken by a latter day movie hero that exploited the profound emotions attached to one of the most painful chapters in world history – the Holocaust – in order to make a profit,” said Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. “Today’s guilty plea is a fitting conclusion to his story and he will now be punished for his brazen fraud.”
Between 2004 and 2010, about $1.2 million came in to Save A Torah, according to the court. An investigation by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service’s Complex Frauds Unit revealed that Youlus’s accounts were contradicted by historical evidence, witness accounts and records showing that he passed off used Torahs sold by local dealers.
In addition, records showed that Youlus never left the United States during some of the years he claimed to be finding Torahs abroad.
I met Youlus a couple of times over the years and I have to admit, he fooled me, too. When he spoke of his journeys to unearth Torah scrolls and bring them to “safety,” I didn’t really question it. Like everyone else, it made me feel good, like any good yarn does. After all, the man was very likable, articulate, personable, knowledgeable, open-minded – and who’s going to question a rabbi, right?
One of the first people who told me privately that they questioned Youlus’s stories was an Orthodox rabbi who’d had some negative business encounters with him. He said he discovered that a group of Torahs that Youlus said he “made kosher again” for him were never actually taken care of.
In conversation, when I made a comparison between Youlus and Deli Strummer, the local Holocaust survivor whose wartime accounts were strongly challenged by the organized Jewish community and historians, the rabbi said to me, “Excuse me, Alan, but I beg to disagree. Deli Strummer was an old lady who got caught up in her stories about the Holocaust and just liked the attention. Youlus is making money off the Holocaust with his bubbe meises about these Torahs. It’s disgusting. That’s blood money, and people in this community need to wake up.”
Youlus now faces a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison and will be required to pay restitution to his victims. Sentencing is scheduled in federal court on June 21.
Around the time that allegations first arose against Youlus, I wrote a blog entry about how I was concerned that Youlus was still speaking about his Torah scrolls to my daughter’s class at Hebrew school. I didn’t mind his educating the kids about the Torah and why it’s sacred to the Jewish people. I just felt, as a parent, that he shouldn’t discuss where he allegedly got these scrolls from while he was being accused of creating falsehoods about them. And I felt the synagogue had a responsibility to put a muzzle on him.
“What do I tell my daughter now?” I wrote. “That there are questions about this bright, articulate, very likable man, raised by some of the very people who believed in him the most and spent their hard-earned dollars to spread the love of Torah in memory of their loved ones? How do I explain these serious allegations, one that could horribly damage the reputation of someone that many of us previously held as a highly moral individual on a very noble mission?”
One official at the shul angrily wrote to me, “There is nothing to tell your children yet, unless it is a lesson on how to avoid the common trap of confusing allegations with truth.”
Well, I guess that’s not really an issue anymore, is it?
Like I said, misplaced loyalty may be admirable, but it’s still misplaced.
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been getting up particularly early in the morning before work—long before the sun peeks over the fairly new subdivision to the east of my house—to watch Ken Burns’ epic documentary series “The Civil War.”
I know what you’re thinking: “Bubbeleh, where ya been? That thing came out more than 20 years ago.”
I know, I know. I’m a late bloomer.
Actually, I’ve watched parts of the series over the years, when PBS would occasionally re-run it. But I recently saw the whole series resting on a shelf at my local library branch and decided to finally watch it in its entirety.
And boy, am I glad I did. More than simply another documentary or historical series, “The Civil War” is nothing short of grand poetry, a sweeping, majestic narrative of our country’s most dire and bloody period, told by a master storyteller. In my mind, the series – which actually took longer to make than the war itself – was a landmark event, a brilliant, accessible and highly articulate means of comprehending where we as Americans have been and where we’re going. It’s about more than battles and skirmishes, generals and strategies. It’s about human beings and events that changed their lives. And it’s not difficult to see running themes and concepts that are analogous to our own bleak times.
Of course, when hearing me blather on about the series to my wife, my kids think it all sounds quite boring and antiquated. Who cares, they say, this is something that happened a long time ago. And I know a lot of adults who would agree with them. After all, slavery’s over, secession failed, we now have an African-American president. It all worked out, let’s move on and have a nosh. The times have changed.
But have they really?
The other day, a small article in the newspaper caught my eye. I almost missed it. It was about an elementary school teacher in the suburban Atlanta area who recently resigned from her job after she and three colleagues were being investigated by education department officials regarding the content of their math homework assignments.
Seems that one of the math problems read, “Each tree has 56 oranges. If eight slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?”
Yet another problem went, “If Frederick got two beatings each day, how many beatings did he get in one week?”
OK, this is how we’re teaching our children math nowadays? Is this “the new math”? This is how carelessly we view the heinous practice of slavery and arguably the darkest chapter in American history? This is how we teach children to view people of other races and groups? What if it had been, “How many Jews does it take to … ?”
Two things I know for sure. One is that the Civil War didn’t really end at Appomattox. The second is that history isn’t something we should ever view cavalierly or simply jettison and not teach in schools because it “took place a long time ago.”
Look, I don’t want to sound too Seinfeld-esque here, but there are certain little things in everyday life that just … bug the living hell out of me. Just drive me mad! Maybe you as well.
Blogs were invented by Al Gore or Steve Jobs or someone like that so people can vent their spleens to the faceless masses – or at least to two or three of their buddies who follow their rants every now and then – so what better place to share some of my favorite pet peeves? After all, it is a new year. Maybe it’ll give us all something to think about before 2012 winds down into a life-ending ball of unadulterated hellfire (as reportedly predicted by the Mayans, Nostradamus and others).
Let’s start with those pesky people who decide to back into parking spaces. These dreadful, ridiculous, heinous folks need to be corralled and shipped over to a remote, uninhabitable part of western Australia immediately. I can’t fathom why so many drivers over the last year or two in America have decided that they can’t possibly just pull into a space headfirst. (Did I miss the interoffice email?)
No, they have to back in (even those not driving Lamborghinis) so that when they need to leave they’re all set for their immediate launch, as if they were Batman speeding off to save Gotham City or something.
Natch, I always get behind these people in a parking garage or lot. They typically drive slightly past the space and suddenly turn their wheel a little to back in. By this point, I have to back up as well since I can’t actually read their minds (and the cars behind me have to back up too). Then, I have to wait about a half-hour or so until this driver—who’s usually got a cell phone tightly wedged between their ear and their shoulder and is jabbering away—backs into the space just right. Sometimes they’re a teenager, sometimes they’re likely a World War I veteran. Doesn’t matter. It usually takes at least two or three good attempts to fit into the space, and they have no concern that they’re holding up others.
OK, glad I got that off my chest. Let’s move on.
People who like to speak in an obnoxiously loud manner on their cell phone about the most inane stuff while waiting in line. Yes, I’m usually in front of or behind that person and have to listen to all of their so-called dirty laundry. The question remains, why do these people even need cell phones? None of them are the president of the United States or even members of the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives. Is talking on the cell really just entertainment for them, like hanging out with pals or playing golf or playing video games? Do they really have to talk with their cousin about how much they ate and drank last year during the Thanksgiving meal at Aunt Hilda’s? More importantly, do I have to listen to it?
Next: those perky, can’t-get-‘em-down, cockeyed optimists who like to say all the time, “It’s all good.” Yes, “it’s all good.” That’s gotta go – and quickly. Very 2004, don’tcha think? It’s all good? Let me take you to a couple of places where it’s not all good. Then you’ll stop uttering that insipid saying that belongs on the trash heap of bumper sticker bromides. Take a good look around, pal, and get your head out of the clouds. It ain’t all good! In fact, in some parts things are quite rotten!
Alright, back to cars. Why do so many people nowadays have to drive with tinted windows? Are they movie stars? Drug dealers? Both? Who are they hiding from? The paparazzi? The taxman? Panhandlers on street corners? Hitmen? And why are they trying so hard to look like they’re above everyone else? What’s with the self-removal from the human race? That’s what email, voice-mail and cell phones are for, right? To avoid us.
OK, Facebook. Oy, where do you start? That great Talmudic sage of our times, Betty White, had it right – what a “colossal waste of time”! Sorry but I don’t need to read all about your colonoscopy today. Or see that dopey photo of Jacques, your 9-year-old Rottweiler, in a mauve tutu.
Next: people who seem to go on vacation every month of the year. Good vacations, too, not just day trips. Paris, safaris in Kenya, Prague, Monte Carlo, etc. We’re not talking northeastern Jersey here. Do these people have unlimited access to trust funds? Is there scholarship money available for going on cool vacations regularly? Where do I sign up?
Alright, one more curmudgeonly outburst – people who insist on sending holiday cards bearing their kids’ photos. Yes, the kids are cute, but do we really need to show off our children like prized bovines at the state fair? The worst ones are the photo holiday cards from Jews that either proclaim “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Hanukkah.” Talk about Christmas envy - just throw in a crèche scene in the background and call it a day.
Well, I’m out for now. If you’ve got any pet peeves for the new year (and no, they can’t be about kvetchy, whiny, self-important bloggers), please share ‘em with me. Misery loves company, you know?
My wife likes to joke with me that I collect old guys.
Well, everyone needs a hobby.
But it’s true. For some reason, I connect with older gentlemen on a personal, visceral level, much more so than with guys my own age and of my own generation. Maybe I’m an ancient soul, or perhaps I’m just in training for my own geriatric years.
I just find I can learn so much more from older folks than those who’ve lived through the same fairly dull times as myself.
Last week, I lost one of my old guys, Morris Martick. Morris was the owner, operator, chef and head bottle-washer at Martick’s Restaurant Francais, a French bistro on Mulberry Street that would’ve never existed if not for the sheer force of personality, innovativeness and quirky determination of this irascible, idiosyncratic man. To call him a true Baltimore character of the highest order would be a colossal understatement.
I’ve lost a few other great old guys in my time whom I still miss. One was Harry Zweback, a Toms River, New Jersey, chicken farmer who originally came from Poland. I met Harry when he and his ailing wife, Bella, lived downstairs from me and my wife at Pickwick Apartments. Harry had a thick East European accent, and even though he was a small man, he had the muscular arms and shoulders of a guy who had worked with his hands all of his life. He used to call me and say, “Come on, lemme take ya to the Suboibian sometime,” alluding to the Suburban House restaurant. He loved deli.
Then, there was my old Yiddish teacher, Dr. Solomon Manischewitz. Back when we first got married, my wife and I decided to get in touch with our roots and learn the mamaloshen. But what we learned early on while taking evening classes at Baltimore Hebrew University with Dr. Manischewitz was that Dr. M didn’t fool around. He didn’t look at Yiddish as this cute little language in which to tell corny, outdated jokes. He took Yiddish quite seriously and academically – conjugated verbs, past participles, you name it – and he expected the same commitment to the language from his students.
Naturally, I started trying to cut his classes, because I wasn’t prepared at all, but my wife forced me to go, especially when it became quite clear that Dr. M took a particular shine to me. (My wife called me the teacher’s pet.) He used to smile at me and cup my face in his hand, saying, “Ah, he’s a good boy.” (Of course, I was in my early 30s at the time, and not so good in reality.)
Frankly, my strong hunch is that he liked me because I work at the Jewish Times. Anyway, I could do no wrong in that class in Dr. M’s eyes, and here was my wife pulling me by the ear into the classroom. Let’s just say she wasn’t too pleased. I still hear about it on occasion.
The last time I saw Dr. M was in the supermarket a few years after taking his class. He was very friendly but had just lost his beloved wife, and he said to me, “Everything I went through during the war and in the [concentration] camps, nothing compares to what I’ve been through with my wife.” His eyes were full of pain, sorrow and fear. I’ll never forget it.
And then there was the one and only Sol Milgrome, the Torah reader at my old shul, Shaarei Tfiloh Synagogue by Druid Hill Park. I still can’t drive by Shaarei Tfiloh without thinking of Reverend Sol. I could hear his voice chanting Torah on Shabbos morning and feel like I was being transported back to the Polish shtetl, hearing it all done the authentic way of my ancestors. This former student of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein had a tireless love for his shul and for people in general. He used to walk all over Baltimore, just to schmooze with people and shed a little of his unique light upon them. He liked to be a street philosopher and dispense his life’s wisdom, whether you were interested or not. Yes, he could sometimes drive you a little meshugah after a while with all of his preaching and jabbering, but you always knew Reverend Sol was good people.
He was a real mentsch, he wanted to make the world a better place, not by writing checks or sitting on committees but simply by talking to people and enlightening them, maybe just giving them a chuckle. And when someone didn’t come to shul, he’d always take it personally and yell, “What? He wants to sleep?! There’s always time to sleep when you’re dead!”
These guys are all gone now. They were among a vanishing, rare breed. I know it sounds trite, but they can’t be replaced. They had something – I don’t know what you call it, character, a zest, moxie, a generosity of spirit, an aversion to B.S., a humility, a je ne sais quoi as they say in Yiddish (I told you I was a rotten Yiddish student) – that precious few of us have. Certainly not those of us born after World War II. They were byproducts of their time and places, perhaps emblematic of their era. Maybe as my father used to say, they were graduates of the College of Hard Knocks. Maybe that’s what made them so special.
Hopefully, for those of us who enjoyed their company, sat at their feet and learned from them, they still live in a part of our hearts and spirits. I know they’ll always bring a smile to my face.
In the tight-knit Jewish world, sometimes the weirdest, quirkiest stories get the most attention. Especially if they involve a Jewish celebrity.
This week, the biggest story in the Jewish realm by far was the sudden news that Matisyahu – the Chasidic hip-hop artist formerly known as Matthew Paul Miller and raised in Westchester County (despite his Jamaican accent while rapping) – shaved off his beard.
Stop the presses! A grown man shaved off his beard! I can’t tell you how many people emailed me links to this story.
Of course, this wasn’t just any man but arguably the most famous Orthodox Jew on the planet. No one can deny that Matisyahu has become an icon of sorts, for Jews and non-Jews. Besides transcending conventional wisdom about Orthodox Jews and Jews in general with his rhymes and beats, he has brought a certain type of spiritual fervor and awareness to his listeners that goes well beyond labels and boundaries.
There was always something a bit New Agey about Matis, despite his peyos and tzitzit. You always felt that if he didn’t fall into the frum lifestyle, he could’ve just as easily immersed himself in another spiritual or religious discipline, like Buddhism or Evangelical Christianity or something else. (By the way, that’s not putting him down.)
His “gimmick” was always the frum thing, the sight of a guy in a fedora and a long gabardine coat, who looked like a diamond trader from Williamsburg, rapping and moving around like Jay-Z. But unlike us old people, the kids always knew it wasn’t a gimmick or an act, that Matis was being authentic and sincere in his approach, in his kavanah (intention) and creative muse. (Admission: I say this as someone who is not a big fan of his music or that musical genre, but respects the feeling and depth he brings to his work.)
And that’s why Matis never went away after making it big several years ago, like so many other musical fads and one-off poseurs. And in the process, he inspired many of his fans to be more receptive to contemplating their own spiritual lives, including young Christians who just happened to like his tunes and thought he was cool, not to mention all of the young Jewish seekers out there who are sick of the trappings and restrictions of conventional Judaism.
In his big announcement to the world that he’d shaved off his whiskers, Matis sent a photo and wrote, “No more Chasidic reggae superstar. … When I started becoming religious 10 years ago, it was a very natural and organic process. I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules—lots of them—or else I would somehow fall apart. I am reclaiming myself.”
This “reclaiming,” the shedding of the beard, might make headlines for a couple of days and good water cooler fodder at Jewish agency offices. But there’s nothing seismic or cataclysmic going on here, it’s not a major indication of the changing times we’re living in. It should just be viewed as part of Matis’s spiritual evolution. (That or his face was getting scratchy.)
When he first broke into the big time in ‘04, Matis was affiliated with the Chabad movement. But throughout the process, he announced that he was no longer involved with Chabad – while never putting down that movement – but was simply an observant Jew, without all of the labels and such.
“I’m really religious, but the more I’m learning about other types of Jews,” Matis said, “I don’t want to exclude myself.” He said he was “not feeling bound to one way or one path, but open to many paths within Judaism.”
Now, it seems that Matis has come to the conclusion that one doesn’t have to sport a beard – or a mustache or a Van Dyke, for that matter – to be a good Jew (or a good person). Some people are already questioning his intentions (Publicity? Gone Hollywood?) and criticizing this move (Is it bad for the Jews? For the frummies?).
Only in the Jewish community could people get worked up about a guy shaving off his beard. I can’t imagine Methodist mayhem over a mustache.
Like Bob Dylan, Matis’s spiritual journey is obviously not based on a herd mentality or a sense of complacency but a healthy restlessness and undying desire to understand his place in the cosmos.
Thirty years ago, while trying to sort out his infamous, much criticized “Gospel Period” and his reemergence as a Jew, Dylan wrote, “In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand/In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.”
Matis, with or without beard, is on that same journey, that fury of the moment, to find God’s presence in every grain of sand, every speck of dust, every gust of wind. And you have to respect him for taking that walk into the lonesome valley, no matter whom he annoys, angers and amuses with his actions and words. That’s the mark of a true artist and seeker.
So much of the time, those of us who belong to synagogues – particularly those of us who belong to mega-shuls – find ourselves kvetching a lot about what we don’t like about our congregations. We don’t generally do anything to improve what we view as the synagogue’s problems or flaws, we just seem to like to complain.
Maybe it’s a Jewish thing.
That’s why it’s so refreshing to me to meet someone like Marshall Kohen. Marshall is the choir director at Temple Isaiah, the Reform congregation in the southern Howard County hamlet of Fulton. This past year, Isaiah – led by Rabbi Mark J. Panoff for 27 years – has celebrated its 40th anniversary. Of course, 40 years has a special place in Jewish hearts, since the Children of Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness to reach the Promised Land.
Last week, I went out to Fulton, to interview Marshall, and I must say, it is the Promised Land. A lovely rural community that is now booming with new housing developments and shopping centers, Fulton is going through a great deal of change. So is Isaiah, which moved to Fulton in 2004 (after 33 years of adhering to Columbia’s interfaith centers concept) into its own sprawling, gorgeous facility.
Like the Children of Israel after the 40-year mark, Isaiah congregants are facing a big leadership change, with Rabbi Panoff retiring in June and a new spiritual leader expected to be hired by next month. And like almost every shul these days, they’re confronted with the challenges of how to maintain membership numbers, keeping the veterans happy and attracting young families, all in a tough economy.
But with congregants like Marshall, I’m confident that Isaiah will be in good, solid shape. Over a year ago, Marshall decided to do something special for the culmination event of Isaiah’s yearlong 40th anniversary celebration.
So he spent a good chunk of his weekends, weeknights and spare time while on business travels laboring on a grand choral work chronicling Isaiah’s history. The four-movement piece, titled “From Then To Tomorrow” and performed by the Shir Isaiah Choir (conducted by Marshall), will premiere tomorrow night, Dec. 3, at Isaiah’s “From Then To Tomorrow: A Musical Celebration Of Temple Isaiah’s 40 Years” gala.
When you’re a busy professional and a married dad of two, writing a choral work in your “spare time” is no easy feat. I have not yet heard the piece, but I can tell you that I’m highly impressed with Marshall’s dedication and tenacity. His love and commitment to his shul is nothing short of inspiring.
Of course, in every synagogue and temple, you’ll find people who quietly, earnestly and diligently do things – large and small – for their congregations, only out of love and fellowship. Not all of them write epic musical pieces, but they all help keep the places running and humming. We’re lucky to have them and should appreciate them more.
They’re the folks that carry the rest of us kvetchers on their coattails. We could certainly stand to learn a thing or two from them.
A hearty yasher koach to Marshall, Rabbi Panoff and the rest of the folks at Temple Isaiah on their milestone and simchah. They greatly contribute to the tapestry that is Howard County’s Jewish community.
Back when I was an 11th grade student at Randallstown High School, we had an English teacher who was one of those rare types among her breed in that she could keep your interest and attention at all times. She just had a way of connecting with students and keeping the material fresh and intriguing, which is no small feat among fidgety suburban kids raging with hormones and insecurities. I fondly remember developing a love of literature in her class with her intense reading and scrutiny of “The Great Gatsby” and other novels, showing us that these weren’t merely boring old tomes but living, breathing guides to art and culture, with lessons about our lives today.
But unfortunately, beside her gifts as an educator, I’ll also always remember this teacher – whose name I’ll omit – for something she once said as an aside. It just demonstrates to watch what you say fleetingly—someone might still remember it 30 years later.
It was right before the High Holidays, and she noted at the start of a class that some of us might be out of school for a couple of days. “Of course,” the teacher, who wasn’t Jewish, said with a bit of a sneer, “I really wonder how many of you will actually be in synagogue, praying, and how many of you might be elsewhere, like the mall or someplace like that.” She then rolled her eyes.
Now I’m not saying that this belongs in the Anti-Semitism Hall of Fame, but I recall never feeling quite the same way about that teacher. After all, even though I was going to shul for those holidays, whose business was it to question the beliefs and motives of my fellow Jewish classmates? Does every Christian student go to church on Christmas Day? Are we going to send out truancy officers or the thought police if someone takes off for a religious holiday and doesn’t go to their particular house of worship? Can’t someone pray at home on their holiday, if that’s their choice?
This memory came flooding back to me recently when a friend of mine told me about a recent situation with his child. One day in school, when about to discuss a book about the Japanese internment camps in the U.S. during World War II, the kid’s teacher prefaced the conversation by saying, “Just remember that we had concentration camps in America, too. It wasn’t only the Jews in Europe during the Holocaust who had concentration camps.”
First of all, if this teacher had just bothered to read the book’s introduction, she would have noticed that the author stressed that what Japanese-Americans endured were internment camps, not concentration camps.
That’s not to minimize what Japanese-Americans went through during the war. These people, most of whom were upstanding, hard-working American citizens, were forcibly relocated to these camps and lived under difficult, deplorable conditions, all based on racial prejudice, hatred and hysteria. They were slapped in the face by their home or adopted country, to which they were loyal. It was largely a blatant case of guilt by association, one of the darkest moments in U.S. history.
But to compare such dire circumstances and naked unfairness to the Nazi concentration camps in any way, shape or form is unconscionable. What America did was absolutely wrong, unjust and mean-spirited, but the U.S. did not slaughter millions of Japanese-Americans. There was no “final solution” of Japanese-Americans. We did not herd them into gas chambers or perform medical experiments on them or turn them into piles of ashes.
I don’t know this teacher. It may have simply been a slip of the tongue. I don’t want to sound too paranoid here. But my hunch is that she – like some non-Jews, and even more than a few Jews on occasion – gets tired of hearing Jews talk about the Holocaust and the other episodes of persecution throughout our history. I could be wrong but my guess is that she thinks we may be a bit of a whiny breed. After all, other people have suffered, why do the Jews have to outdo everyone else and kvetch about it all the time?
If only we couldn’t outdo everyone else in the category of genocide, hatred and oppression.
The fact that an educator is so historically-illiterate and poorly-equipped is a bit disheartening. And scary. But it reminds you how we have to constantly be on our guard to explain why the Holocaust was different from other tragedies in history. That’s a sad task to still have to perform, but unfortunately it’s still with us.
And no doubt will be for a long time.
OK, here I go again, sounding like a grumpy, whiny old man, perhaps a Jewish version of Andy Rooney.
But I just can’t stop myself.
Recently, I attended a friend’s simchah at a big shul in town. I tend to be one of those people who prefers sitting in the back of a room, so I plunked myself down in the rear of the sanctuary, near a couple of rows full of kids around 12 or 13 years old. They were a good-looking bunch of youngsters, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that I wouldn’t be spending much time focused on God or Judaism or what was going on in the siddur or on the bimah.
Let me put it plainly – these kids just wouldn’t shut up. And it was more than a little distracting.
Over and over again, I watched as ushers, worshipers, teachers and even old guys (even older than me!) went up to these brash kids – who were boisterously chatting, laughing, clapping, flirting and carrying on, like they were in a movie theater – to tell them to shut the hell up, that some people in the sanctuary actually wanted to hear the service (and maybe even pray).
It was pretty clear that the youngsters didn’t care, because they went right back to their loud discussions and shenanigans, only quieting momentarily when the next adult came over to chastise them. (Which, of course, was an exercise in futility.)
I went over to one of the ushers later in the service and noted that some of the kids were students at a local Jewish day school. He simply laughed at me.
“That doesn’t matter,” he said. “They all act like this nowadays. That’s just how it is. It doesn’t matter where they go to school, Jewish or otherwise.”
I admit, I was no choirboy in Hebrew school or elsewhere as a young teenager. I used to like to schmooze and goof around with my buddies, especially during a long shul service or in the hallways. But I know one thing – when an adult came over to tell me to keep quiet, I did so. Usually with my knees trembling.
It seems that sense of awe, that skittishness about adults, is long gone, like polyester suits and mood rings. I mentioned this the other day to a friend who works with college students and he said, “Young people today, in general, aren’t scared or intimidated at all by adults. The problem is we’ve leveled the playing field. Kids now are immediately taught by their parents to call other adults by their first names. There’s no Mr. or Mrs. So-And-So. There’s only Stu and Zelda. And that’s how it all begins, that sense of disrespect and entitlement. Plus, they all know more about technology than us, and that really gives them a sense of superiority. So yes, there’s no respect for adults today.”
He may be right about that. But the problem goes even deeper, from a Jewish perspective (natch).
On Yom Kippur, my wife mentioned to me that she went into the ladies’ room at a shul and noticed several teenage girls in the lounge area. The girls, whom she recognized as students at a local Jewish day school, were on their cell phones, talking and texting away like crazy. Here they are, with their parents spending gobs of dough to give them an intensive Jewish education, and they’re texting in shul on the day Jews believe is the holiest one of the year?
Obviously, the problem isn’t just a lack of respect for adults but also a lack of respect for what is and isn’t appropriate behavior in shul. And maybe Judaism itself.
As parents and educators, we seem to have failed, to a certain extent. We seem to be raising a generation that doesn’t have much regard for anything, regardless of where or how they’re being educated. They just want to do whatever they want to do, whenever they want to do it, and all with a sense of entitlement. And we’re the ones whose knees are trembling. We just want them to like us and not get mad at us.
That might sound quite uncool and “old fogie” to say out loud, but so be it.
How do we stem the tide? That’s for deeper minds to figure out. Right now, we have to recognize this problem. Because it only stands to reason that if we raise a village of spoiled brats (with some exceptions, of course), we’re going to reap just what we sew.
I recently ran into a guy I’ve known for many years. We were swapping anecdotes and updates on our lives and families, and at some point he started kvetching to me about his daughter’s soccer league, of all things.
Seems that the nefarious league – which is independent and non-sectarian, predominantly non-Jewish in players and coaches, and based in the Timonium/Cockeysville area – is having a regularly-scheduled game this Saturday morning, even though it’s Yom Kippur, held by Jews as the holiest day of the year.
“Can you believe that?” he said, exasperated and seething. “How dare they do that? It’s Yom Kippur, for crying out loud! Thank God it’s just a regular game and not a big playoff game. But come on, people!”
OK, pardon me for asking this question – well, I will anyway – but when did the United States become a Jewish theocratic state? Are we living in Israel? Or even Brooklyn?
Let’s keep in mind that this league has, tops, four or five Jewish players—out of hundreds. And let’s also not lose sight of the fact that we live in a section of the country where our schools are usually closed for our major holidays and people are, for the most part, quite mindful of our holidays and traditions. They even put up with our traffic and congestion snarls on yontif at synagogues.
Look, I know this guy’s kid will be disappointed that she has to go to shul this Saturday instead of kicking a ball around and having fun with her teammates. She’ll miss a game. But she’ll live. The world will remain on its axis.
Am I missing something here? If I were a non-Jew overhearing our conversation, I know what I’d be thinking – “Geez, these Jews are never satisfied.”
A couple of months ago, Chazzan Emanuel C. Perlman was visiting the Vatican with his lovely wife, Janice. They toured St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and other museums and Catholic holy sites, but the Chizuk Amuno cantor couldn’t help but notice an abundance of Jewish iconography seemingly everywhere there.
“I said to my wife, `This place reminds me of the Holy Temple,’” Chazzan Perlman told me recently. “All I saw were Jewish symbols, nothing particularly Christian, and I began to realize how sad it is that we Jews don’t appreciate what we have. Others do, but we don’t. We’ve run away from tradition and brought secular things into our synagogues. Why? Because we’re insecure.”
Manny Perlman is a warm, friendly, engaging man, but he’s also a passionate and indefatigable crusader for tradition. In particular, he considers himself the preserver of the chazzanut, the grand style of cantorial music and performance as typified by such “golden age” cantors as Yossele Rosenblatt, Leib Glantz, Richard Tucker and Jan Peerce.
The essence and art of being a chazzan is something very dear to Cantor Perlman’s heart. It’s in his blood and in his soul, and it’s something that he promised those who came before him – like my late friend and neighbor, Cantor Saul Z. Hammerman – that he will cherish, perpetuate and fight for.
And even if that kind of synagogue worship music is not your particular cup of tea, you can’t help but be impressed and inspired by Chazzan Perlman’s intensity, commitment to integrity, and devotion to keeping this part of our musical heritage alive and strong.
Everywhere in shul life today, we see this style of music being discarded, jettisoned and denigrated. Younger people, we’re told, don’t want an operatic kind of performance at synagogue; they want music they can relate to, something they can sing along and clap with, whether it be Jewish summer camp music, folk, rock, reggae, ska, jazz and even rap.
Chazzan Perlman says he enjoys and appreciates those kinds of music, too. But he says they have their place, and synagogue worship services ain’t one of them.
“I love the Beatles!” he told me in his office, with a great sense of urgency and frustration in his voice. “I’ve played their music in a band with my brother, I’ve taught a class on them. They’re wonderful! But they’re not my God, and they don’t belong in shul! And that’s next, Alan! You’ll see, people will want to bring the Beatles into services!”
(Hmmm, I’m trying to imagine “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” played at Shabbat services.)
“We live in an era when Yankee Stadium isn’t even the same place where Babe Ruth played,” Chazzan Perlman continued. “People want to move on and remove and repackage. We grew up with Cracker Jack, and you loved that toy. But now, that toy would be just a throwaway.”
He employs yet another analogy: “Upstate New York is one of the most beautiful places to drive through in the world. But some people would rather fly to upstate New York than drive in the autumn and look at all of that gorgeous foliage and just enjoy it. People want shortcuts today. But sometimes you have to say no, to yourself and others. … We’ve become a society where there’s 500 channels and nothing on. People are constantly changing the channel. We want what we want right now.”
The diminishing interest in chazzanut music and the growth of the “Kumbaya” shul mentality reflects a major change among Jews today in general, he charges. It reflects a lack of knowledge and appreciation of our heritage and legacy.
“We need to become more Judaically and Biblically literate and embrace our heritage,” Chazzan Perlman says. “People can tell me who they’re favorite singers are off the top of their heads, but who’s your favorite prophet? Your favorite Biblical figure?
“I feel we have to go back to the virtuoso days of cantorial prayer, to explore where we came from.”
While listening to the chazzan on this subject, I couldn’t help but think about a mega-church in suburban Chicago I visited a few years ago. This church looked more like the Mall of America than a house of worship, and its membership may have exceeded the population of France. One of the secrets of its success, I was told by the church’s leadership, was that the old hymns and liturgical music – considered antiquated and uninspiring by these Baby Boomers—were thrown out for a decidedly more hip, contemporary Christian rock sound.
At one point during my visit there, I sat down with a group of four or five 20-something males who belonged to the church. Several of them had tattoos and nose rings, as well as ripped jeans and T-shirts bearing the names of various mainstream hard-rock bands. All of them were quite courteous, respectful and highly enthusiastic about the church and its impact on their lives.
But when I asked them if they enjoyed the church’s weekly rock music performances and selections, they looked at each other and fell silent.
Intrigued, I pressed on. After all, the Christian rock performances that were an integral part of the worship services there were supposedly tailored for young guys like them. And everyone knows that music of all types can be a great portal for spiritual discovery and growth.
Finally, one of the young men said to me, “Um, we like it OK but it’s really for the, um, older people here.” (Translation: fossils like me.) “Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “we all like rock and hip-hop and stuff like that. But we listen to it all the time – at work, at home, in the car, in our social lives. We just wish that when we were in church, we could hear the old-time hymns and music that’s been around for so long. That’s what we want to hear in church, not the same old stuff in our daily lives. In church, we don’t want to rock out. We just want to be inspired and moved. We want to feel something.”
Chazzan Manny Perlman couldn’t have said it any better.
So much has been said and done this week regarding the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks (if you watched the Ravens-Steelers game, you’d have seen that commercial in which the Budweiser Clydesdales poignantly bow their heads in the direction of Ground Zero) that lost in the shuffle has been that today is the 18th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords.
Maybe that’s because it’s something most of us – on both sides of the aisle—would probably like to forget.
For me, it’s something I’ll never forget. I was sitting in a crowded, darkened office at the Associated, huddled with federation employees around a big TV set. Of course, there was nervous chatter and jokes. No one knew what to expect. Were we watching history? Another false start? Bill Clinton’s greatest folly? (Of course, that came later with “Lewinskygate.”)
When Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands, largely with the prodding of the genial, avuncular Clinton, a roar swelled up from the ranks of the Associated employees sitting on the floor. None of us could believe what we were seeing. I suspect many of us dared that day to dream, to cast off our cynicism, to believe that peace was actually within reach. After all, if Rabin and Arafat could shake hands …
Of course, like a lot of things in life, it wasn’t meant to be. In some ways, things have certainly gotten worse. Now, we face a situation in which the Palestinians will soon bring to the world body a unilateral proposal for statehood, one without any direct negotiations or accord with the Israelis or approval from the Americans.
And what we can expect from all of this – maybe even a war, God forbid – seems as hazy and unclear as in that darkened room at the Associated in September of ’93.
When dealing with people and human nature in general, I’ve often told family members and friends, “Expect the least from people and you might get more than you ever expected.” (I’m sure I stole that from someone.) We all keep expecting the Middle East scenario to turn itself around, that everyone will reach an accommodation just out of sheer exhaustion from fighting and arguing for so long.
At this point, I strongly suspect that the world – even American Jewry in general—is sick and tired of the Israelis and Palestinians and their never-ending saga, their long-playing comedy of errors. That’s probably why other matters have kept the statehood issue, for the most part, in the back pages, near the horoscope section. Who wants to deal with this one?
Let’s just hope things don’t soon escalate to the point where the subject once again has the world’s full and undivided attention.
Lately, I’ve been listening to a quirky-yet-fascinating 3-CD box set I stumbled across at the Central Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free library – truly one of our city’s greatest treasures – called “People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938.”
I know what you’re thinking – fun stuff. This guy must be loads of laughs at cocktail parties.
Lady Gaga or Katy Perry this ain’t.
Don’t ask me what draws me to this kind of old-time music and its rather grim, ironic, archaic tunes of death, destruction and disaster, recorded by long-deceased, usually-quite-obscure-in-their-day performers. Call it “O Brother Syndrome.” It’s like listening to the distant voices of anguished spirits, or as music journalist and cultural critic Greil Marcus calls it, “the old, weird America.”
But if you love “roots music,” this 2007 collection – featuring 70 recordings and co-produced by Henry “Hank” Sapoznik, the great proponent of traditional Yiddish and American music – is absolutely amazing stuff. Most of the songs are about the sinking of the Titanic (quite a national preoccupation!), train wrecks, plane crashes, mine explosions, earthquakes, floods, famines, fires, hurricanes, dust storms, droughts, and of course, that old standby of human nature, homicide. (Interestingly, one of the tracks is a chilling 1913 recording of the El Malei Rachamim prayer performed by the illustrious Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, specifically for the victims of the Titanic.)
In their own way, these songs were the Twitter alerts, Facebook postings, and CNN or MSNBC breaking news headlines of their era. They were melodic messages in a bottle, informing the public of some calamity or atrocity, often within days and geographic spitting distance of the tragedy. These fabulous, scrappy, twangy artists – on their banjos, harmonicas, jugs, kazoos, Jew’s harps, etc.—let people know what was going on, without any sugarcoating or holding back at all, and usually even threw in a moral or two about fate or one’s ethical conduct. Brilliant stuff.
So what does this all have to do with 2011?
We are in the midst of being bombarded with the painful, haunting images of 9/11. With the 10th anniversary upon us, that horrible day hangs heavy in our psyche and in our souls. The media is already revisiting this topic with photos and images of the towers, aflame and in rubble, almost as if we’ve somehow forgotten what 9/11 looked like, as if it wasn’t already indelibly seared into our brains, as if we could ever escape it.
That was a deadline news day for us here, working on our annual Rosh Hashanah issue, and 9/11 meant watching the tragedy unfold on television as Americans and then getting down to journalistic business and writing about it all very quickly. No easy feat. It was a long day and night.
One thing I remember is chatting with an art department co-worker toward the end of the afternoon, when everyone was in high gear and deadline was looming. At one point, I noticed she’d placed a Post-it note on the edge of her computer screen, simply with the scribbled words, “September 11th, 2001.” When I asked her why she’d put that note on her screen, she replied, “I just want to have that date up there, to remember this day, so I don’t forget it.” I stared at her and said, “Kiddo, don’t worry, this is a date you’re never, ever going to forget.”
True enough. But at the same time, there’s a lot of overstating and grandstanding when it comes to 9/11, something we all have to be careful of because of the solemn nature of this historical event. Too often, we call 9/11 the day that changed our lives or changed America. It’s true that we’ve all been forced to become somewhat more vigilant and careful in our lives since that day, and our foreign policy has transformed drastically. Our confidence and sense of security was shattered.
But on a personal level, few of us – outside of those who lost loved ones that day—have experienced major changes in our lives as a result of 9/11. I remember a couple of friends, after the tragedy, remarking to me that they no longer enjoyed watching sports, because 9/11 compelled them to realize that athletic competitions had very little to do with the order of the cosmos. Despite their lapse into existentialism, I believe all of them returned to their obsessions with sports. Other friends mentioned to me that they decided to take big vacations after 9/11, again with the sudden realization that, well, life’s just too short.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying sports or taking vacations. Everyone needs their interests, hobbies and various distractions. After all, going to the movies was virtually a religion during the darkest days of World War II.
But we have to be careful about falling prey to melodrama, reactionary flag-waving and facile proclamations. 9/11 was a day that took our collective breath away and made us sit up and take notice, but for better or worse, we all returned to our same old habits and tendencies. In that respect, the terrorists didn’t win. We did eventually go back to normalcy. What we shouldn’t do is raise the specter of 9/11 for the justification for everything we do or utilize its power as a means of self-pity or soapbox sermonizing. Worse yet, for monetary profit – I don’t want to ever see a 9/11 department store sale.
So would the likes of Fiddlin’ John Carson, Ernest Stoneman, the Floyd County Ramblers, Charley Patton or the Skillet Lickers have recorded songs about 9/11 if they were still with us? My guess is they probably would’ve, but with a great sense of compassion and carefulness about not coming off as exploiting this solemn moment in American history. They might’ve sung about the enormous loss of life, the individuals who perished and the heroes who attempted to rescue those who were endangered, the spouses and children left behind and forced to figure out how to somehow go on with their lives.
Of course, it’s important to remember. But 9/11 is more than just a date or an anniversary. It’s something in our DNA, our American fabric. And we don’t need any songs or archival images of burning buildings to remember that.
I have a confession to make. I loved Rabbi Jacob A. Max. The Rabbi Max I knew was funny, warm, engaging, easygoing, thoughtful and the absolute definition of the Yiddish word haimish (loosely translated as folksy or comfortable). He was charm personified.
The thing to remember, however, is that things are not always as they seem.
We don’t like to accept that. It screws with our minds and messes up our narrow view of life. It upsets the apple cart. But it’s true.
And obviously there was a side to this genial man – a virtually ubiquitous figure in our community for more than five decades – that we never really knew.
Things are not always as they seem.
About a week after Rabbi Max passed away recently and I had written a fairly parve obituary about him, I got a note from a veteran local journalist, someone I know a little bit and who was in the news business when I was just a mere lad. In his quite cordial, collegial note, he questioned why I would mention in the lead paragraph of my obituary that, besides serving Liberty Jewish Center for more than a half-century, Rabbi Max was convicted in 2009 for molesting a female funeral home employee. The journalist’s friendly suggestion was to bury that piece of information lower in the story.
I don’t get it.
If I had written an obituary in 1994 about the passing of Richard M. Nixon, should I only have mentioned that he was the 37th president of the United States and initiated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union? And not have mentioned that he resigned from office in the face of almost certain impeachment? Or should I have relegated that tidbit to the 14th or 15th paragraphs?
For a long time, Rabbi Max is going to be a source of contention and pain in this community. He has his diehard supporters, people who knew the Rabbi Max I knew and loved. But there are also his detractors, some of whom say they were inappropriately touched or handled by Rabbi Max. And they can’t be negated, ignored or disrespected.
Respect. People say let the man rest in peace; respect the dead. Leave him alone. Give him some respect.
Fair enough. But maybe we should cut ourselves a break too and simply agree to disagree about this complicated, enigmatic man who has left a lot of mixed feelings in his wake.
We’ll be sorting this one out for a while.
In our rapidly shrinking world, from our narrow prism of life on which we are raised and weaned, we always believe that there are answers to all things in life. Being satisfied with a mystery just being a mystery—inexplicable, unsolvable, unmovable – tends to be a foreign concept to Americans, especially in an age in which virtually any answer is right at our fingertips, instantaneously.
But the cold truth is, sometimes there is no answer.
Or if there is one, only God knows it.
The impossible-to-fathom murder of Leiby Kletzky, an 8-year-old Brooklyn boy who was strangled and dismembered earlier this week, allegedly by a fellow Orthodox Jew named Levi Aron, 35, is a prime example.
Aron reportedly says he did it because he feared getting in trouble with the law after fliers were posted all around Brooklyn about Leiby in the wake of his disappearance. But the truth is we’ll never really know why someone would commit such a gruesome, heinous, unspeakable, despicable act. Of course, it makes no sense.
Even Aron probably doesn’t know why he did it.
The case reminded me of when I used to go to the Supermax prison facility on a fairly regular basis to visit my former high school and college classmate, Steven Oken, who in 1987 went on a drug-induced spree and murdered three women. I once asked Steven, who was executed by the state by lethal injection in 2004, what made him do it.
He didn’t answer right away, then simply swallowed, stared right through me, and as if he were really talking to himself, said in a slow, whispery voice, “I don’t know why I did it. I don’t know.”
That’s a bitter pill to swallow – the unknowing of it all. It’s discomforting, slippery, vexing. Because it means that residing within all of us is not necessarily the capacity to kill like that but the wherewithal to harness a seemingly limitless reserve of anger and hatred. We don’t want to recognize that quality or element in us – after all, we’re civilized, rational people—so we chalk it all up simply to some people being born evil, sick and depraved.
That’s just too easy.
Years ago, I had an interview with a Catholic priest in East Baltimore. Looking to make a little small talk before the interview, I held up a daily newspaper I was carrying, which had headlines screaming about five Amish children who were inexplicably killed in their schoolhouse by a crazed assailant.
“Doesn’t make any sense, does it, Father?” I said. He looked back at me with woeful, perplexed, almost scornful eyes.
“It’s not about making sense,” he said. “Alan, this is how the world works. Always has and always will. The world is full of tragedies, horrors and sadness. Killing is, unfortunately, a part of human nature and existence. It’s up to us to accept that, but also to make the world in God’s image to the best of our abilities. That’s all—and nothing more.”
Perhaps he’s right. Still, it’s hard not to wonder what makes people do the things they do.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean we should expect to find an answer. At least not in this lifetime.
One of the kvetches I hear most from young people today about why they’re often turned off by the organized Jewish community is regarding money – that everything seems to revolve around the Almighty Buck.
Maybe they’re just a bunch of kvetchers, right? After all, you need money to make shuls run, federations thrive, advocacy groups flourish, Israel bloom, etc.
Or maybe they’re on to something.
I was recently in New England for the bat mitzvah of the kid of some old friends. They’d asked my wife and I to participate in the service, to read the Prayer for Our Country, which is always a great honor.
Shortly before the point arrived in the service when we were slated to do our bit, the gabbai came up and gave us a card, which designated that we were the folks to recite this particular prayer. Fine. But on the other side of the card was a little note, mentioning that if the holder was so inclined to make a donation to this fairly well-off congregation after he or she returned home, that would be much, much appreciated.
So even on Shabbat, a time when traditionally we’re not supposed to exchange money, someone is still digging into my pockets? Imagine the reaction of someone – maybe a young, unaffiliated person—who’d never stepped into a shul before. It’d be such a horrific turn-off.
I know this is a tough time for shuls. Seats need to be reupholstered, bimahs need to be upgraded, light fixtures need to be replaced, rabbis and executive directors need to get paid, etc. But there must be a more proper and tasteful way of soliciting funds than reminding someone before they read a prayer on the bimah for our country that generous “tips” are most welcome. Truth is, I’ll probably never be in that shul again – why should I send a check to them? I’ve got my own shul to send my checks to.
* * * * * * * * * * *
OK, on to the next rant. An elderly friend of mine recently told me that she heard a rabbi speak about – you’ve got it – the Bible. He shared with her group a couple of his thoughts about a certain passage in the Torah.
Her response to me later was, “Who cares about these bubbe meises? What does that have to do with me? I was bored out of my mind.”
In this world, there are good teachers and bad teachers. But when it comes to teaching Torah, my experience has been that few rabbis have been able to really get across why these stories from our sacred texts matter so much and why they’re relevant today. Sure, talking about something that may or may not have happened 3,500 years ago might sound dull from the outset. But a skilled, gifted teacher will have the capacity to demonstrate why the story pertains to our lives today. They’ll make it live and breathe, even for those of us who aren’t necessarily traditional or observant.
I know these teachers are out there. Heaven knows we need more of ‘em.
While visiting my in-laws in Orlando, Fla., more than a decade ago, I was driving in a car with my father-in-law, Meyer E. “Mike” Pollack, when we noticed a huge billboard with a photo of The Beatles (in their Sgt. Pepper-era regalia). It was an ad for a local radio station, bearing the slogan, “The Beatles Rock WJRR.”
My father-in-law – no Fab Four fan was he – merely smirked and said to me, “That’s about all they do.” (Mike’s musical knowledge base stopped somewhere in the early ‘50s, before the advent of rock `n’ roll. He was strictly a Big Band kind of guy, with classic Jewish music on the side.)
But Mike had more in common with John, Paul, George & Ringo than he ever imagined, because he was the living embodiment of the Beatles credo (“Abbey Road,” “The End,” final verse) that “the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
Mike, who passed away last Saturday night, was all about love. Maybe not the kind of free love you think of when contemplating The Beatles, but love nonetheless – for his wife of 52 years, his three children, his 10 grandchildren and his three great-grandchildren. And his two daughters-in-law and one son-in-law (yours truly).
He was unashamed to show his unconditional love, in actions, words and deeds, something that’s unusual for men of his generation. Sometimes, it was embarrassing or discomforting how much he showed that he cared for you. But he knew life is short and it’s important to show loved ones how you feel. And he received that love back in spades, as evidenced by his grandsons’ highly emotional eulogies delivered earlier this week at his funeral.
Mike loved being Jewish. Although not an observant Jew, he was traditional in the way he thought and felt. And he knew his stuff. Being Jewish filled every fiber of his being. It was in him where it counts – in the way he lived his life. He was—to employ a much overused word—a mentsch. That’s why he worked as a Jewish nursing home administrator for several decades. He cared about people, especially those in the darkest, scariest times of their lives. He wanted to comfort them and raise them up, even if it was just for a few minutes. He wanted them to feel respected and not obsolete, discarded, unwanted or forgotten.
Mike owned a formidable collection of 78 RPM records. It is a treasure trove of Jewish and American music from the first half of the 20th century. After retiring in the ‘90s, he took a rolling cart full of his 78s and a record player and frequently visited nursing homes, becoming a “professional volunteer.” He played old-time music for dementia patients there, because he wanted to spark a memory for them, even if it was only fleeting. Many were the times he called to say how a particular Glenn Miller or Artie Shaw tune got a strong reaction from a patient who normally never spoke much. They might recall a special time in their life after hearing an old record and discuss it with the group, much to their caretakers’ absolute shock and awe.
One time, Mike played a pre-war Japanese record at a nursing home, eliciting an intense, emotional response from a Japanese patient there who usually simply faded into the woodwork. (I like to think the record might’ve been a 78 we found while going on one of our occasional jaunts to antique shops in this area when Mike visited.)
Mike knew he had a unique role in this act of volunteerism. Besides knowing the music through and through, he understood how to work with nursing home patients and how to reach them. Very few people could do this adequately and with such grace and thoroughness. I have many of Mike’s 78s now and I could play them at nursing homes. I could even read up on the records and talk about them. But I don’t have his vocational training to know how to press the right buttons with these folks. I don’t have his feel for the situation, and I didn’t live the music.
Simply put, he was a unique, unusual man.
I don’t believe in mythologizing people. I know that’s our tendency after we’ve lost someone, and I’m still feeling raw about losing my father-in-law. Like all of us, he wasn’t perfect. Like all of us, he was far from it. He could be stubborn. He could be “my-way-or-the-highway.” He could be vexing and taxing at times. Like most fathers-in-law and sons-in-law, there were occasions when we probably let each other down.
But I know I’m a better person for knowing him. And that’s probably the best thing you can say about anyone.
Several years ago, my in-laws were visiting from Florida and enjoying dinner at our house when we happened to mention we’d bought an outdoor bench but hadn’t had the time to put it together. It was still in the box, but we’d get around to it. Mike immediately asked where it was, pulled all the bits and pieces out, and started building the bench, despite our protestations. The sight of this man in his mid-70s laboring over directions and rolling up his sleeves to put a bench together was something to see. Being our guest, we pleaded with him to stop. We were frankly afraid he might overdo it.
“Please, let me do this,” he implored. “I want to do this for you.”
About a half-hour later, the bench was finished. It was perfect, and Mike beamed while looking at his job well done.
This was typical of the man. He wanted to contribute, to be useful and make a difference in some way.
And he did.
While I sat in Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s Dalsheimer Auditorium last night, trying to figure out how to adequately capture in written word the always touching annual community-wide Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) commemoration, I had no idea that only 50 miles away, President Obama was trying to figure out how to let the world know that Osama bin Laden was dead.
As we all sat there last night at BHC, recalling the darkest chapter of human existence – and watching as Holocaust survivors went up to the stage to light a candle of remembrance with their grandchildren – we had no idea that, once again, we would be served a reminder that in the long run, evil never wins. Sooner or later, justice is served and good triumphs over evil, even if it comes at incredibly great expense.
As I listened to the President’s televised announcement late last night—telling the world something I never really believed I would hear, that the mastermind of 9/11 was killed by U.S. forces—I thought of a scene from the film “Dead Man Walking.” It’s that scene when Sean Penn’s character, a murderer, is executed by the state, and in the viewing room window’s reflection are the images of his victims, watching somberly as justice is served. In my mind’s eye, I imagined the thousands of victims of 9/11, listening intently to President Obama announce that bin Laden had been killed.
Yom HaShoah is a sad, solemn day, but it is also a declaration of triumph over the forces of evil. It is only apropos and natural that the death of bin Laden – the ruthless murderer of so many Americans and the hater of Israel and world Jewry – was killed on the day when we remember not only those who perished in the Holocaust but the fact that we’re still here, to carry on long after Nazism was defeated.
Sometimes, it’s still hard for me to believe how little – even with our penchant for schmoozing, commentary and over-analysis – we Jews really talk to each other.
Yesterday, my wife told me something I found difficult to grasp. She was driving our 8-year-old son to Hebrew school, at Chizuk Amuno Synagogue, when she found that the beltway exit to Stevenson Road was blocked off by Baltimore County Police officers. Determined (probably to my kid’s dismay), she drove around to the Reisterstown Road exit and tried to gain access to Chizuk via Brooks Robinson Drive (that’s Radio Tower Drive for all you old-timers and third baseman haters.)
But she was still roadblocked by the cops and forced to walk from Brooks Robinson Drive to the shul. Not a far walk, mind you, but naturally when you see a bunch of cops stopping you from getting to a synagogue, you get a little nervous.
Middle East terrorists? White surpremacists? Sisterhood insurgents?
Fortunately, she was soon alerted that it was because of the “Mitzvah Miles Walk/Run” to support Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School’s Yad b’Yad Fund, which was wending through the neighborhoods around Chizuk and Beth Tfiloh Synagogue, which are maybe a half-mile apart.
The cops, it appears, forgot to tell Chizuk officials about the run, thus inconveniencing religious school parents, students and others trying to get to the synagogue that morning, not to mention residents of the surrounding neighborhoods. That’s pretty bad but look, mistakes happen.
But before we get too critical of Baltimore County’s finest – I’m certain Chizuk’s leadership contacted them about this matter, and it won’t happen again – a question begs to be asked: why didn’t someone at Beth Tfiloh simply contact Chizuk about the run? I admit I don’t know all the inside facts here, and that there are bigger problems in the universe. But did they just assume the cops would take care of it with Chizuk? Why didn’t information somehow filter over the months between these two mega-synagogues at some point?
Believe me, I’m not trying to take sides. Like I said, mistakes happen. But I think the episode points to a larger problem in the Jewish community and its mindset and ethos.
Yes, I’m kvetching again. But let’s face it: often, no one seems to really talk to each other – organizationally, institutionally – because everyone only worries about their own turf. We have all these fiefdoms and self concerns, and that’s all that seems to matter. It’s like if I didn’t care about Pennsylvania because I live in Maryland and only cared about Maryland – basically, I’m so patriotic about my own state I forgot that I’m an American.
We’ve all seen examples of this myopia. When I used to send my daughter to Beth El’s preschool and then switched to another shul’s, a good friend who attends Beth El half-jokingly called me “a traitor and a turncoat.” A traitor and turncoat because I switched synagogue preschools?
And at the Jewish Times, we hear often from rabbis, “You only cover their shul but not ours,” as if we have a vendetta against their synagogue. And then, when we do cover their shul, we hear zilcho.
People tell me all the time that this shul or that Jewish organization won’t participate in a particular event or endeavor because they didn’t plan it, or because another group is involved. It gets pretty petty. And more importantly, it turns people off and leads to unaffiliation and disgust with the community (and the Jewish people) in general. And that’s quite dangerous for a community’s future.
So religious outfits don’t talk, even when it’s for something as simple as logistics for an event passing through a neighborhood? Aren’t we all Jews? Don’t we have a common concern and a general interest in each other’s well-being? It all sounds pretty silly to me. It sounds like winning the battle but losing the war.
I don’t know about you but I don’t like having to always defend myself. It gets a little wearisome.
But when you work for a Jewish publication, sometimes it comes with the territory.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, when you put something out there week after week that touches people at their core – about their community, values and faith – you’re going to hit some raw nerves.
Recently, I wrote a news article about B’nai Israel, the historic shul on Lloyd Street in East Baltimore. B’nai Israel has a special place in my heart. My Latvian-born great-grandfather, Aaron Sauber, was a melamed (teacher) there around the turn-of-the-century (the 20th, that is), and from what I gather was a beloved, respected figure.
Much of my family is buried in B’nai Israel’s cemetery on Southern Avenue in Hamilton, and I still remember going to the shul back in the ‘70s, before its major renovation, with my parents. We found a dilapidated, crumbling structure, one in which pigeons frequently flew in and out of gaping holes in the roof. It was a former shell of its onetime grand self, barely on life support, kept going by a small crew of committed, caring individuals.
Check out B’nai Israel in 2011. My, how times have changed. It is now a gorgeous, thriving shul, with a solid, devoted membership, regular services and activities, and lots of people around the community who feel a strong connection to the synagogue and care deeply about it. After all, it’s our greatest (and last remaining) living connection to the immigrant Jewish community that once thrived in East Baltimore, paving the way for what we have and enjoy today.
But one of the shul’s leaders—for the record, not B’nai Israel co-presidents Howard L. Cohn or Frank Boches—recently got irked with me for the article I wrote last week about some recent security problems that B’nai Israel has experienced. He simply felt I didn’t go far enough in questioning in my article why the shul’s landlord, the Jewish Museum of Maryland, and its parent organization, the Associated, weren’t communicating more with B’nai Israel about security matters.
He also accused me of having a vendetta against B’nai Israel, bringing up an article I wrote several years ago about the synagogue’s battle with its former rabbi regarding his abrupt dismissal. At that time, the firing caused a schism at the shul, largely between its younger congregants who liked the rabbi and its old guard who obviously weren’t card-carrying members of his fan club.
As far as the latter subject is concerned, I personally view that as ancient history. B’nai Israel is still around and has moved on and has a wonderful spiritual leader today, the wise and kindhearted Rabbi Alan J. Yuter. Perhaps the shul leader is correct that the Associated, the museum and B’nai Israel should have better lines of communication about security (although as I reported, several meetings have been held so far between those groups). I just wish he would’ve said it in a less rancorous and more constructive way.
But here’s the bottom line, all bruised egos aside – this community needs to support B’nai Israel, financially, morally, logistically, in any way possible. Besides the fact that it provides a warm, wonderful house of worship for the largely unaffiliated young professional crowd living in Canton, Federal Hill, Fells Point and other downtown neighborhoods, it is a testament to our history, heritage and resilience. It is the last outpost of what once was, and it would be a great shanda if the synagogue followed the path of so many inner-city shuls and went out of existence, or only had services during the High Holiday season.
We shouldn’t forget this gem in our midst. More than a nostalgic footnote, it is a model for rebirth—a living, breathing part of our community that serves a vital role. We need to get more in the game about B’nai Israel, whether it’s ensuring the shul’s security or focusing on its longevity and perpetuity.
The other day, I was coming out of a meeting here at the JT offices when I saw someone approaching me. The man, wearing clothes covered in old paint, was none other than Loring Cornish, the local “outsider artist” whose works about the shared legacy and mission of the African-American and Jewish communities are now being exhibited at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. If you haven’t seen this exhibition yet, do yourself a favor and do so. Loring has a gift and a sense of empathy that might truly be beyond words.
I wrote about Loring two years ago (when he had a somewhat similar show at Morgan State University), and I wrote last month about his current exhibition. Each time, I found him to be an extraordinarily kind, energetic and friendly man who genuinely loves people. He almost seems too good to be true, with his spiritual nature and childlike optimism. In our cynical times, you don’t meet many people like Loring. He’s always like a shot in the arm. You always feel good after seeing him.
Which is why I was delighted to see him the other day. He stretched out his hand to shake mine and asked me how I was doing. But of course, I was a bit puzzled by his sudden appearance. (You have to understand that this man spends night and day working on his art in his West Baltimore rowhouse, when he’s not prowling the streets of “Charm City” for “found objects” for his brilliant pieces.)
“So Loring, what brings you to our office?” I asked him. He simply smiled and said, “Oh, I’ve just been so busy with everything – with the exhibition and stuff – that I realized I never got a chance to thank you and Kirsten [Beckerman, the Jewish Times’ staff photographer] for doing such a great job with the article. You guys here have all been so wonderful to me, I can’t thank you enough.”
This might sound trite, but I was a bit stunned and dumbfounded. Occasionally after I write an article, I get a phone call from someone, thanking me (albeit with some minor kvetches). Maybe an email, or if I happen to run into them somewhere, they’ll happen to remember to say thanks, often in an offhanded way.
But to actually come down and offer gratitude in person, to say how much you appreciate what someone did, well, that’s almost unheard of.
And like a bolt of lightning, Loring was gone, running off to his next appointment or mad creative endeavor, waving and thanking us again for doing our best to get his message heard.
It all made me think about the concept of gratitude, and how—like good etiquette and manners – it’s fallen by the wayside and become a casualty of our hyper-caffeinated, tech-obsessive age, something as antiquated and seemingly out of place as the steam locomotive or churned butter. I’m guilty of it, you’re guilty of it, too. We all are.
There’s a power in saying thank you to someone. It empowers them, to see that the world ain’t so bad after all, and it empowers you to bring that gift to someone and to do the right thing. Now here’s a confession: Sometimes I think that in the Jewish community, we’re even more guilty of not offering thanks to each other than in non-Jewish circles. Of course, I could be wrong about that. People are people, right? Still, without indulging too much in potential stereotyping (or “self-loathing”), it’s a phenomenon of sorts that I’ve often discussed with colleagues in Jewish fields, and I’ve frequently found they feel the same way, that there’s a sense of entitlement and expectation, and a lack of gratitude.
Loring has once again taught me a lesson, something that our moms taught us long ago. It’s important to say thank you. It makes you a mentsch, and it makes the world a more mentschlikeit place. Simple stuff.
Anyway, thanks for listening (or in this case reading).
Standing outside the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse yesterday morning, I shivered with folks on both sides of the aisle who were there to voice their support and disgust with Eli and Avi Werdesheim. The Werdesheims are the Jewish brothers (one of whom at the time was on a call for the Shomrim patrol group) accused of assaulting an African-American teenager on Fallstaff Road last November.
Despite the presence of lots of cops and TV cameras, there was a weird, inexplicable tension in the air. About 200 Jews, mostly Orthodox, were stationed on the north side of the block, singing Jewish (“Hava Nagila”?) and American tunes and praying in support of the Werdesheims, while eating Dunkin Donuts (no, this is not a product placement) and drinking coffee from their Boxes O’ Joe.
On the other side were about 20 people, mostly African-American, who seemed to be genuinely fuming – at the Werdesheims, at City State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein (for reducing the charges from felony to misdemeanor), at what they perceive as the Jewish community’s seemingly blind support for the brothers, even that our side had doughnuts and theirs didn’t.
But things stayed cool for the most part. The only time I was concerned about a possible confrontation was when one anti-Werdesheim protester, Leo Burroughs Jr., a self-described former “’60s activist,” showed up with a sign reading, “Bernstein Promotes Black Holocaust.” (Ouch. I feared some hothead might pass by and clock him for invoking the Shoah.)
“Our numbers will grow,” he told me about his side’s smaller showing yesterday. “We can’t tolerate brutality against the people of this city – black, white, Jewish or otherwise.”
But the person who really got to me was Renee Washington, an East Baltimore resident, who told me—without any hesitation or concern for political correctness—that the case “all comes down to one thing – money. Most Jewish people have money, and they all stick together.” (Hmmm, a double-whammy.)
Ms. Washington, who appeared to be a very pleasant, cordial and peaceful woman, clarified that she knows Jews and has worked with them in the catering business for years. She seemed to be making sure I recognized that she’s no anti-Semite.
“I’m not saying all Jewish people are racist, but this incident should never have happened,” she said. “Just because you have money doesn’t mean your child is any different than mine. People shouldn’t be afraid to walk where they want. If [the Werdesheims] were African-American, they’d be in prison right now, serving time.”
And to make sure I understood she was no radical or militant, she added, “We may disagree with those people over there, but there’s no need for confrontation. We’re not out to fight. In fact, we’re here because of violence. Violence solves nothing.”
The whole conversation, though, reminded me of the days when I used to occasionally cover speeches delivered by controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. When I would approach African-Americans before, during or after these gatherings, they let me know what they thought of Jews, no holds barred. They didn’t care if I was Jewish, half-Jewish, a quarter-Jewish, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Ashkenazi, Sephardic or even a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov (which, of course, I’m not).
One time in the early ‘90s, I chatted on a Pratt Street sidewalk with a young African-American gentleman outside of a Farrakhan speech at the World Trade Center in Baltimore. While alluding to the travesties of the Holocaust and slavery, he stopped me dead in my tracks. He didn’t want any part of it.
“Please, stop there,” he said gruffly. “I don’t want to hear it. I’ve heard enough. We’ve all heard enough. Look, all I know is what my people have been through and are still going through. And my pain is more than your pain when you now are up there and I’m still down here. So just move on and don’t talk to me about your pain anymore.”
Obviously, the tendency of trying to outdo each other in the misery game is a ridiculous one. It’s not a competition. However you feel about the Werdesheim case, what’s important to remember is that there is a lot of anger out there in the African-American community toward Jews. It’s been there a long, long time.
I understand that it swings both ways, but we still have to recognize that hurt, frustration and anger. We can talk about Heschel and King, about the Jewish martyrs for the civil rights movement, etc. We can even sing “Ebony And Ivory” in Yiddish and Ladino. But we have to remember there is a lot of fury and pain there, some of it possibly warranted (even though we don’t want to hear that) and maybe some that’s not. But it’s still there.
And maybe one of these days, instead of just blowing it off, we should really address it, if for no other reason than to prevent situations like the Werdesheim case from unraveling and turning into flare-ups ripe for exploitation by leaders on both sides of the fence.
What do you say to someone who is young and going through the surreal experience of losing someone they love – inexplicably and without any warning—in the prime of their life? Death never makes any sense, it always stuns and slams and blindsides you at any age, but how do you deal with it when you’re fresh and young and have the whole world ahead of you? How do you make any sense whatsoever of the incomprehensible and unfathomable?
I spent some time this week interviewing friends of Mitchell Perlmeter, the 17-year-old son of Rabbis Rex D. Perlmeter and Rachel Hertzman, both of whom were well-known and well-respected leaders in Baltimore’s Jewish community from 1996 to 2008. Mitchell died suddenly Feb. 1 of a massive coronary in his family’s home in Montclair, N.J.
I know his parents, but I never actually met Mitchell. But I now feel like I knew him, thanks to his friends’ loving and vivid descriptions of him. I’ve written tons of obituaries over the years, and yes, everyone who dies seems to be viewed in a haze of adulation and reverence. I do the same thing when someone I know passes away. I suppose it’s just human nature.
But I’ve never, ever heard people rave about anyone like I heard Mitchell’s friends and others rave about him. One friend, Emma Kane, a McDonogh School student, even said, “Look, Mitchell wasn’t perfect. No one is perfect. But Mitchell was as close to perfect as you can get, especially for a teenage boy.”
From what I gather, Mitchell was the kind of kid who always had a light around him. He was friendly, outgoing and fun-loving by nature, but smart and kind-hearted as well. A good listener, a good friend. I guess that’s why so many people were drawn to him and loved him so much. And why his funeral was completely packed.
Everyone talks about Mitchell’s smile. It was apparently radiant, warming, soothing, magnetic. And now, eternal.
He had lots of interests – sports, video games, rap music, books, movies. He loved sweets, especially chocolates. He was your everyday kid.
And he loved a good joke or a tasty prank (but always good-natured). “Mitch was sarcastic bliss,” his close friend Josh Mandell told me, trying to summon the right words to describe him adequately. “His sarcasm was the greatest thing about him, next to his big heart. He was so creative with his insults, they just always made you smile. But everything he said or did was out of love. It’s just who he was – a loveable kid. So much fun to be around. That feeling you’d get with him – he was just one of a kind. He brought out the best in you.”
Last week, Josh was in Spanish class at Friends School when he felt his cell phone vibrate, and he started getting a flurry of voice-mail messages from his friends. He ignored them all until he got a text message from his mom: “Call ASAP.” That’s how he found out about Mitch. Like so many others touched by Mitch, Josh’s world will never be the same. He now knows that life just isn’t fair.
“It didn’t even hit me at first,” Josh said. “I went back to class for another minute, the bell rang and then I went straight home. … When I first heard about it, I was just like, there’s no way. It didn’t seem real.
“It was not a day to remember, but one I know I’ll never forget.”
When I was 15, I lost two friends in a pair of completely separate drug-related incidents. One drowned at Liberty Reservoir, the other froze to death in a field in Howard County. Sometimes on a cold, moody night, I find myself getting lost in thoughts and wondering how their lives might have turned out if they had lived and not gotten dragged down in the drug epidemic.
But to be totally honest (and not to minimize their deaths), they were not close friends. I can’t even imagine what Josh Mandell and Mitch’s other close, close friends – not to mention his family – are going through right now. But I know they touched my heart with their stories and descriptions about this amazing young man whom I wish I could’ve met.
When I asked Josh how he was getting through it all, he responded, “I’m taking it day by day. There’s no way to really describe it. I see a lot of his friends and we all have our own ways of coping. I think Mitch may be gone but he lives on in our memories. He touched everyone he came into contact with. No matter what, I’ll always carry a piece of Mitch with me. Mitch is family. … I’m trying to celebrate his life instead of being upset about the death. But I don’t think it will ever be completely real to me.”
Life just isn’t fair. It’s true. But I do believe that Josh and his friends are absolutely on the money when they say Mitch will live on because he dearly touched the hearts of everyone who ever loved him and basked in the warmth of his smile.
I have a friend who a few years ago, for some very odd reason, decided out of the blue to acquire a ham radio operator’s license. Naturally, I made fun of him.
“Hey, Nerdo,” I said to him, “we don’t need ham radios, CBs or Morse Code anymore. There’s a thing out there nowadays called the Internet. We also have something called e-mail”
His curt response to me was, “You’ll see, someday ham radio operators will take over the world.”
Now, looking at the neighborhood of Greengate, I’m starting to think he had a valid point.
As reported by Rochelle Eisenberg in this week’s Jewish Times, Vitaly Galilov, a Greengate resident, has many of his neighbors up in arms. Why? Seems that Mr. Galilov, a ham radio enthusiast, built a pair of ham radio towers on his property. An attorney for the neighbors claims that one tower exceeds Baltimore County Zoning regulations, while the height of the other is in question.
Last spring, Mr. Galilov says he received a permit to erect a 50-foot ham radio tower with antennae. But upon installation, his installers said he needed a taller tower – I hate when that happens!—because his house backs up to a wooded lot. They said it needed to be least 70 feet in height to be effective, so he went ahead and had the larger tower installed. Afterwards, he said he applied for a variance with the Baltimore County Zoning Office.
In other words, shoot first and ask questions later.
Usually not a good policy with one’s neighbors.
The second tower, which is 65 feet high, should not have received a permit, since any tower built must be less than 60 feet, based on county zoning regulations, according to the neighbors’ lawyer.
Should the Greengate residents be concerned that one of their neighbors has an interest in ham radios?
But Mr. Galilov’s response to Rochelle Eisenberg’s question about how he will proceed if a zoning hearing for the towers doesn’t go in his favor—“I spent a lot of money, and I will not stop. If I have to, I will appeal.” – also gives pause for concern.
That’s called not being a very good neighbor.
“A conspiracy of silence speaks louder than words.” – John Lennon
Last night, I dropped by a town hall meeting organized by the Associated to encourage members of the Jewish community to discuss their views on Jewish identity matters. The Jewish Baltimore Talks Town Hall Meeting, held at the Reisterstown Library, was part of a series of gatherings intended to inspire dialogue and thought about what people want their community to be and look like, now and in the future. What does it mean to be a Jew? How do they want their children to live Jewish lives?
Is there a Jewish future?
Unfortunately, it was a pretty lonely experience. Four people turned out, including the facilitator and myself (and I was there as a reporter).
Nonetheless, the four of us had a lively, thought-provoking discussion about what being Jewish means to us and where the organized Jewish community (the Associated, the shuls, the various organizations and agencies, etc.) does things well and not so well. Maybe because it was a small, intimate group, we were pretty candid about the state of the Jewish community, warts and all, and I found myself transitioning from journalist mode to participant (and probably talking a lot more than I should’ve).
The other two participants there were a middle-age man born and bred in Baltimore’s Jewish community and a young woman from “the outside.”
For the man, this is his home and he’d probably never want to live anywhere else. My sense is that he sees room for improvement with the synagogues and temples—which he characterized as being too full of narrishkeit politics, inane territorialism and going through a general malaise—but overall that being Jewish and part of a community is an essential component of who he is. And it’s something he’s strongly, desperately attempting to pass on to his children.
The young woman is originally from another big East Coast city. She attended a Jewish day school for 12 years and has a strong Jewish foundation, but has adopted a more universalistic, holistic approach to life that may be viewed as alternative and not within the confines of the normative Jewish communal experience. I gathered that conventional Judaism and its institutional trappings and precepts, in many, many ways, turn her off, like so many in her generation.
Holding a book in her hand at worship services and simply reading from it, she said, leaves her cold. She seems to want a spirituality that is based on compassion and communing with nature and fellow human beings, not on what she views as rigid “indoctrination,” intractable tradition and prayer by rote. In other words, the conformity and repetition of Jewish life ain’t her thing.
And then there was me (and my big mouth), kvetching about things I often complain about to friends and family – why can’t shuls “steal” some of the more fun, successful concepts adopted by certain liberal-based churches (coffee houses, fellowship groups, dropping the formal attire, etc.)? Why is the community so focused on money and buildings (a true turn-off to so many young Jews)? Why are God and spiritual nourishment so often devoid from the picture, even at shuls?
But at the end of the evening, the man I mentioned earlier posed an excellent, albeit obvious, question to the facilitator that perhaps really spoke to the state of the local Jewish community – where is everyone? Why are we the only ones here?
He pointblank asked her how many people received emails about the town hall meeting – which was posted on the Associated’s Web site and promoted by e-blasts and other means—to which she responded more than 500.
“That says a lot,” he said, looking around the empty, austere meeting room at the library, brimming with historical artifacts and renderings of Reisterstown and its founders. “I took the time out to come here. I’m a busy person. Where are all those other people? Don’t they care?”
At that point, you could hear the January wind whipping around outside. Just a cold silence.
I know the Associated will be having more of these gatherings in the future. Let’s hope that they get bigger turnouts. Figuring out who we are and where we’re going is nothing to slough off. This is an important conversation to have.
Abe Foxman is in an enviable position. He gets to decide when we should and should not be upset with people – even our fellow Jews – if their true colors happen to come out.
Case in point: the ADL national chief says we shouldn’t hold Henry Kissinger accountable for saying (nearly 40 years ago) that if the Soviet Union throws its Jews into gas chambers, it is “not an American concern.”
Oh really, Abe? Who exactly made you king of the Jews? Aren’t you the guy who freaks out every time someone in Riga or Bangladesh says something remotely anti-Semitic? But we should give ol’ Hank a free ride?
Here’s the deal: recently-released Nixon White House tapes from 1973 have the German-born secretary of state telling his boss – after a meeting with Golda Meir in which she pleads for American pressure on the Soviets to release the Jews there – that U.S. foreign policy does not include freeing Soviet Jews. “If they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern,” he is heard saying.
Those are chilling words, especially coming from someone who fled Nazi Germany as a child and likely lost plenty of relatives in the Shoah.
In an e-mail to the JTA Wire Service, Kissinger rebuffed all calls for an apology – natch—and said the comments should be viewed in the context of the times. (Sorry, but when was turning a blind eye to potential genocide OK?) He also notes that Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union rose dramatically during the Nixon/Kissinger years. (Isn’t that sort of like saying, “Well, yeah I said that, but some of my best friends are Soviet Jews”?)
Perhaps just as infuriating, though, is Foxman’s response. First, the ADL issued a statement saying Kissinger’s remarks are a reminder that “even great individuals are flawed.” Also, “Dr. Kissinger’s contributions to the safety and security of the U.S. and Israel have solidly established his legacy as a champion of democracy and as a committed advocate for preserving the well-being of the Jewish state of Israel.”
In an interview with JTA, Foxman said of Kissinger, “He worked in an atmosphere that was intimidatingly anti-Semitic toward Jews. We need to understand the intimidation under which it occurred.”
Hmmm, so because Nixon and others in the nation’s capital back then were less-than-P.C., we should excuse that kind of comment, from a Holocaust survivor of all people?
Sorry, Abe, but I’ve got to agree with Menachem Rosensaft of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants when he says, in an interview with the New York Jewish Week, “Now that Kissinger’s true nature has been exposed, the Jewish community and Jewish institutions must draw the appropriate consequences. We now come to the realization that as far as he was concerned, human rights in general were an irrelevancy. He needs to know that when he is in the company of Jews, we will know precisely who he is and we hold him in contempt.”
History will take care of Kissinger, I’m certain. But why does Abe Foxman get to decide who gets a free pass right now?
“Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast,” wrote Bob Dylan. “Oh but what a shame if all we’ve shared can’t last.”
As I get older, the concept of time passing just knocks me out, more than it ever did before. I find myself thinking about something that once happened to me – it could be as trivial as a song I heard on the radio, or a funny thing a buddy said to me – and I’ll realize it took place 25 or 30 years ago, a time when some of my co-workers weren’t even born yet.
Call it “the Middle Aged Blues.” Everyone gets ‘em, even if they don’t want to own up to it.
Which leads me to something that will be discussed a lot in the days ahead—the 30th anniversary of the first global news event that really gob-smacked me out of my slumber and unconsciousness as a suburban teenager: the assassination of John Lennon. For my generation, that was our Pearl Harbor-JFK-9/11 rolled up in one, with a Beatles anthem or two playing in the background.
Like a lot of things in life, it didn’t make any sense. It didn’t then, it doesn’t now.
And it still hurts.
It was my first real lesson in how unfair, brutal and patently ugly the world can be.
Here’s my rendition of where I was the day the music died. I was 18, in my freshman semester at UMBC. In the Randallstown garden apartment complex I lived in, I had a close friend named Stacey (a male, and a hunky Greek one to boot, with a thick, enviable mustache) who had gone off to college in Tennessee. He made me promise that I’d keep an eye on his longtime girlfriend and first true love, who was also going to UMBC.
She and I got to be good friends during that semester, and many were the nights that I’d listen to her rhapsodize over a beer about Stacey’s virtues and tell me how much she missed him. Frankly, it got a bit exhausting. But one night—around 9:30 on Dec. 8, 1980, to be fairly exact – she called me up, hysterical, crying, shrieking and beyond consolation. Stacey had called her earlier that evening to inform her that he was dumping her, he’d met a little Southern Belle hottie at his school. He was done with her, see ya babe.
Trying to be a good friend, I listened to her wail about how much she loved him and didn’t know if she could actually live without him. In my naivete (or stupidity), I even let her convince me to call him in Tennessee, to try to discern what exactly was going on down there and talk some good sense into him. He was mildly pleasant on the phone but didn’t really want to talk to me about the subject, just saying he’d met someone else and was happy and wished me well. (Turns out he dumped me that night, too.)
So I called back his UMBC girlfriend – strike that, now his ex-girlfriend – and told her I’d failed abysmally in my valiant effort to win him back for her. She commenced crying and whining incessantly again, but at one point a roommate of hers came over to her. “Alan,” she said, “hold on, something’s happened!” I heard them talking in the background and then she returned to the phone, to say, “Oh my God, Jack Lemmon’s been killed.” I was pretty stunned – why would anyone want to kill Jack Lemmon?!—and she said the news just came over the TV. Then, she went back to her weeping jag, for about an hour or two. (Seemed like an eternity.)
Next morning, I woke up, groggy and thinking about the star of “The Odd Couple,” “Some Like It Hot,” “The Apartment” and so many other great films. Like I did every morning, I reflexively turned on the radio, to hear “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Then came on “All You Need Is Love” and “Imagine” and “Give Peace A Chance.”
And then, suddenly, I got it – it wasn’t Jack Lemmon (who’d live for another 21 years, to age 76) who was killed.
It was John Lennon.
For me and my buddies back then, John was at the forefront of the generation we felt we’d missed out on and lived vicariously through. We felt cheated – born too damned late. We knew he’d just made a comeback album and was taking care of his kid for the last few years, a bit of a recluse while Yoko took care of the bills. But being big Beatles fans, he was never, ever far from our thoughts. We didn’t really care about New Wave or disco or any of that stuff. We knew better. We knew the good stuff – the stuff with some meaning, vitality and purpose—came before us.
That morning, driving to school, I actually saw people crying in their cars while on the highways. I knew they were listening to the same songs and news reports on the radio that I was hearing. It seemed like the whole world was coming unhinged, or at least it did in my feeble 18-year-old brain.
It didn’t make any sense and never will. I wanted someone to wake me up and tell me it was all a bad dream.
I still do.
Naturally, all of my teachers mentioned it that day during classes. I remember my Introduction to Theater teacher, Xerxes Mehta, a cousin of the great Indian conductor Zubin Mehta, saying to us, “Today is a very difficult day for artists everywhere. When something can happen to someone like John Lennon … what kind of world are we living in?”
And I recall coming home after school and driving directly to my friend Chris’ apartment building. He was the person who largely turned me on to the Beatles in my early teens (probably because he had about 16 older siblings and step-siblings), and he was the biggest Fab Four fan I knew. When I pulled up to the building, I spotted his old, black jalopy station wagon covered in signs with John’s photo – “Give Peace A Chance,” “John Lennon: 1940-1980,” “We Love You, John,” “All You Need Is Love.”
When he opened his apartment door, Chris looked at me woefully and could barely talk. He looked spent, like someone who was sitting shiva (even though he’s Catholic) and barely gestured for me to come in. We largely sat in silence, trying to make sense of it all in some way, lost in our thoughts. Maybe we were a bit melodramatic or maudlin in retrospect, but we knew the world would never be the same.
An hour or two later, I went home and saw my dad, who unbeknownst to me would die suddenly two years later, almost to the day. It was actually the day after his 58th birthday, but he was never one much for birthdays. I tried to explain to him why I was so distraught about John’s murder, but I don’t think he really got it. He didn’t know from Beatles. They were just bubblegum to him. He was a World War II vet and a hardworking electrician who didn’t really care about celebrities and pop culture. To him, it was silliness. He reminded me that I never actually met John Lennon.
He did, however, note that Mae West had died a couple of weeks earlier. “Who cares?” I snapped at him. “She was just an old lady. She didn’t move or inspire a generation. This was someone who got killed for no reason, a really talented person who changed the way people think, and really gave a damn about doing something to change this world. He was someone who worked so hard for peace and wound up getting shot in the back, just the Kennedys and Dr. King.”
When my rant was over, my father stared at me for a while. I think he was surprised by my passion and ardor. He knew this meant a lot to me. I could see the wheels turning in his head, trying to figure out what to say next.
“Well, that all may be true. No one deserves to get killed like your guy did,” he said, wearing a solemn expression. “But you should know that Mae West was built like a brick s—-house.”
That was my day when John Lennon died. Somehow, with his perverse and quirky sense of humor, I think John would’ve liked it.
But can it really be 30 years? Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast.
When I first walked into the vestibule at Weinberg Village in Owings Mills last week, I spotted Rae Rossen sitting alone in the lobby, waiting for me, and thought to myself, “That can’t be her. She certainly doesn’t look dead.”
Then, I shook Rae’s warm hand and said, “You look great, Rae, considering …” That’s just my morbid sense of humor, but Rae actually thought I was referring to the fact that she looks far younger than her 81 years. “Oh, thank you,” she said, seemingly a little embarrassed and rubbing the smooth skin on her face, “I get it from my mother, alav hasholom.”
As Monica Lopossay, the photographer for my cover story this week on Rae, said to me, “If there is anyone in this world who is absolutely not dead and full of life, it’s Rae Rossen.”
Monica’s right. I wish I had as much energy and joie de vivre as this lady. When Rae’s not cracking jokes or telling amazing anecdotes about her life (such as working at Baltimore Hebrew College for the one-and-only Dr. Louis L. Kaplan), she’s sharing family stories or happenings (such as her granddaughter sneaking into a photo recently with President Obama – shhh, don’t tell the Secret Service).
There are sad things, too, like losing her beloved husband, Harry, in 2007 and her battle with breast cancer in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. And of course, like any octogenarian, she has her aches and pains.
But Rae – who with Harry and local bon vivant Jeffrey Amdur used to run a society for the preservation of Millard Fillmore’s legacy, and raised money for good causes with their quirky homage to the 13th president – has a way of looking at life upside down and sideways, and always coming up smiling.
It must be the result of growing up during the Great Depression in East Baltimore. That’s a generation that knew how to get through just about anything.
Nonetheless, the Social Security Administration, in its infinite wisdom, last August informed the unsinkable Miss R that she was dead and gone. No more monthly SSA benefits. As if that wasn’t bad enough, her Medicare, prescription plan benefits, and credit and debit cards were nullified and terminated. Ciao!
It was all the result of a “key error.” In other words, someone at Social Security typed in the wrong number for someone who had recently died and Rae’s SSA number came up.
The worst part of it, however, was the brick wall that Rae constantly ran into for well over two months when trying to rectify the situation with Social Security, just to let ‘em know that she was still among the living and kicking. Agent after agent – that is, when she could actually get an agent after enduring countless telephone answering systems – merely placated her, telling her to be patient, and coming off as quite indifferent and even irked. Or they gave her runarounds, telling her to call other offices and departments.
It all reminded me of that old “M*A*S*H” episode (why do I always wind up referencing old sitcoms or Springsteen songs?) when Hawkeye is informed by the Army that he is deceased. He tries and tries to work through the military’s pretzel logic and red-tape labyrinth, and at one point even gives up and decides to take advantage of the situation and go home. (Of course, noble creature that he is, he stays with the 4077th because he knows he has to be there for the wounded troops. Me? I’d be headed for the Greek Isles.)
But there was nowhere for Rae to run, nowhere to turn. She was stuck in a governmental Bermuda Triangle and could do nothing other than keep soldiering on, although she admits that there were times when she thought the bureaucratic screw-up might outlive her (or even knock her off, with all the stress). I can’t imagine all the anxiety she endured, all those days of calling the SSA in sheer exercises of futility, getting to the point where all she could do was laugh about it so she wouldn’t cry.
At one point, because of all the frustration, she didn’t even want to leave her apartment and shirked her beloved volunteering chores for a couple of days.
Who needs that kind of stress at 81 – or at any age?!
Natch, the politicians were useless. She approached the offices of the governor and a congressman, but didn’t get too far. She tried filing an official complaint with the SSA, but never heard from them (well, until this week, but more about that in a moment).
After I met with Rae for a couple of hours and heard all that she’d gone through, I called the SSA media relations troubleshooter in Philly, to discuss the whole sordid mess. Please believe me, I’m not out to pat myself on the back. There are enough journalists out there who do that sort of thing quite well. Insecure tribe that we are, we’re pretty good at wrapping ourselves in the banner of self-congratulations.
But an hour after my inquiry, Rae told me she received a call from an SSA representative, apologizing – yes, apologizing—and saying the matter was all straightened out. Oh, and a check was in the mail, to compensate for all of Rae’s benefits that were withheld.
That’s all great, but what if Rae hadn’t just sold her house in Randallstown last year? She admits that she never would’ve been able to pay her rent during this period and probably would be bunking with her son.
You’ve got to wonder, when talking to this sweet, gentle older lady with a fine, almost childlike sense of humor and nary a curmudgeonly bone in her body, didn’t any of these SSA agents ever think to themselves, “Wow, this could have been my mom or grandma going through this?” Don’t they care at all? Has empathy completely vanished from American life? Are we all that immune to each other’s problems? Have we stopped caring completely?
These are government bureaucrats. They work for us and are handling our money. And yet they treat us like they’re doing us a favor by merely talking to us on a telephone, much less helping us with our problems (some of which are caused by them, by the way).
Why did it take a quick call from a dorky reporter to get the ball rolling? I’m glad I was able to help Rae, it’s very gratifying, but you’ve got to wonder why it took me only a few minutes to do what Rae was attempting to take care of for more than two months. After all, she’s their constituent on this matter, not me.
Rae, however, wasn’t surprised. After all, she’s seen a lot in her lifetime. “Boy do they jump if they think their reputation is going to be marred,” she said to me.
The scary thing is that there are other Rae Rossens out there. And I strongly suspect there will be more, especially with Social Security’s murky future.
The bottom line is, we all deserve better.
I recently went on a bus tour of Druid Hill Park and its once-Jewish ‘hoods that was presented by the Jewish Museum of Maryland. With my old friend Barry Kessler, the museum’s former curator, leading the tour, you knew you were going to learn a lot. Barry has an encyclopedic mind.
And since there were a lot of senior citizens who grew up in the Druid Hill Park area (or remember going there to visit friends and family) onboard, you knew there were going to be a lot of firsthand recollections of that neighborhood’s golden age. Not a mousy generation.
So the tour was the perfect mix of scholarship (Barry) and folksy remembrances and anecdotes.
But what was missing – like at so many other Jewish gatherings – were young people. Granted, the tour was on a Wednesday morning, so most people under 30 are either in school or at work. But I think it’s fair to say that a nostalgic journey through Eutaw Place and such would not attract a lot of Gen-Xers or Millennial types even on a weekend afternoon.
Which is their loss. Because more than anybody else, it’s young people who should’ve been on this tour and would’ve benefited.
Why? Well for one thing, it goes without saying that the only way you can properly understand where you and your community are coming from is to know where you’ve been. On this tour, they would’ve seen that we fled some amazing, gorgeous areas that brimmed with style, character and grace, a world that few have us have ever really lived in.
But a tour like this one also makes you appreciate how important the city’s health is to all of us. After all, if the “Great Recession” has taught us anything, it’s how interconnected we all are – socially, culturally, economically, politically, etc. There really are no islands, so if you hear on the news about a murder “down” in Reservoir Hill, you’re only deluding yourself by saying you’re still safe in Pikesville and Owings Mills, that “that place” is so far away. We’re all connected. (Sorry to be so Pollyannaish, but it’s true.)
That’s something people who lived in the city during Baltimore Jewry’s golden age understood well. And that’s something we’ve lost track of, even with all of our cell phones, Twittering, emailing and Facebooking that seem to enhance our abilities to contact each other but thwarts anything resembling actual communication.
Instead of happy hours at bars, why don’t the community’s organizational young adult divisions take tours of East Baltimore and learn about what a thriving community really looked like? Why aren’t we taking our day school and religious school students on tours through the city’s onetime Jewish centers, to understand what came before and what could (to a certain fashion) be again?
The whole time I was on the bus, I kept wishing that my own children were with me, hearing the stories and learning the specific histories from Barry. They could’ve learned a thing or two, probably a lot more than they were learning in school that day.
The older folks on the tour, they didn’t need to learn about where Wagner & Wagner’s or Manheimer’s Pharmacy were. They already know. They know how special it all was. They didn’t need to learn about the 1948 civil rights action at Druid Hill Park when Jewish and black tennis players got arrested for playing together on clay courts. They already know.
After all, they lived it
But we didn’t.
The Holocaust, at least in my mind, never really goes away. Even if you’re not a survivor or the relative of someone who went through that hellish time, it seems like you can never truly escape the pain and knowledge of what human beings can do to each other. If you’re only merely somewhat of a knowledgeable Jew, it still has to inform virtually every aspect of your life and viewpoint.
And that’s probably good (as long as it doesn’t border on all-out paranoia or pathological anger). Needless to say, we should never forget. But at the same time, too many people cavalierly invoke the Holocaust for their own agendas, identities and viewpoints, usually in manners that are highly offensive to the remaining survivors, their families and the memory of those who perished at the hands of the Nazis.
Since last Tuesday night’s elections, my colleagues and I have been approached by several people interested in something I reported at the campaign party headquarters of Sherrie Becker, the candidate for the 2nd District councilmanic seat for Baltimore County. (By the way, Ms. Becker, who lost to Vicki Almond, never had anything whatsoever to do with any comments regarding the Holocaust.)
As I reported in my article last week, one of Ms. Becker’s supporters, Paul Hollinger, was highly agitated and upset with the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES for not endorsing his candidate (or any Jewish county candidates). He called me over to his table and in forceful, angry tones (and with plenty of choice language), he said the JT should have endorsed Ms. Becker because she is a) Jewish and b) the most qualified candidate in the race. (FYI, Ms. Almond is not Jewish.)
He ranted for quite a while, seemingly wanting to drag me into a heated debate about the topic, and he didn’t seem satisfied with any response I offered. I stayed calm but, frankly, after a while I just walked away. I figured I had let him vent and that was enough.
But later in the evening, from across the room, he pointed me out to his wife, former state Sen. Paula Hollinger, and said something threatening and offensive about me that I won’t repeat here. (Let’s just say that, anatomically speaking, it would be quite a trick to pull off.)
When I confronted him and in no uncertain terms pointed out that his behavior did not reflect well on Ms. Becker or her supporters, he cooled his jets a bit and retreated to his earlier criticism of the JT.
But then he came up with a zinger – that the JT’s “spinelessness” in the 2nd District race was “just like” the international media’s failure to report the atrocities of the Holocaust and prevent the annihilation of six million Jews.
I must admit, I had to catch my breath for a moment when he uttered that one. I might’ve even chuckled, out of disbelief. I didn’t mention that I have a close family member who survived the Holocaust. I simply said something to the effect of, “Oh, so now you’re comparing something like this to something like the Holocaust?” and he reiterated his comment. Everyone at his table, including his wife, hung their heads and said nothing, seemingly quite ashamed.
I wasn’t totally shocked when I heard this. After all, it seems like people conveniently bring up the Holocaust all the time for just about every real or perceived debacle, fiasco, slight or obstacle. It’s a knee-jerk, cowardly reaction that comes up way too often in our society when someone does or says something that you don’t happen to agree with.
And it’s obscene and it’s something we all need to stop doing. As my friend Rubin Sztajer, a survivor of five concentration camps, has said to me on multiple occasions, “Anyone who didn’t go through it has no right to speak about it or use it in a false fashion. Only we, the survivors, know what it was really like—and if you did, you’d know that it was like nothing else.”
I thought I knew vintage Jewish Baltimore pretty well. And being a geeky architecture buff since my teens, I was fairly confident that I’d seen just about every building, structure, edifice and shotgun shack in B-more that had some kind of tangential Jewish connection.
But when someone recently mentioned to me the Hebrew Orphan Asylum and efforts to preserve this incredible building in West Baltimore, I must admit I was clueless.
The 134-year-old building, which has been owned by Coppin State University since 2003, is located at 2700 Rayner Avenue in the Mosher-Greater Rosemont neighborhoods. It actually hasn’t been a Jewish institution since 1923, when the asylum merged with the Betsy Levy Home orphanage and moved to West Belvedere Avenue (at the current site of the Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital).
The structure – which has been vacant since ’89—became the West Baltimore General Hospital and later the Lutheran Hospital of Maryland (where two of my closest cousins were born in the early ‘70s, as I was informed recently by my mother).
The asylum is now the focus of a grassroots campaign for a national competition called the “This Place Matters Community Challenge.” The competition, sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, will have people from across the nation voting online to support historic buildings that exist within their communities. The project receiving the most votes by this Wednesday, Sept. 15, will be awarded a $25,000 grant.
The Jewish Museum of Maryland, the Coppin Heights Community Development Corp., and the groups Preservation Maryland and Baltimore Heritage Inc. are working closely with the university on the grant project.
Baltimore Heritage is also spearheading a project with Coppin to have the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
After reading up on the asylum, I found myself last week driving down West Lafayette Street, past all of the boarded-up houses, bodegas, storefront churches and corner taverns, to check out the orphanage building.
It is an amazing facility – a red-brick Victorian Romanesque structure with battlements, turrets and intricate cornice resembling a fortress. With merely a sliver of imagination, you can see indigent youngsters in the late 19th and early 20th century running around the lawns and through the hallways, like a scene out of “Oliver!”
But I have to confess, I didn’t get out of my car to look around the building (which is quite dilapidated and for the most part boarded-up). Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like a wise idea to poke around too much in this neighborhood (and I was already getting some weird stares from a few guys on the street).
Of course, part of the reason why Baltimore Heritage and the other groups are working so hard to restore the asylum – besides to return the building to its former grandeur – is to help spark a socio-economic renaissance in that community. And that’s certainly a worthy endeavor.
It’s going to take more than $25,000 to restore this building; it’ll take millions. But it is a start, and West Baltimore could use a new beginning. Just take a drive down West Lafayette Street sometime and you’ll see what I mean.
For information about the preservation campaign or to vote for the asylum, visit mypreservationnation.org. The Facebook page for the campaign is facebook.com/baltimoreheritage.
Back when he was the spiritual leader of Shaarei Zion Synagogue (today it’s Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion) in Upper Park Heights, Rabbi Joshua Shapiro – who passed away earlier this week—and I spoke by phone a few times. We never actually met, as far as I can recall, but I interviewed him on the phone for a few matters that now escape me.
Rabbi Shapiro was always very cordial to me, but one time I must’ve caught him on a bad day or maybe the issue I was calling about touched a nerve. The rabbi got rather snippy with me and eventually simply hung up the phone.
I was a bit surprised, but reporters get used to people getting brusque with them. After all, we’re often parachuting into their lives and calling about highly sensitive or personal matters that people would sometimes prefer not discussing in a public forum.
Anyway, the phone rang the next day and it was Rabbi Shapiro. “Mr. Feiler, I was a bit rude with you yesterday and I felt bad about it,” he said. “I apologize. I hope you’ll forgive me.” I was absolutely stunned since, frankly, that kind of thing doesn’t happen a lot. I told him not to worry about it and that I understood completely and appreciated the call.
But I’ve never forgotten that exchange because, let’s face it, how many of us have the inner strength, humility and capacity to recognize when we’ve screwed up, much less call the person we’ve wronged and apologize? That’s a rare quality. (As Elton John once sang, sorry seems to be the hardest word.)
Unfortunately, I never got to know Rabbi Shapiro well, but I’ve never forgotten his unique ability to simply say mea culpa. May his memory always be a blessing for his family and friends, and as we enter the High Holiday season may his example always stay with us and serve as a lesson of how to deal with each other.
The recent news that Ian Jacob Baron, the 22-year-old Montgomery County man accused of recently desecrating B’nai Shalom Synagogue in Olney, was raised by adoptive Jewish parents shocked me … and yet didn’t shock me.
You may recall that not so long ago, in October of 2008, we had a somewhat similar case here in “Charm City.”
Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and Beth Tfiloh Synagogue were also hit by anti-Semitic vandalism and graffiti, during the High Holiday season no less. Their lawn signs for the Associated campaign were defaced. And it turned out that the perpetrators were young men of reportedly Jewish backgrounds, according to the police.
Of course, the two cases are quite different. Baron described himself to police as a neo-Nazi who is active in the white supremacist movement.
I’m not excusing them but the two young adults and 17-year-old in the BHC/Beth Tfiloh case were basically typical American teenagers doing something very stupid and wrong (and unlawful) but not necessarily intentionally ideological, according to my sources.
Still, you have to wonder, what is inspiring a few – and I stress a few – Jewish kids to feel such antipathy and anger toward the Jewish community that they would go to such lengths of sheer hatred?
Where does this well of unleashed, uncontrolled fury come from?
When I wrote the BHC/Beth Tfiloh article in 2008, I posed that question to Beth Tfiloh’s Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg. “It does not surprise me,” he said of the perpetrators’ Jewishness. “Acts of teenage rebellion take on many forms.”
Art Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, told WBAL-TV at the time that the suspects might be “self-hating Jews. … Hopefully, that’s not the case in this instance, but it could be.”
And BHC’s Rabbi Andy Busch would only say to me, “I wouldn’t pretend to guess the motivations.”
Look, I still can remember being young and angry. But not to the point where I’d get a can of paint and spray swastikas on a synagogue or throw coins on a shul’s stoop to signify Jewish greed.
What’s going on here? Where does this hatred come from within our own ranks? What can we do about it?
I drove into work this morning listening to John Lennon’s gorgeous, ethereal “Across The Universe,” and thought of Josh Isaac.
“Pools of sorrow, waves of joy/are drifting through my open mind/Possessing and caressing me …”
Josh, who passed away yesterday only a short time after his 38th birthday, refused to go quietly into the night or wallow in pools of sorrow. A former Mount Washington resident who returned to his hometown of Seattle several years ago, Josh was determined to document his tragic journey with cancer up until the end, if for no other reason than to serve as a testament to life and perseverance for his three young children and wife, Kim.
Many of us were constantly moved and touched by his daily blogs (often written from medical facilities), as well as his documentary, “My Left Hand,” which made its East Coast premiere in Westminster late last June.
“Images of broken light which/dance before me like a million eyes/That call me on and on/across the universe …”
To my regret, I didn’t personally know Josh very well. My wife and I had the Isaacs over for dinner one summer Saturday night in the mid-‘90s, and I met him another time when he freelanced for the Jewish Times. He was friendly, likeable, handsome, creative, bright and funny. He had a light attached to him, a radiant quality that you sometimes detect in certain people. You didn’t forget him.
I didn’t really communicate with Josh again until seven weeks ago when I wrote an article about “My Left Hand” being shown here. At the time, he was recovering at a rehabilitation facility near Seattle from a bout with pneumonia.
In response to my question about why he decided to make such a personal documentary and statement about his health struggles, Josh was characteristically upbeat and inspirational. He said he wanted people to always remember that “life is worth celebrating, and [when] you go through this it only increases your love for family and friends and time on this planet. So I hope I help people by showing the challenges of my life to see the beauty in theirs.”
If only those of us who are not as wise and brave as Josh could and would always remember that.
But Josh, I think you accomplished your mission. And thank you.
May your memory always be a blessing and a source of great strength for your family and friends.
”Sounds of laughter shades of life/are ringing through my open ears/exciting and inviting me/Limitless undying love which shines around me like a million suns/It calls me on and on across the universe ... ”
I recently met up with an old friend for a beer. This is someone I’ve known since the age of 4, so he and I have some mileage together. I’ve also known his family for many years.
Before I could barely sit down on the barstool, he grabbed my arm and said, “Hey, I’ve got to tell you something. My little brother is getting baptized—or christened, or whatever you call it – in a couple of weeks.”
It took a few moments for the information to sink in for me, since these folks are Jewish. Nominally Jewish, but still Jewish.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
My friend laughed and said, “Yep, he’s gone goy.”
He went on to explain that his brother – who is in his mid-40s and was brought up with no religious education, background or observances (other than bagels and lox) – had been hospitalized for a few days about a year ago. While there, a pleasant couple representing a Christian group dropped by, offered some friendly, soothing, encouraging words, and suggested that he drop by their church sometime, just to check it out.
“That’s more than anything any Jews ever did for me!” the brother told my buddy.
He started going to their services or study sessions, enjoyed the camaraderie and spiritual ambience, and after a while wanted to sign up.
Hence, the upcoming baptism.
I think my friend expected me to literally fall off my barstool (and maybe plunge a plastic stirrer into my heart) when he offered his news. After all, you don’t hear about this kind of thing happening in Baltimore’s Jewish “shtetl” too often, right? And since I work at a Jewish newspaper, he said he figured I’m “all Jew, through and through,” and would be absolutely blindsided.
But for some reason, I wasn’t really all that surprised.
Besides the fact that Judaism was never really part of this family’s DNA, I think this fellow found something with this church group he obviously never experienced in the Jewish community – some warmth, caring, a search for the sacred and spiritual, intimacy, and perhaps a lack of focus on all things of a monetary value.
Of course, he may not have been looking in the right places in the Jewish community. We certainly have groups and institutions that provide those comforts and accoutrements.
But I hear this from unaffiliated—and affiliated—Jews over and over and over again: “All they care about in the Jewish community is getting your money,” “It’s all about who’s the best Jew,” “Being a good person doesn’t seem to count,” “Too many labels and divisions,” “It’s so boring,” “Shul just seems to be a big fashion show,” “It’s all a power/ego game.”
Let’s face it, certainly if one goes to most mega-shuls, that’s pretty much what they’ll find. We seem to be pretty good at being what a lot of people don’t want for their religious needs. Of course, when I tell people in the community that I hear these views from the unaffiliated, they usually sneer and say it’s just a bunch of kvetching.
In the midst of all the chest-thumping about how great we are – raising this much money for the building campaigns, getting new members, etc.—we’re turning off generations of people in droves.
Or some just stick around and go through the motions.
I tried to comfort my friend by reminding him that his brother is an adult and at least now has some kind of faith system to guide him. “We all need something to get through it all,” I told him. “Something was obviously missing from his life.”
But in my heart of hearts, I can’t help but wonder when the Jewish community is going to wake up and realize that to attract Jews and keep them, more spiritual nourishment and communal warmth need to be part of the package. The rest of it – the trappings, the mindsets, the culture—is just repelling folks.
How many more baptisms will it take?
When my father was a Merchant Marine in the early ‘50s, one of his fellow seamen – a non-Jew—asked him a question regarding Israel. At that point, the state was only a few years old, born out of the ashes of the Holocaust, surrounded by belligerent neighbors, and absorbing millions of Jews from Europe and the Arab lands. Yet no one was starving or living in the same kind of indescribable squalor as seen in Third World nations, the sailor said.
“How does Israel do it?” he asked earnestly, to which my father replied, “Simple – Jews take care of their own.”
Among friends and foes, Jews are known for doing just that – taking care of their own. Others cite it in pressing for taking care of the needy in their own communities. But an article I read over the weekend penned by a Tribune Newspapers writer made me wonder if our reputation for always helping our brothers and sisters isn’t somewhat overblown at times.
The story was about a housing shelter in Haifa that serves Holocaust survivors. The article chronicles how these elderly people, who survived the worst horrors imaginable, now live in relative poverty and isolation.
“We helped found the state of Israel and built it. They should make our final years better,” said one of the residents, Miryam Kremin, 88, a Polish ghetto survivor.
The article went on to say that an estimated 70,000 survivors in Israel can’t make ends meet and often go to soup kitchens or welfare agencies for help. The aid that some survivors receive in German reparations, administered by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, just isn’t cutting it as these survivors get further into their “golden years” and require more health treatments and assistance. (Others get nothing because they can’t prove they are really survivors.)
The Israeli government says it’s working to improve services for survivors, and doled out $700 million this year for 87,000 survivors.
But somehow, too many Holocaust survivors in Israel – and in the United States and elsewhere – are falling through the cracks.
Is the organized American Jewish community – which provides so much assistance to Jews here and all around the world – doing enough to help survivors in their final years? The survivors I know in town tell me, unequivocally, no. And judging by what I’ve read about this shelter in Haifa, I tend to think they’re right.
Dollars are tight, no doubt about it. Times are tough. But these people only have a few more years, and have endured the kind of hell we can’t even begin to imagine. Isn’t it incumbent upon Jews, as my father put it more than a half-century ago, to “take care of their own”?
Last week, U.S. Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan revealed a fairly well-known “family secret” to the world – that Jews usually spend their time off every Christmas Day chowing down on chow mein, munching on moo goo gai pan, gobbling up General Tso’s chicken and savoring similar delicacies in Chinese restaurants and carry-outs across this greasy galaxy.
Cantonese? Szechuan? Hunan? Fujian? Shandong?
They all sound good.
Chopsticks? Silverware? With our nimble little fingers?
We don’t care. Just bring it on.
Perhaps some folks in the deepest hollows of West Virginia or the furthest reaches of the Philippines jungle brush have never heard of this phenomenon, but most of us chuckled when we heard about Ms. Kagan’s remarks to the Senate committee reviewing her nomination. After all, it’s a popular in-joke that we all like to reference every now and then, just like catching a mindless flick on X-mas. (“What else is there to do when you’re Jewish?”)
But in my family, we’ve usually gone on our annual Yuletide pilgrimages to Greek bistros, which like their Chinese counterparts tend to be open on the day that the world observes the birth of, well, you-know-who. (I believe that’s because some Greeks celebrate Christmas on January 6, the Feast of Epiphany. Or maybe they’re simply astute businesspeople who know that Jews will be eating out in droves that day.)
Perhaps the question shouldn’t have been how Ms. Kagan spent last Christmas but how Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), her interrogator, spent Chanukah last year? Did he get Carpal Tunnel Syndrome from spinning a dreidel too many times? Did he get a nasty stomach ache from noshing on so many oily latkes?
And how did those Chinese and Greek restaurateurs fare during the Festival of Lights? Did they burn their fingertips lighting the menorah all those days? Did they grow hoarse from singing “Ma’oz Tzur” so many times?
Maybe the real question is why do Lindsey Graham or any other members of the United States Senate really care how or where Elena Kagan spent Christmas last year, even if it was the day on which an act of terrorism was planned (and thankfully foiled)?
Should Ms. Kagan have darted out of Wong’s Chinese Restaurant on 86th Street, drove several hundred miles to Detroit’s airport, and personally tackled and arrested the 23-year-old Nigerian “underwear bomber”?
Was there a point or purpose to Mr. Graham’s odd query? Not to sound too conspiratorial or paranoid, but what did the good senator really want to know? That Ms. Kagan is Jewish (which is no secret at all) and doesn’t spend much time in church or caroling on Christmas as a result?
That she doesn’t know all of the words to all of the stanzas of “Silent Night”? Is he looking to share a steaming plate of vegetable egg foo young with her at David Chu’s next Christmas Day?
Maybe I’ll find the answers to these questions someday on a little slip of paper in a fortune cookie.
When Abba Poliakoff could take a breather late Wednesday night, June 30, after hours of phone calls and meetings, he still had two more phone calls.
In one conversation he’ll always remember, Mr. Poliakoff learned from his son that he had just become a grandfather for the first time.
While it doesn’t get much better than that, the second call with Rabbi Hershel Lutch, Yeshivat Rambam’s executive director, came very close.
Rabbi Lutch congratulated Mr. Poliakoff on becoming the “grandfather” of 404 Rambam students as well. That was what it was like in the early hours of Mr. Poliakoff’s new role as president of Rambam.
He is helping watch over and work out one of this community’s most beneficial exchanges.
Yeshivat Rambam and Bnos Yisroel will be switching buildings. The two beloved educational facilities could be on the verge of cementing a bright future for the two day schools. The schools are a short drive from each other on Park Heights Avenue.
Yeshivat Rambam, which has of late relied on the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore for fiscal help and management advice, will be able to move its main campus to the Bnos campus, the former Beth Jacob Congregation. It is located across the street from the Park Heights Jewish Community Center.
Bnos is located at 5713 Park Heights Ave. just blocks south of Yeshivat Rambam’s 6300 Park Heights Ave. location.
The beauty of this is that the Rambam boys are already housed at the JCC. This will bring the two campuses that much closer together.
Bnos, which has seen itself grow into kindergarten through high school with some 500 students, is in a position of needing space to accommodate its growth.
On June 28, Rambam’s board of directors considered a letter of intent to move forward toward a contract with Bnos. The schools would stay in their current locations through the upcoming academic year.
“Now is the time to get reinvigorated and to reach high standards,” Mr. Poliakoff said. “Rambam is vitally important to the community. It plays a critical role, educating children on the derech [path] of Torah Umadah
He said now that the structure of a secure future is more in place for the school, it can focus on its mission of excellence in Jewish education. “We are now better poised to meet our targets as a school with a high level of excellence,” he said.
“It looks like Rambam will have a future,” said one source. “Rambam will have a light at the end of the tunnel. It looks as if all of this will result in a happy ending.”
For Mr. Poliakoff, the work has begun already and the feeling of optimism is abundant.
Marc B. Terrill, president of the Associated, is also excited about the agreement struck by Rambam and Bnos.
“This is wonderful news for both schools and for our community,” he said in a statement. “The entire process is emblematic of how mature communities should conduct business. Simply put, the communication, openness and creativity points to an across-the-board win for Jewish Baltimore The unique needs of each school are being met, and all indicators point to a bright future for all involved.”
* * * * * * * *
Rabbi Hershel Lutch, Rambam’s executive director, sent out the following letter to parents July 1:
After many weeks of hard work and negotiation by our board and professional leadership, we are delighted to share a number of positive developments at Yeshivat Rambam. These developments enhance the success of Rambam and ensure that we continue our critical mission of educating the next generations of Jewish leaders.
Here are the key points of these developments, with further details below:
We are selling our building to Bnos Yisroel and buying their building, the former Beth Jacob Synagogue, located across the street from the JCC. We have chosen new lay leadership headed by our new Board President, Abba Poliakoff. We have restructured the Middle & High School administration to better accommodate our physical configuration. As a result of this restructuring, Dr. Schwartz is stepping down as Principal.
Please join us for an important community meeting to discuss these and other matters Thursday, July 8, at 8:00 PM at our main campus.
As explained in a previous communication, the building at 6300 Park Heights Avenue has ceased to fulfill our needs. In addition, the weight of old debts was preventing our rebound from the difficulties of our recent past.
We therefore signed an agreement this week to sell our building to Bnos Yisroel, and to acquire their building in return. That building, at 5713 Park Heights Avenue, is across the street from our Boys Middle & High School in the Park Heights JCC, close enough for faculty and staff to cross between locations with ease. In addition, the sale of our building will allow us to pay off substantial debt and will make us more financially agile moving forward. We will remain at 6300 Park Heights for the 2010-2011 school year. Next summer, we will remodel the new building to prepare for occupancy, using funds made available through this transaction. The building already contains more than 25 classrooms, a large shul/auditorium, a multi-purpose room, a cafeteria, and outdoor spaces. Our plans are in the earliest stages, but we are excited about the move and have begun exploring appropriate modifications to the building.
New Lay Leadership
We are similarly pleased to announce new lay leadership of our school. We have asked Abba Poliakoff to serve as our President, and are in the process of filling out the Board of Directors. Abba will serve as the school’s chief lay leader, working closely with me and other professional leadership to advance our mission and secure Rambam’s future. He comes to us as a former Rambam parent who has served the Baltimore community in many ways: as a business lawyer and Chairman of the Securities Law Department of Gordon Feinblatt, LLC; as President of the Jewish Arbitration and Mediation Board of Baltimore; as Chairman of the Maryland Israel Development Center; as a member of the Board of Directors and Executive Committee of the Baltimore Jewish Council; and as member of the Board of Directors of The Associated.
“Our new Board will feature an active committee structure. The committees will cover key aspects of operation, including: development (Ed Hoffman, chair), academics (Debra Drang, chair), finance and administration (Meyer Shields, chair), communications and marketing (Ellie Kagan, chair), and governance (Steven Fleisher, chair). Members of the Executive Board will include the committee chairs and other active parents. In addition, all members of our Board of Directors will serve on at least one committee each.
We are looking to enfranchise the parent body in building the school’s future. Please keep this in mind when you meet with us next Thursday.
Hakarat Hatov to our Outgoing Board
We are grateful to our outgoing officers and directors for their tremendous help and support. Without their determination, ideas, and, of course, hard work, Yeshivat Rambam would surely not exist today. In particular, we thank Barry Nabozny, outgoing President, and Dr. David Sidransky, outgoing Chairman, for their remarkable service. Barry stepped in two years ago, helping to bridge the successful transition to new leadership. In fact he helped find and recruit some of our top talent while serving as a lay-Executive Director. While he is happy to stand down from that all-consuming level of involvement on behalf of the school, we will miss Barry’s unwavering commitment.
Middle & High School Administrative Restructuring
We are grateful to our administration for its dedication and hard work over the past year. This was a learning experience for new and old administration alike, as we explored the best ways to educate students on two campuses while maintaining the highest levels of academic and Torah learning. The experience taught us the difficulties of having administrative personnel on-site for half the time in either location. After much serious thought, we decided to restructure the Middle & High School leadership. We are happy to announce the 2010-2011 Yeshivat Rambam Senior Educational Administration as follows:
Boys Middle & High School Principal—Rabbi Yakov Majeski
Girls Middle & High School Principal—Mrs. Shira Tuchman
Elementary School Principal—Rabbi Shmuel Feld
ECC Director—Mrs. Rachel Rotenberg
Weird how life works. A few months ago, the Baltimore-born harmonica virtuoso Jerry Adler crossed my mind, so I emailed him, saying I hoped he was doing well. Don’t ask me why I happened to think of him. But I never heard back.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Adler, via telephone, nearly four years ago, on the occasion of the publication of his memoirs, “Living From Hand To Mouth.”
He was an absolutely delightful interview—lively, funny, classy, highly quotable and warm. He was impressed that I had interviewed his more famous brother, Larry, in the late ‘90s, and we schmoozed for a while about the virtues of the harmonica (aka, the Mississippi Sax, tin sandwich, gob iron, etc.).
Recently, I heard (belatedly) that Mr. Adler passed away in March of prostate cancer, at age 91, in Sarasota, Fla. Of course, I was saddened to hear this news, but I had to check my email trash to see when I wrote him out of the blue. Turns out it was only a couple of days before his death. I guess sometimes people have a connection that they just can’t explain.
In honor of Mr. Adler, I’m going to reprint here my article, titled “Heavy Breather,” from July 28, 2006. May his memory always be a blessing.
Jerry Adler likes to tell a story about his close encounter with Mao.
Yes, that Mao, he of gray flannel jacket, stern visage and “Little Red Book” infamy.
Mr. Adler, an acclaimed harmonica virtuoso, was a member of an entertainment troupe in the 1970s that performed on the first Western cruise-liner to sail into Shanghai’s port. Among those who boarded the ship for a ceremonial banquet and performance were Chinese Premier Mao Tse-tung and his sycophantic, inebriated entourage.
“I did my numbers, and afterward they told me Mao wanted my harmonica,” recalled Mr. Adler, still fuming at the Chairman and Great Leader. “I said, ‘No, this is my instrument!’ But they started begging me, and then I realized that in my cabin I had another harmonica that needed to be repaired. So I went and got it and gave it to him onstage.
“Well, Mao, who was quite drunk, gave me a big grin and proceeded to play ‘You Are My Sunshine’ on it, “he said.” I was furious! He got much more applause than I did!”
Getting upstaged by Mao. Jerry Adler has a million of ‘em.
Despite his lifelong vocation, the Baltimore-born Mr. Adler is no blowhard. Now 87 and living in a suburban Milwaukee retirement community with his second wife, Jean, he might be employing a great deal of understatement when he says, “I’ve had a fascinating life.”
After all, Mr. Adler has performed for royalty and political heads of state, dazzled audiences around the world with his technique and musical wizardry, recorded and played with music industry legends, befriended and tangled with Hollywood icons, contributed to myriad movie scores and soundtracks, and even enjoyed dalliances with famous and stunning starlets.
“I’ve always had a lot of chutzpah, and I’ve always been a cocky guy, “said Mr. Adler, chuckling,” and sometimes I’ve really gotten my foot in it.”
Now, those experiences are chronicled in Mr. Adler’s amusing and poignant new book, “Living From Hand To Mouth: My Memoir” (Authorhouse).In a phone interview last week with the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES, Mr. Adler said his first wife, Sylvia, who died in 1990, originally suggested that he write an autobiography. The second Mrs. Adler also encouraged her husband, an admitted procrastinator who has suffered from health ailments in recent years, to complete the project.
“The consensus is that it’s an ‘easy-read’ book, “Mr. Adler said.“People are fascinated with the contents, so I’ve been grateful for how it’s been received. I get e-mails from all over the world praising the book—Saipan, Indonesia, Tokyo, Germany, everywhere.”
In the book, Mr. Adler writes of growing up in West Baltimore, at 2210 Bryant Ave., the son of a Russian-born Jewish plumber and his Baltimore native wife.
As a child, Mr. Adler was sickly and passed the time by playing the harmonica, much like his older brother, Larry, who became arguably the best-known and most accomplished harmonica player of all time. The elder Mr. Adler, who died in 2001, convinced his 13-year-old brother to enter a Baltimore Sun-sponsored harmonica contest.
Jerry Adler won first prize in the contest, which afforded him the opportunity to perform at the Hippodrome Theatre with comedian Red Skelton. Skelton was a major influence on the budding entertainer.
“He was my mentor for a long time, a very generous man,” said Mr. Adler. “He taught me body movements on stage and how to `learn’ an audience and address them. He told me, ‘Never talk over applause.’”
Another major influence, of course, was Mr. Adler’s big brother. Although siblings in the same field and playing the same instrument, the Adler boys never felt a sense of competition, according to Jerry Adler. He said he never felt overshadowed by his better-known brother.
“Larry and I, for the most part, always lived on opposite ends of the world, so there was no conflict or competition between us,” he said. “I was immensely encouraged by him. He was a genius at classical music, while my forte is pops with some classical. Larry was a giant in the field. The harmonica was considered a toy before Larry Adler. He made it legitimate.”
After a British talent agent caught his act, Mr. Adler relocated to England at age 15 to perform at the London Palladium for $500 a week–big bucks during the Depression. “I was booked for two weeks and wound up staying in Britain for more than four years,” he said.
At 17, he played his first British Royal Command Performance, before King George V and Queen Mary in 1935. “When we went to the Royal Box, I shook hands with the king, which you weren’t supposed to do in those days,” Mr. Adler said. “So the photo of me shaking the king’s hand appeared in newspapers all over Europe. But I was just a kid, I didn’t know any better.”
Along the way, Mr. Adler played the great houses of Vaudeville, rubbing elbows with such show biz greats as Jimmy Durante, W.C. Fields, Milton Berle and Benny Goodman.
He also became the primary harmonica player in Hollywood, featured in motion pictures for two decades, with such credits as “Shane,” “The Alamo” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” the latter of which he played the solo on the Henry Mancini classic “Moon River.”
“I just played what they told me to play,” Mr. Adler said of the movie industry. “There was a call for the harmonica to be dubbed in a scene, and the music department came to me. I did mostly westerns, but other films as well. They wanted mood music, and the harmonica lends a lonesome, quiet feeling to a score.”
In particular, he is credited for playing harmonica in the 1941 film “Pot O’Gold” and teaching its star, James Stewart, how to play the instrument.
“It’s undoubtedly the worst film ever made, but all of the harmonica playing is me, “Mr. Adler said.” [Stewart] played pretty well, but not professionally. He used to watch me like a hawk, and he looked like me when he played. He was a marvelous man. We stayed friends for many years.”
Another movie icon with whom Mr. Adler became well-acquainted was Vivien Leigh, while working on the set of the 1938 film “Sidewalks of London.” He said he and the future Scarlett O’Hara shared an amorous encounter one day during a limousine ride back from the set.
“She was unbelievably beautiful, and I was madly in love with her,” he said. “It was just one time, which was quite enough. But the first thing that went through my head was,‘If only the guys in Baltimore could see me now!’”
After years in the film industry and Vaudeville, Mr. Adler began a lucrative career playing on cruise ships. “I had a family to support, so I started performing for the cruise business and found a very enthusiastic response,” he said. “I did that for 24 years and sailed the world five times over. It was an exciting life.”
While the harmonica is largely associated with such musical genres as country-and-western and the blues, Mr. Adler has mainly performed the pop standards of George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter.
“It leaves me cold,” he said of today’s music, adding about blues harmonica players, “I wish I could do what they do, but I can’t. I tried, but I’m awful at it. I don’t have the feeling for it. It’s out of my era.”
Now retired, Mr. Adler said he performs occasionally, usually at book signings, for short periods of time.
“I just don’t have the breath for it anymore,” he said. “I still enjoy playing but it’s frustrating because there are things I can’t play anymore, like ‘Rhapsody In Blue.’”
So for the most part, Mr. Adler is left with his grand memories of more than 65 years of performing in top-flight concert halls and nightclub stages around the world. The stories in the book–which at times might sound apocryphal to the skeptical and cynically inclined–never fail to delight and amuse.
Like the time Mr. Adler had a fistfight with Al Jolson backstage at New York’s Capitol Theatre. “He asked the Nicholas Brothers to give him a shoeshine, and I said,‘These people aren’t shoeshine people, they’re artists,’ and we started slugging each other and fell into an alley,” he said.
Or the time in the early ‘50s he performed “The Missouri Waltz” with President Truman, a fairly decent piano player, at a White House performance: “He said, ‘Young man, I only play the black keys,’ and I said, ‘It’s OK, sir, I’m not prejudiced.’ People howled, and Truman almost fell off the piano chair.”
All in all, Mr. Adler said, it’s been a good life and a good career, and that’s what he hopes to get across in his book. “I certainly appreciate the joy I apparently have given people,” he said. “Show business has been good to me.”
Sometimes, it does the conscience good to say thank you to someone who helped you along your journey. Even if it’s by accident and almost three decades overdue. But I’ve always run a little late.
Let me explain. A few months ago, I wrote a cover story for the Jewish Times on the UMBC chess team, which is considered the finest college chess team on the entire planet. Of course, as an alumnus of UMBC, I was quite proud to write about the team, even though I know virtually nothing about chess. And naturally, walking around the campus during my reporting of the story set off major flashbacks and a supreme sense of shock about the way my old school has changed.
At one point, I had the honor of interviewing Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III, UMBC’s dynamic president since 1992. At the end of our phone interview, I informed him that I graduated from UMBC.
Delighted, Dr. Hrabowski asked me about my experiences there and I told him about my pride in watching the school grow since my time there in the mid-‘80s. Not one to let any grass grow under his feet, he asked me to write a short email note to him about my experiences at UMBC and how they transformed me into a professional. He said he wanted to share it with other colleagues and associates.
Dr. Hrabowski isn’t someone you can say no to, so I wrote up a thumbnail sketch of myself and emailed it. In particular, I told him about how after more than a year at UMBC, I was feeling down and couldn’t find myself (or a major), so I went to see an academic counselor at UMBC named Ira Katz. (Don’t ask me why I’ve always remembered his name, I just did. Maybe because it’s a Jewish-sounding name.)
Sensing my frustration and concern about my professional future, Mr. Katz asked me what I liked to do in my spare time, and among my hobbies I told him I always enjoyed writing. “But you can’t earn a living doing that, can you?” I asked him.
He asked me if I ever went to the office of The Retriever, UMBC’s weekly campus newspaper, to ask for the opportunity to write an article. My response was of course not. “They wouldn’t take me,” I said. “They’re real professionals over there.”
As I recall, Mr. Katz tried to keep from smiling and said, “Well, I still think you should go over there and see if they could use a freelance writer.”
I followed his advice and got a chance to write a freelance piece for the paper. From there, I became a staff writer and editor for The Retriever, and being there whetted my appetite for journalism. My Retriever years are still some of my favorite memories.
Oddly (and sadly) enough, for reasons I cannot recall, I never went back to Ira Katz to simply thank him for his life-altering suggestion. I met him that one and only time.
But the past always has a way of sneaking up and clobbering you. Last week, I received an email from, of all people, Ira Katz. A former UMBC colleague had sent him my note – which Dr. Hrabowski appears to have sent out to the entire UMBC galaxy – and he wanted to thank me for remembering him. (Mr. Katz no longer works at UMBC.)
“You can imagine my surprise when I read the letter and saw my name mentioned,” he wrote. “I wish you all the best.”
Now I don’t want to get too “It’s A Wonderful Life” schmaltzy, but when something like this happens, it reminds you of how much we all touch and influence each other’s lives, even in seemingly small ways. It reminds you that we all have a purpose to serve and help each other, even if the results aren’t always clear or tangible to us immediately (or ever).
And it reminds you of the importance and power of merely saying thank you to someone who, well, gave a damn. It’s so easy to just get caught up in the frenzy of life and fail to offer gratitude to someone who eased your struggle a bit.
I’m glad that Ira Katz eventually found out that he truly made a difference in at least one student’s life. And I’m glad I got the chance to thank him, even though it took a while and was by accident. Five presidential administrations, to be precise.
Elvis Costello says he won’t perform in Israel anymore.
Should we care?
What do we do when some of our favorite performers voice opinions about the Middle East that are not necessarily to our liking? (I must admit, this would’ve been a lot tougher on me if it’d been Springsteen.)
Maybe you haven’t heard but Elvis recently announced he was canceling his scheduled performances in Tel Aviv next month.
“One lives in hope that music is more than mere noise, filling up idle time, whether intending to elate or lament,” he wrote on his Web site. “Then there are occasions when merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act that resonates more than anything that might be sung and it may be assumed that one has no mind for the suffering of the innocent.”
Costello said he was concerned that playing Israel would result in some of his Israeli fans and others believing that he accepted “the policies of their government on settlement and … conditions that visit intimidation, humiliation or much worse on Palestinian civilians in the name of national security.”
Attempting to be evenhanded, he noted that Palestinians have committed “many despicable acts of violence perpetrated in the name of liberation.”
Costello concluded that “sometimes a silence in music is better than adding to the static,” and that his cancellation was “a matter of instinct and conscience.”
I’ve always liked Elvis Costello and his music. He’s absolutely brilliant. And you’ve got to admire him for taking a stand on something he believes in.
But one wonders, why did Elvis book the gigs in Tel Aviv in the first place if he opposes Israeli policies? After all, not much has changed recently over there. Did he just pick up a newspaper?
Also, I’m glad he’s living up to his conscience, but if he really recognizes that both sides have done horrible things, wouldn’t it have made more sense to play your concerts there and promote coexistence and peaceful relations, like Paul McCartney did a couple of years ago?
Does treating Israel like a pariah, like apartheid-era South Africa, really sound like an effective method?
Did Elvis need a cause? As any of his fans know, he can be impulsive. This is the same guy who years ago, at the height of his fame, got into a drunken brawl with Stephen Stills’ band members after he used the N-word in reference to James Brown and Ray Charles. (He later publicly apologized.)
I’m not ready to take my old Elvis Costello records out to my backyard and start a bonfire. I wouldn’t advise American Jews or anyone else to boycott his concerts or to start picketing the venues he plays at. He has a right to perform wherever he wants.
But before dipping his toe into the vortex and sordid mess that is Middle East politics, I just wish he would’ve thought things through a bit.
Yesterday, my wife called me at work. Normally, in the crush of deadlines, she knows better. But this was different.
“Your cousin from Long Island left a message at home,” she said. “Sounds like you should call her back.”
I immediately called back my cousin, who is named after the same person as I am (our grandfather) and to whom I have not spoken in about 17 years. She was calling to inform me that her mother—my 85-year-old ailing aunt—had passed away suddenly. The funeral was held only a few hours after her passing, so I was too late to attend. I hadn’t talked to my aunt in about five or six years, and hadn’t seen her since the early ‘90s.
My cousin, who is an Orthodox Jew, wailed over the phone lines. She and her sister no longer speak, for reasons that she says are generally beyond her comprehension but (she contends) most likely stem from her sister now being “ultra-Orthodox.”
“Why does this happen in our family? She wouldn’t even come near me at the funeral,” she cried. “I barely know you and you’re my first-cousin. We have the same blood coursing through our veins. This is ridiculous. Life’s too short.”
Of course, she’s right. Life is too short for such pettiness and animosity between family members.
But what comes up between us all to cause such coldness, insensitivity and thoughtlessness? Why do these little cold wars crop up?
For many families, it’s money issues. In other cases, some people feel slighted or hurt over an incident or two – “You snubbed me at Bobby’s bar mitzvah,” “I was seated next to the kitchen at Susie’s wedding,” “You never visited my mother in the nursing home,” “You didn’t invite us for Pesach,” etc.
In my family’s case, it just about always came down to one thing—religion.
You know, the `Who is frummer than who?’ syndrome. Who uses the elevator on Shabbos. Who ate what at “that restaurant.” Who drove to where on what holiday.
We’re talking about the kind of one-upmanship that often goes on about who’s the richest or has the nicest house or biggest car in a family. In this case, it’s about who’s the most observant and dots all the “right” i’s and crosses the “right” t’s. Maybe you have a similar situation in your family.
So many times, as a kid, I saw my late father with tears in his eyes when he called my aunt—who he was crazy about—only to learn that one of his nieces had just gotten married and we hadn’t been invited. Or letting her know that we were in New York, only to have her say she wasn’t interested in a visit from us. As if we were going to bring over a bushel of crabs, or would spread our heathen germs.
How do you forgive and forget such callousness, such lack of humanity and familial bond, especially when it’s in the name of so-called faith, spirituality and “Yiddishkeit”? It’s not easy. But I guess you try. Somehow.
I realize that my cousin who called me is in deep pain. She just lost her beloved mother (may she rest in peace), and she feels a deep void in her life.
“This is religion?” she shouted to me on the phone, alluding to the chasm between her and her sister. “Where people don’t talk to each other, because one thinks that she’s better than the other? This is being a mentsch? This is religion?”
No, it’s not.
I’ve known Jael Freedman now for about four years. I’ve written a couple of articles about her. She is funny, smart, adorable, intuitive, immensely and intensely creative, and incredibly compassionate and empathetic.
Oh, and one more thing—this lady has guts.
Jael called me today to let me know she is donating a kidney to her nephew, Joshua Wood, 20, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, and suffers from Goodpastures Syndrome, a rare autoimmune disease that affects the lungs and kidneys.
“I decided I had to do it,” Jael said. “I don’t know what the outcome will be. I just keep thinking, `I cannot not do this.’ The feeling was so strong. This is his life we’re talking about here.”
Jael didn’t make this decision lightly. She is a 39-year-old single mother of two daughters who works as a nanny, personal assistant and (believe it or not) occasional psychic. She has a full life and lots of friends.
But this Friday, April 23, she will undergo a kidney transplant operation with her nephew at Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus.
For the month of May, Ms. Freedman will be recovering from the operation and unable to work. So she is relying on donations to pay her bills during that time period, and she’s hoping the Jewish community will be there for her.
“Anything given is so much deeply appreciated,” she said. “One thing I love about being Jewish is the sense of community and the `One for all, all for one’ [credo] we have. There’s nothing that as Jews we didn’t overcome, so it’s natural to come to my family for help.”
So where does she get her courage? After all, let’s be honest, how many of us could put ourselves through something like this, even for a beloved nephew?
“I have no idea where it comes from,” she said, “but I just think everyone has the courage in them. It’s there when we need it.
or to 6537 Falkirk Road, apt. J, Baltimore, Md. 21239.
Jael, we’ll be praying for you and Josh. God bless you.
I’ve known Rubin Sztajer now for 20 years, and one thing I know for sure about him is that he always shoots from the hip. Even if it bothers people in the Jewish community.
When it comes to matters regarding the Holocaust, I trust Rubin’s gut. He is, after all, a survivor himself.
Rubin—who speaks about his time during the Holocaust to 60-80 local schools each year—sees something in the Jewish community today that he feels is quite troublesome and painful.
He and his family were in attendance at last Sunday night’s community Holocaust Remembrance Day observance at Chizuk Amuno Congregation. “If I, of all people, don’t go,” he says, “how can I blame others for not going?”
But Rubin, like many of us, has seen the number of people attending Yom HaShoah programs dwindle considerably over the years. (Around 600-700 people reportedly attended Sunday’s event.) And what he says really upsets him now is that our community, for the most part, has only one Holocaust Remembrance Day program annually.
“Do we only have one community observance of Purim or Passover?” he asks me. “Why don’t they observe Yom HaShoah no less than they do with Passover, Purim or Chanukah? We tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt twice a year, and we don’t even really know what happened there. Yom HaShoah should absolutely be observed at every shul in town. Every synagogue should have something. It should be observed like any holiday. We don’t celebrate any other holiday or observance only once as a community—and then nothing else.
“The victims must be turning in their graves about how history has been forgotten so quickly. It’s disgusting.”
These are difficult words to hear from someone who survived five concentration camps and lost a good deal of his family in the Shoah. But Rubin doesn’t mince words. He says he hears a lot of Jewish community leaders frequently invoke the memory of the Six Million, but “it’s a sham” to raise funds for and interest in their organizations. He shows me a slew of local synagogue and temple bulletins, none of which mentions Holocaust programming of any kind.
He also tells me of a prominent local rabbi whom Rubin approached recently. When Rubin asked him why survivors never come to his shul or its religious school to speak about their wartime experiences, the rabbi snapped that the Holocaust is just “old hat” now to the Jewish community. Rubin says when he began to argue with him, the rabbi simply walked away.
“The Holocaust is a big part of Jewish history, but it’s being quickly forgotten,” Rubin says. “And a lot of people are exploiting it and making dirty money off it. It’s become big business. Nobody should ever make money from the Holocaust. Not from my family.
“Conservative shuls now send kids home with [yahrzeit] candles for Yom HaShoah, so they can raise money for men’s groups and youth groups. But that money should go to Holocaust-related programs, not for youth groups or men’s groups.”
I remind Rubin that after the early ‘90s – with the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and the release of “Schindler’s List” and similar films – a lot of people seemed to have come down with a bad case of “Holocaust fatigue.” It’s a downer, I say, people don’t want to hear more about the tragedies. Maybe it’s too vast, too overwhelming, too dark and graphic for some people to want to fathom.
“I never thought I’d live to hear of a fatigue about the Holocaust,” he says. “Three years ago, I attended a panel discussion of the Elie Wiesel book `Night.’ At one point, the moderator asked the panel, `When is it enough already?’ And no one challenged him. When I did later, he just walked away from me.”
Rubin says he recently spoke to more than 800 students at North Harford High School in Pylesville. It’s typical of predominantly non-Jewish schools, he says, because they’re interested in the Holocaust. But Jewish schools don’t seem to want him or other survivors to speak at their institutions, he says.
“I haven’t talked to a Hebrew school in more than two years,” Rubin says. “Not that I don’t want to, but I’m not asked. They won’t do it anymore. … The Reform shuls, they all observe Martin Luther King’s birthday, but they don’t observe Yom HaShoah.”
When I ask Rubin if other local survivors feel similarly, he responds, “The others do feel like I do, but they don’t want to speak out. I know some of my friends will jump on me for talking about this, but there’s so few of us who can really speak for the victims. Look, I’m 84, so what do I care?
“In another five or 10 years, we’ll all be gone, the survivors. People say to me, `Let the goyim learn.’ But the Jews need to learn about the Holocaust, too. They think they know everything about it, but they don’t at all.
“There’s still so much to learn,” Rubin says. “I still don’t know everything about it, and I was there. We have to remember what happened during the greatest tragedy that ever happened in the history of the world. Trust me, every Jew lost somebody there.”
A certain amount of skepticism can always be a useful tool, we’re all taught when coming up in the journalism field. “Never lose it,” a journalism teacher once told me. Avoid sentimentality or emotionalism. Don’t allow yourself to get snowballed by nostalgia and maudlin talk or ideas. Keep your antennae up. You know, all that hard-boiled reporter stuff.
But sometimes, something gets you right in the kishkes when you cover an event and the emotion just leaves a large lump in your throat.
That’s how I felt on a recent Friday afternoon when I joined about 20 residents of the Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville on a visit to BWI-Thurgood Marshall Airport to greet military troops returning home from Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries.
The Charlestown group goes monthly to BWI as part of Operation Welcome Home Maryland, and they’re led by resident Suzanne Levitt. Dressed appropriately in red, white and blue, Suzanne is like everyone’s mom, aunt or favorite family friend. Thin and blonde, she is friendly, caring, smart, funny and what my own mother would call a “ballabuste,” someone who always gets things done.
A Chizuk Amuno congregant, Suzanne decided to form the Charlestown group after going to an Operation Welcome Home Maryland gathering at the airport about three years ago.
From the outset, I knew that going with the Charlestown folks to see the returning troops would be an emotional experience of sorts. How could it not be? But standing there in the BWI international terminal with several of the residents who are World War II veterans, I had to take off my reporter’s hat for a while and simply listen in awe. I truly felt like I was a flea among giants, listening to their own stories about coming home after the war.
“I remember we came home from the Pacific and wound up sailing into San Francisco’s harbor,” one vet said to me. “We saw Alcatraz, and we joked, `That’s where we’ll be soon.’”
When I told the fellas that my own father was in WW2 and at D-Day, I could tell my stock rose somewhat in their eyes. “Oh, he was a Merchant Marine?” one gentleman said to me. “They were the real heroes of the war, y’know.”
But what really got me, of course, was seeing the troops returning home. Tired, weary and ready to get to their next flights, they looked absolutely stunned when they walked into the terminal and saw hundreds of people – young and old – standing there, cheering them, screaming like they were rock stars, holding up signs thanking them for fighting terrorism and making incredible sacrifices for all of us.
One Operation Welcome Home Maryland volunteer, a Vietnam vet, said to me, “I do this for them because no one ever did anything like this for me when I came home.” Then, a look came across his face. “Well, nobody except people you don’t want greeting you,” he said, “protesters who are calling you names like `baby-killer.’”
There was nothing resembling that at BWI that Friday afternoon. Soldiers beamed as a cordoned-off line of people offered handshakes, backslaps, high-fives and boatloads of praise to them. When passing by my WW2 vets from Charlestown, many of the military personnel simply put down their gear, shook their hands and thanked them for what they did in fighting for freedom more than six decades ago.
Watching these soldiers, the old and the young, with smiles and tears in their eyes as they gazed upon each other was truly an amazing sight, something I’ll never forget, and a great honor.
I guess even journalists are human beings and are capable of emotions from time to time, despite our constant striving for objectivity and rational approaches. But going to see this display of patriotism only a little more than a week before Passover, the Feast of Freedom, was truly a wonderful experience. And I would advise everyone to contact Operation Welcome Home Maryland and see this at least once in your life. You owe it to yourself and the troops.
I also want to thank Suzanne Levitt and the other Charlestown folks for what they do, and for allowing me to share the experience.
I’m going to say something here in this space that will make me sound tragically “un-hip,” overly PC, supremely humorless and highly whiny. But so be it. Wouldn’t be the first time.
I have a lot of friends and acquaintances who absolutely worship Howard Stern. Besides being blisteringly funny and acerbic, they say the mother of all shock-jocks is a brilliant commentator on virtually everything (and everyone) in our society that is false, vain and patently stupid. In other words, he says it “the way it is,” articulating in one way or another what all of us may think or feel but would never have the guts to utter aloud. Honesty for a change, in the tradition of his fellow Jewish humorists Mort Sahl, Philip Roth, Lenny Bruce and even Al Franken.
For some time now, I’ve felt that this poor excuse of DNA is just a joke and a bully, a provocateur of the lowest, crudest order. But his recent attack against Gabourey Sidibe, the star of “Precious” who was up for Best Actress at last Sunday night’s Academy Awards, is simply below the belt, even for ol’ Howie.
On his Monday show, sitting next to Pikesville native Robin “Uncle Tom” Quivers, Stern said, while recapping the endless Oscars telecast, that Sidibe is “the most enormous, fat black chick I’ve ever seen. … You feel bad because everyone pretends that she’s part of show business, and she’s never going to be in another movie. What movie is she going to be in? ‘Blind Side 2’—she could be the football player.”
(Hey Howard, ever hear of Queen Latifah? Oprah Winfrey? People of all shapes and sizes and races are making forays into the entertainment world nowadays. They even let tall, skinny, gawky guys on satellite radio.)
Of his fellow media sacred cow Oprah, he said, “She told an enormous woman [Sidibe] the size of a planet that she’s going to have a career. Oprah should’ve said, ‘You need to get help, we don’t want to lose you.’ You just want to say to her, `Listen, honey, now that you’ve got a little money in the bank, go get yourself thin, because you’re going to die in three years.’”
Boy, that guy is some kind of humanitarian, a true crusader against obesity. (The world could’ve used another doctor from “Lawn Guyland.”) But is he really concerned about Sidibe’s weight and health or is he just – as usual – saying inane, outrageous, offensive things merely to get attention and high ratings? Isn’t that what he’s all about anyway?
I’ve got to tell you, I’m pretty sick and tired of people saying that Howard Stern is the Paul Revere of candor and honesty – and the great foe of artifice – in this country, like he should be wrapped up in the American flag and the First Amendment.
Let’s call him for what he is – a mean-spirited, bigoted, ugly, self-loathing, pathetic jerk. Why else would he beat up on this talented young actress? Howard, like his adoring, sycophantic public, is merely a manifestation of our misguided, callous, graceless age.
He may indeed be brilliant and funny. He may upset the applecart, which we desperately need in our culture. But ask yourself, does he do what he does for the sanctity of the truth or does he do it for his own largesse?
Look, I’m sorry he hates himself so much, and that the “cool kids” back in the day roughed him up, physically and emotionally. But not to sound too much like an armchair shrink but why would anyone want to listen to him slam others because of what happened to him decades ago?
Here’s a confession. Back in my college days, I used to listen to Howard a lot when he was on a D.C. station. I liked his edgy stuff and thought he was a bit of a mad genius. But when he started joking around about his wife’s miscarriage and going into gory details about it, that’s when I turned it off.
I just wish everyone else would do the same now. Wake up, the emperor’s buck naked, folks. The plug should’ve been pulled about 15 years ago.
When I say that sentence to people indigenous to the Pikesville-Owings Mills corridor, their jaws simply drop and their eyes get as big as manhole covers. It’s almost like how I imagine informing people about the Orioles’ four-game sweep victory in the ’66 World Series, or even the Kennedy assassination, would’ve been. I mentioned it to a co-worker the other day and her 7-year-old son, who was in the office because of snow, started cradling his head in his little hands, moaning, “Fuddruckers?! Oh no!”
I’m sure that losing “The Fudd” in Pikesville will be a big blow to some people in this area who, like me, have wonderful memories of taking their young kids there, watching them devour a large burger or grilled cheese, only to retreat into that den of iniquity – the dreaded arcade area.
But for more of us, Suburban House – known locally as “S&H” because of its original owners’ initials – is the bigger stunner. Some people consider that spot at 911 Reisterstown Road nothing short of holy ground, as if Moses first touched base with the Almighty there while ordering a bowl of matzoh ball soup and “the Fresser Special.”
We “Bawlmer Jewz” tend to get pretty attached to our familiar places, our safe havens. For us, these buildings, complexes, facilities and physical areas are iconic, sacrosanct, even familial. “Major things” happened there – our parents went on their first dates there, we used to go there with buddies after seeing movies, we had our bar mitzvah receptions in that room, we always had breakfast with our zaydies there every Sunday, etc.
It gives us comfort, gravitas, a sense of rootedness and tradition. But of course, it’s deceiving – a complete sham—because everything in life is always in transition and flux, even when it seems otherwise. As a rabbi once said to me years ago, after I remarked on how sad it was that his synagogue had to relocate from its home of 45 years, “Alan, change is life’s only constant.” He may not have said it first, but he was right.
We “Bawlmer Jewz” don’t like change much, maybe even less than the average Joe. (If we were good with change, we wouldn’t still call it “S&H,” right?)
With its narrow entranceway, tiny parking lot (which has seen many a car swerve suddenly to avoid running over a senior citizen with a walker), that deli section, those booths, the photos and art on the walls, the mirrors everywhere, and those silly Yiddish placemats, Suburban House is home for us. Or at least it’s been our home away from home. It’s where we schmoozed or conducted business, enjoyed family meals, got a nosh to go.
But as the owners of S&H told me earlier this week, what they have there can be “transported.” It is a movable feast. After all, it’s the people (the customers, waitresses, kitchen staff, deli workers, owners) – and yes, the food, abundant and quite filling as it is – that made that particular restaurant special and gave it that last-of-the-Mohicans ambience. Really, how many bistros suffer a fire and a day later receive phone calls of condolence and support from the governor, a senator, congressmen and many others? (Maybe Obama was busy with Afghanistan or health care matters that day?)
Nu, a half-century at the same location is plenty long enough. Sure, we all have our memories and anecdotes of that place, some sweet and some not so sweet. I’ll always remember eating there at the tender age of 7 (back in the late ‘60s) and getting a look of sheer hatred and utter disgust from an octogenarian diner after I accidentally scraped my steak knife across my plate, making an awful, nails-on-the-chalkboard sound that reverberated throughout the restaurant.
I’ll also always remember all of the interesting people I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing there over the years, as well as the poignant gatherings with friends and family members. (My Garden State pal “Mickey Jerzey” always insists that we stop by S&H on his trips down here, as do my deli-lovin’ parents-in-law from Florida.)
But we must also remember that we are a wandering, peripatetic people. We can’t stay in one place for too long—we get shpilkes. So I want to wish Suburban House’s owners, Mark Horowitz and Joe Stowe, much good fortune (and plenty of parking availability) at their new location.
These are good guys who truly care about our community. (No, I’m not on their payroll, I’m not related to them and I’m not looking for free food handouts in the future.) They understand that their business is not just about feeding people and making a quick buck, but creating a place for folks of all ages to come together and simply be themselves. (As evidenced by so many sweatsuit-wearing S&H customers who simply get up and fix themselves a cup of coffee, as if they’re in their own kitchen.) That’s what always made S&H different, special.
So yes, Suburban House is moving to Fuddruckers.
There are certain words in our language I just can’t get enough of. One of them is “schadenfreude.”
Schadenfreude is that wonderful German phrase stolen by English speakers that loosely translates as the phenomenon in human nature of gaining great pleasure from someone else’s misfortunes. Perhaps like the proverbial schlemiel who chuckles after he inadvertently spills the proverbial boiling hot soup in the lap of the proverbial schlamazel.
Bad weather seems to bring out the schlemiel and the schadenfreude in the best of people, but why I can’t understand. (Of course, I can’t really understand why so many people spend all of their waking moments thinking, talking and worrying about the weather.)
I’m used to my parents-in-law – Midwesterners by DNA, personality and outlook – who have lived in Florida for more than two decades calling us every time we have a flake of snow or other types of inclement weather.
“We heard you got three inches of snow yesterday,” they say every winter, with glee bubbling in their voices. “Over here, it’s 85 degrees. Just gorgeous, beach weather.” (OK, let’s talk more when it’s hurricane season, folks. Then, the phone calls are fewer.)
But I was floored last week when one of my relatives who lives in Arizona tried to contact my house multiple times. I actually thought something major or dramatic was going on in her life but when I returned her call, I quickly surmised that she was merely calling to dwell on the whopping amounts of snow we’ve been lucky enough to get here lately.
“Hi, how’s it going over there? Heard you guys got some snow? Been thinking about you,” she said, barely able to contain her enthusiasm. “Spending a lot of time in the house, eh? No school for the kids, right? Holding up?”
Now let me get this straight: someone is calling to laugh about our meteorological misfortunes who lives in a region where for about three months a year, you can’t go outside after 7 a.m. and before 10 p.m. because you could be burnt to a crisp or succumb immediately from severe heat exhaustion? I seem to remember eating at an outdoor Phoenix bistro about 15 years ago and watching a roof filtration system shoot out spurts of water that evaporated long before they would’ve hit the ground, all to make patrons a little cooler. Now that’s hot!
I’m proud to say I’ve never called my relative during the most sweltering months of the “Grand Canyon State’s” summers, and I’d like to propose here that our General Assembly legislators officially outlaw “Weather Schadenfreude.” They would be providing a great service for those of us who simply want to get through Mother Nature’s occasional challenges – be they blizzards, snowstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes or the 17-year cycle of Cicada invasions – without the snickers of others.
Who’d be laughing then?
Like you, I don’t know what to make of the recent Washington Post investigative article on Rabbi Menachem Youlus. What is one to make of someone who you’ve met from time to time over the years and have surmised is an individual of the highest ethical caliber and standards – and then read an article claiming he possibly is not?
The article calls into question some of the Baltimore scribe’s longtime claims about the provenance of many of his Torah scrolls, which he says he largely unearthed or discovered throughout Central and Eastern Europe—lost, discarded holy remnants of that highly-emotional touchstone we call the Holocaust.
Who would play fast and loose with anything connected to something as sacrosanct as the Shoah? Who would give the chazzers—the deniers—a scintilla of a chance to extend their feast, their orgy of lies?
And yet in our own community and the world at large, we know that even some Holocaust survivors themselves have played fast and loose with the facts about what happened during humanity’s cruelest season. If these souls can do such a thing (intentionally or unintentionally), how can we be shocked if someone who didn’t go through that horrific time possibly exploits it for their own gain and glory?
I have a photo at home of my daughter from a couple of years ago with Rabbi Youlus. He came to her Hebrew school class, where each student received the opportunity to have their picture taken with the rabbi, filling in a letter in a Torah scroll. She was excited about the opportunity, and who can blame her? It was a chance to physically touch the Torah, feel the parchment, and hope that some of its holiness, wisdom and ancient wonder would rub off. And to meet a heroic figure – “the Indiana Jones of Torah scribes” – to boot.
What do I tell my daughter now? That there are questions about this bright, articulate, very likable man, raised by some of the very people who believed in him the most and spent their hard-earned dollars to spread the love of Torah in memory of their loved ones? How do I explain these serious allegations, ones that could horribly damage the reputation of someone that many of us previously held up as a highly moral individual on a very noble mission?
Of course, the jury is still out on Rabbi Youlus. He certainly deserves his day in court. Like you, I pray that he is innocent of the accusations cast in his direction. Time will tell. But I can tell you that I will never again be able to listen to anyone’s claims of having Holocaust-related materials, artifacts or documents with the same lack of inquisitiveness and innocence.
And maybe like my friend Rubin Sztajer, a local Holocaust survivor, has told me in the past, that’s not a bad thing.
Way back in the mid-‘90s, my wife and I thought we should get back in touch with our roots and finally learn Yiddish. After all, my in-laws speak the language fluently, and my parents certainly understood it well and could converse. So we figured that before we had kids, we’d better learn Yiddish (so we could speak in a code our children could not break, much like the Navajos with the Japanese during World War II).
Ah, the best laid schemes of mice and men.
We took a once-a-week evening class at Baltimore Hebrew University with the late Dr. Solomon Manischewitz. While we earnestly wanted to understand the language, I think what we really wanted to learn was enough to get by, just when we wanted to chat among ourselves (and maybe for a few good jokes).
As anyone who met him knows, Dr. Manischewitz was a charming, brilliant, gentle and delightful man. For more than 50 years, he was a beloved teacher and individual in Baltimore’s Jewish community, always with a twinkle in his eye and a positive word to say. You couldn’t help but love this man.
But when it came to teaching, Dr. Manischewitz was simply not fooling around. He didn’t view Yiddish as a folksy, schmaltzy little language for occasional schmoozing and joke-telling. He didn’t see it as potentially irrelevant or outdated, like other “lost languages,” or only to be studied for scholarly purposes. He didn’t care if we were simply adult evening students with too much time on our hands. He didn’t know from any of our hankerings of nostalgia.
A Holocaust survivor, Dr. Manischewitz was absolutely serious about teaching his native tongue, the mamaloshen, and he treated it just like any instructor would with French, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin Chinese, whatever. He demanded complete concentration and reverence. He wanted us to conjugate verbs, form coherent sentences, employ various clauses, etc. He used to say, “Now if a stewardess asks you if you want coffee, how do you respond?”
(Tell me, how many stewardesses have you met that speak Yiddish? On Zei Gezunt Airlines?)
Needless to say, most of us in that course weren’t up to the challenge. I have to confess that I cut class quite a few times, something that burned up my wife since she always felt I was Dr. Manischewitz’s “class pet” (most likely because he always had a strong affinity for the Jewish Times and tended to rub my cheek and call me “a good boy.”)
Unfortunately, my wife and I are not Yiddish speakers today, and we are forced to use other means to clandestinely communicate in front of our children (whispers, hand gestures, miming, poor drawings, charades). Our lives would be a lot easier if we just would have paid more attention to Dr. Manischewitz.
Recently, I heard that Israel’s Ben-Gurion University is establishing a center for Yiddish studies. The center will host workshops and colloquia, publish forgotten and obscure Yiddish works, and collaborate with Yiddish research centers around the world.
That’s really good news, especially when you hear that funding for other Yiddish programs—like the one at the University of Maryland College Park—is being cut. We’re talking here about the language of our ancestors, a mother tongue that has survived millennia of persecution, pogroms and assimilation (and morons like myself). Yiddish is a lifeline to our past, a world that Hitler and others unsuccessfully attempted to decimate.
Today, an estimated 500,000 people in the world still speak Yiddish. At the start of the 20th century, that figure was at more than 10 million. Besides all of the external forces, I suspect that major, major drop is largely due to embarrassment – among both American Jews and Israelis – toward Yiddish.
Israelis tend to think of Yiddish as the language of victims, while we American Jews consider it (in our heart of hearts) as an outdated immigrants’ tongue. We look at it as cute and kitschy – like the Suburban House restaurant’s amusing glossary placemat of Yiddishisms—but nothing more.
I made that mistake when I took Dr. Manischewitz’s class, and I regret it today. Nothing would give me more nachas than if my children – the very people for whom I was trying to learn Yiddish (to keep secrets from them) – would learn their grandparents’ precious language and use it to keep information from me.
Nu, wouldn’t that be a zetz in the kishkes?
In a recent syndicated column titled “Nonbelievers, Please Leave Christmas Alone” that ran in The Sun, the great Garrison Keillor takes umbrage with non-Christians who jump on the commercialization bandwagon of what we Jews call “that other December holiday.”
“This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism, and we Christians have stood for it long enough,” he writes. “And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write `Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we’ll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah’? No, we didn’t.”
Amusing stuff. I’m sure plenty of curmudgeonly Jewish readers were incensed by Mr. Lake Wobegone’s remarks – one Sun reader even condemned the newspaper for printing the column – but Keillor has a point.
Think about it: some of the most popular (and schlocky) Christmas tunes of all time were penned by Jews. Of course, there’s “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin, Johnny Marks’ “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” by Sammy Cahn and Jules Styne,” “Silver Bells” by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, even “The Christmas Song” by Mel Torme – the list goes on and on.
“Christmas is a Christian holiday,” growls Mr. Keillor. “If you’re not in the club, then buzz off.”
OK, so maybe ol’ Garrison needs to take a chill pill. But really, why do we Jews produce these mawkish tunes that have galvanized the masses to contemplate a holiday scenario – one of tinsel and holly and eggnog swilling – that even by our Christian friends’ standards always seems to fall short?
Let’s not forget that most of these songs tend to have melancholy melodies, or at least inhabit a rather lonesome and longing quality, despite the allegedly cheerful and blissful nature of the holiday. I think that comes from our own yearning for all that this holiday promises, even though we know that we can never really fully participate.
I’ve met Jews who have Christmas trees. “It’s just for fun,” they say, “it has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus or Santa or anything. It’s not a religious thing.” Even in my own family, I must confess, there was some gift-giving to young children on December 25th, a desire by my parents that I “shouldn’t feel left out.”
Perhaps we Jews in the Galut are eternally condemned to wishing that we, too, could share in the Yuletide festivities (and perhaps that’s why we’ve made Chanukah into something that it’s not – the Jewish version of Christmas). We have our collective nose pressed up to the glass doors, watching our friends get to enjoy all of the beautiful lights and revelry and trains and delicious food, and of course, the gifts!
Me, I’ve come to appreciate Christmas on a whole different level as an adult. I enjoy it because, well, it has absolutely nothing to do with me. I get to enjoy all the lights and decorations, the cookies and good cheer and such, and yet be relieved of the family stress, travel headaches, gift-buying frenzy and delusional expectations that accompany the holiday. For me, it’s simply a pleasant time of the year that I can turn on and off at will, like a silly Christmas TV special.
I know that Garrison Keillor is merely joking around when he writes that Jews should leave Christmas alone and stop pushing our musical “dreck.” But if our schools and shuls were doing their jobs right all along, would anyone have written these ditties about chestnuts or sleigh bells in the first place?
Sam Stone. The name itself is as solid and dependable as the man.
Last Saturday morning, Dec. 12, my old friend Sam’s synagogue, Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Hebrew Congregation, honored him for his decades of service to the Pikesville shul.
Sam got a new title at MMAE – he will become the congregation’s president emeritus, after years of holding many leadership titles with the shul. Sam tells me he is not being put out to pasture and that he will remain active in the leadership and direction of MMAE.
That’s a good thing, particularly at this critical juncture when Rabbi Elan Adler is planning to leave the shul to relocate in Israel. With his strong mind, charisma, work ethic and sense of Yiddishkeit, Sam will continue to be integral to MMAE’s growth.
As a former Hebrew school student and bar mitzvah at Moses Montefiore Woodmoor Hebrew, I want to wish a hearty yasher koach to Sam and his lovely wife, Sylvia, as well as to the folks at MMAE. Much good luck to this wonderful congregation for a promising future.
Sam, you’re the best.
The other day, someone who isn’t Jewish asked me to define the Yiddish word mentsch. I did the best job I could, explaining that it means someone who is a decent, caring, upright individual.
I know a lot of people who call themselves mentsches, but it’s rare that I see what I consider “mentschlikeit” behavior.
But every now and then, something comes up to remind me that there are some mentsches out there.
Recently, I was at a Judaica shop in town. A friend of mine who lives in a non-Jewish area asked if I could get him a Chanukah cookie cutter set, since I live on the “Jewish side” of town. (By the way, I’m not mentioning this to in any way indicate that I am a mentsch. Believe me, I know better, and my wife can second me on this.)
While I waited in line, there was an elderly Russian lady ahead of me with a thick accent and a radiant smile. “Excuse me,” she said politely to the woman behind the cash register, “I am trying to buy mezuzah for my son. But I don’t know what to get him. Can I get help?”
The woman behind the cash register, in a brusque fashion, replied, “OK, well, do you want a mezuzah case or the actual mezuzah, the parchment?” The Russian woman smiled but did not answer. She obviously didn’t understand the question, presumably because of language barriers as well as never receiving a Jewish education in the former Soviet Union.
The saleswoman sighed, reached beneath the counter and pulled out a mezuzah parchment. “This is what I mean,” she said, sounding quite irritated. “This is what a mezuzah is. Without this, it’s nothing, just a case. Is this what you want?”
The Russian lady hesitated for a moment, smiled at me with embarrassment on her face, and said, “Uh, no, I need the other thing. My son, he not so religious.”
Exasperated, the saleswoman pointed her in the direction of a wall full of mezuzah cases and said, “Look, just go over there and see what’s there. But it doesn’t mean anything without the real mezuzah.” Then, she looked at me and said, “Can I help you?”
Suddenly, a young man with a thick, dark beard and a black hat said to the saleswoman, “Don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of it and pay for it,” meaning the parchment. But the saleswoman couldn’t leave it at that.
“OK,” she said, “but you need to explain to her that that [the case] doesn’t meaning anything without this [the parchment]. They all think these [parchments] are just instructions, and they just throw ‘em away after hanging up the cases.”
The young man smiled at her patiently and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll explain it all to her. That’s what I do for a living.” He then walked over to the Russian lady and said, “Hello, can I help you, please?” The lady beamed and thanked him.
I didn’t get a chance to talk to this man because, frankly, I was in a bit of a rush. But if I had, I would’ve thanked him for being a mentsch in a world where “un-mentschlikeit” behavior seems to dominate.
It’s nice to know that there are still some mentsches out there. We should all try to emulate their behavior from time to time.
Last year, I got a really good taste of the genius, generosity and extraordinary vision of Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin—who died yesterday at age 85—when I wrote a series of articles about the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown district.
If you haven’t been there, get over to the Sixth & I as soon as you can. It’s something else. Housed in the gorgeous, 101-year-old former home of Adas Israel Congregation, Sixth & I is known throughout the region for its innovative services and programming, ranging from the hottest speakers of the day (from the political, religious, literary and entertainment realms) to a plethora of cutting-edge performers and happenings.
It’s more than a shul. It’s an experience, a decidedly Jewish one, without boundaries, hang-ups or labels.
Sixth & I wouldn’t exist without Abe Pollin, his wife, Irene, and his friends and fellow real estate developers Shelton Zuckerman and Douglas Jemal. Back in 2002, these prominent folks were concerned about the lack of a Jewish house of worship and Jewish cultural center in downtown D.C. They wanted to get a Jewish renaissance going in the nation’s capital.
More importantly, they wanted to get young, urban Jews jazzed about Jewish life and culture, according to their own particular generation’s needs and desires. Many of these young Jews in D.C. come from other areas around the country to work in the most powerful city on Earth, and they barely have time to eat, much less have a Jewish experience or go to shul.
Simply put, Mr. Pollin and company saw a need, and they were willing and able to put their money and muscle behind their dream. They weren’t just schmoozin’.
So they purchased the old Adas Israel—which had been a church and was going to become a nightclub—spent millions on restoring the building to its former glory (and it is glorious), hired some really good people to run the place, and generously spent countless dollars on superb programming that would interest young Jews and others from the city, suburbs and exurbs. And they weren’t afraid to try new stuff, even if it failed.
Today, more than 125,000 people every year have a positive Jewish experience of some sort at Sixth & I, whether it’s a concert, a literary discussion, a class, a Shabbat service or otherwise. And no one’s talking at them about membership dues, building campaigns, Hebrew school tuition or continuity concerns.
I know some people here in Baltimore might not be wild about Abe Pollin. After all, he is the man who moved our Bullets to Landover back in ’73, more than a decade before that Irsay guy famously ran the Colts out of town. (We’re pretty good with grudges here in Charm City.)
But after spending some time at Sixth & I and witnessing the wonders there, I can honestly say that Pollin was a true visionary and mentsch. Our community could use a few more Abe Pollins.
I know you’re busy getting ready for Thanksgiving, and maybe even Chanukah, too, but let me tell you a quick personal story about how far we’ve all come in a fairly short period of time.
For nearly two decades (including during World War II), my late father was a Merchant Marine. Only God knows how many ports my dad stopped in during his years as a Merchant Marine, but one of them was Baltimore, on many occasions.
My father told me a story that when he came to Baltimore once in the late ‘50s, he went to the old Greyhound bus station near Mount Vernon Square. He happened to be using the restroom there when he heard the screams of a man coming out of another stall. My father ran out to see what all the commotion was about, to find a cop beating the living hell out of a man. What was the man’s crime? He had the audacity to be African-American and use a “Whites Only” public bathroom in “Charm City.”
My father, a native New Yorker unaccustomed to the harsh ways of segregation, protested, and the cop and his victim piped down and moved on. But my dad never forgot the incident and it stayed with him long after he quit the Merchant Marines, married my mother, relocated in Baltimore and worked closely for years with the African-American community.
Like I said, we’ve come a long way, in barely 50 years.
The journey is not over, not by a long shot, but the stalemate between African-Americans and Jews, in my opinion, has let up a bit in recent years. One piece of evidence of that is the spirit of cooperation that exists between Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and the First Mount Olive Freewill Baptist Church. For the past two-and-a-half years, BHC has provided worship space for First Mount Olive because of a fire that seriously damaged the church at Freemont Avenue and Saratoga Street.
The arrangement has been mutually beneficial, of course, and the two congregations have enjoyed working with and learning from each other. Their spiritual leaders have even exchanged pulpits on occasion.
Next Tuesday night, Dec. 8 (which happens to be my dad’s birthday), the Black-Jewish Forum of Baltimore – the BLEWS – will honor the two congregations at its annual meeting. In a statement, the BLEWS hailed BHC and First Mount Olive as “exemplary models of interfaith and interracial cooperation.”
I couldn’t agree more. We shouldn’t wait for fires or other tragedies to come together as friends.
In a feature article on CNN’s Web site this week, Jessica Ravitz writes about “the New Jews” out there, blazing a new, glorious trail in the latest chapter of the American Jewish experience.
“When Moses came down from Mount Sinai about 3,300 years ago, he couldn’t have seen these Jews coming,” charges Ms. Ravitz.
The article chronicles the unbridled and unfettered manner in which many young Jews today are observing and celebrating their faith and heritage, and it generally doesn’t have anything to do with shul, Israel, continuity concerns or paralyzing fears about anti-Semitism.
A few unconventional examples – Gen-X and Gen-Y Jews with tattoos featuring Stars of David and other Jewish icons and themes; women exchanging vows in a Jewish wedding ceremony; guys guzzling bottles of HE’BREW, The Chosen Beer; a PhD candidate who writes a letter condemning Israeli policies against Palestinians; a punk rock Jew who incorporates his religion into his music; and Roseanne Barr (who’s even older than me!) dressing up as Hitler, standing by an oven and serving burnt-Jew cookies in a Heeb magazine layout.
These “New Jews” tend to be sick and tired of the shuls and schools and the organizational alphabet games and the Holocaust/everything-Israel-does-is-great shtick, and all of the trappings of institutional Jewish life. They prefer an alternative, irreverent, sometimes even offensive take on their Jewishness, one that eschews the albatrosses of affiliation, tradition and rootedness.
I must admit, I certainly admire their impulse and desire for innovation and free-spiritedness. I, too, get tired of the vapid formality, endless rigidity and pervasive myopia of American Jewish life. I especially like the alternatives sprouting up – particularly in New York – where independent prayer groups for the spiritually hungry and adventurous are giving the mega-shuls a good run for their money (and yes, those mega-shuls sure like their money).
But with all due respect to Ms. Ravitz, I must also take it all in with a great big yawn. Because frankly, there’s not much “new” here, despite some catchy, newly-minted phrases like “Emergent Jews” and “the New Jews.”
Obviously, the old model isn’t working very well. There’s no argument about that. Young folks are bored, and so are most of the rest of us. We all seem to be going through the motions, and that’s across the denominational board. The stats back this up.
OK, yes, Hebrew school was dreadfully tedious. But let’s stop whining about it and try to make it better for our kids. Did our Jewish lives basically stop at 13 or 14?
I’m all for making Jewish life accessible, fun, creative and meaningful. I think we have to, simply for survival. And I don’t think that historical miscarriages of justice and continuity fears are going to inspire the troops. In addition, as important as it is, I don’t think a Judaism inspired and executed solely by social justice programming will do the trick (the Reform movement learned that lesson years ago).
Obviously, we need to employ the wonders of technology (the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and such) to reach out and really connect with the new and upcoming generations.
But I don’t think joking around about the horrors of the Holocaust, castigating Israel on a frequent basis or wearing T-shirts with amusing, caustic messages (“Kiss me, I’m A Christ Killer”) will make anyone feel more Jewish. It’s just something to laugh about, not anything with a profound meaning to help anyone figure out what being Jewish is all about.
Granted, all this stuff might make you feel hip. Tattoos do look cool, and seeing Roseanne with a Hitler mustache might be comical or cutting edge in some people’s eyes. But in the long run, it won’t make you really feel Jewish or understand Judaism. There needs to be some substance involved, too, and I strongly suspect that the “New Jews” will learn that eventually as well.
Last week’s funeral at Beth El Congregation to mourn the loss of Rabbi Mark G. Loeb was a veritable “Who’s Who of Baltimore Jewry.”
I must admit, I didn’t see too many “black hats” in the crowd—not a shocker since Rabbi Loeb always wore his liberal views on his sleeve, thus becoming the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with left-of-center Judaism to some frum folks.
But I did see people there from across the denominational and congregational divides, demonstrating how well-respected Rabbi Loeb was among his fellow Jews (and non-Jews, since I noticed a number of Christian clergy there as well).
Among those in attendance was Rabbi Jacob A. Max, the former rabbi emeritus of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah (MMAE) Hebrew Congregation, a shul still known fondly in some circles as Liberty Jewish Center. As you likely know, Rabbi Max, 85, was convicted last April of molesting an employee at the Sol Levinson & Bros. funeral home. In subsequent BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES articles, other women came forward with their stories of inappropriate and indecent behavior toward them allegedly exhibited by Rabbi Max over the years. (No need to go into the gory details again.)
Since then, Rabbi Max has resigned from the Baltimore Board of Rabbis, shortly before they voted to discontinue his membership, and MMAE decided to suspend his title as rabbi emeritus and remove a polished stone bearing his name and proclaiming their campus in his honor.
All in all, it’s quite a fall from grace.
But there he was, at Rabbi Loeb’s funeral, looking well and smiling broadly. It’s a smile I know well. Rabbi Max officiated at my wedding and the wedding of parents in 1961, back when Liberty Jewish Center was located on Marmon Avenue in Howard Park. He was there for all of our family life-cycle events (save for my bar mitzvah), and he was always a source of great comfort and warmth to us.
Now, of course, I view this cordial, gregarious man with admittedly mixed feelings. At Beth El, to my surprise, Rabbi Max was greeted quite warmly by others in the audience. He was sitting only a few rows ahead of me, so I watched closely. (Couldn’t help it.)
At one point during the funeral, Rabbi Max got up and walked out of the sanctuary for a few minutes. While he walked up the aisle, one man arose, offered a handshake and hugged the rabbi. Others smiled, nodded and waved at him.
Is all forgiven? Has the community moved on and granted teshuvah for this man who, according to the American legal system, did something wrongful to a woman, something I think most of us would agree is not terribly rabbinical?
I couldn’t help but notice that most of those people who were pleasant to Rabbi Max at the funeral were older. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe senior citizens don’t get all the fuss about sexual molestation, or are a little more forgiving and understanding than the younger set.
Maybe we just don’t want to deal with the whole odious matter anymore, so we say, “Let’s go forward, he made a mistake.” Or maybe people wanted to just let him mourn his friend, Rabbi Loeb, without bringing anything ugly into the equation – “It’s not the proper place.”
A day after the funeral, I chatted with a friend who works at a local synagogue about this subject. My main feeling was that I felt a sense of shock and maybe a grudging admiration for Rabbi Max’s (there’s no other word for it) chutzpah about showing his face in public, no less at a mega-shul holding a major communal event.
Me, I’d be in Nome, Alaska, where no one knows me. (Seals don’t know from molestation convictions.)
My friend explained that Rabbi Max ain’t the type to run off to Nome and hide. After all, he does come from the generation that kicked Hitler’s and Mussolini’s butts.
“He’s got a point to make,” said my pal. “He wants to show his face and be out there. He feels he has nothing to hide, did nothing wrong, and wants the world to see him smiling. He’s in denial about his problem, so he goes out there and does his thing. That’s just the way guys like him are, that’s how they’re built.”
I’m not sure whether that’s true or not, but when you see such stubborn chutzpah in action, it does take your breath away. And I couldn’t help but think of those women who say their lives have been greatly marred by Rabbi Max’s alleged behavior over the past decades and the community leaders and members who turned their eyes away and made excuses for him. I wonder how these women would feel about seeing him there, smiling and laughing and schmoozing.
But then again, he has been punished, in a court of law and, worse yet, in the public eye. And my guess is that in his most private of moments, he beats himself up pretty good as well.
Rabbi Mark G. Loeb’s sudden passing on Wednesday night is a shock for all of us who knew this incredible man and respected him. Everyone knows that Rabbi Loeb was brilliant and a powerful speaker to boot. He was also capable of enormous compassion and empathy, and could be quite acerbic and straightforward at times. That’s what we all loved about him. You knew you were getting it straight from Mark.
Everyone has a favorite Rabbi Loeb story or two. Let me share two of mine.
When I first came to the Jewish Times, my old boss, Gary Rosenblatt, suggested that I make appointments with local rabbis and learn about their congregations. One of the first rabbis I touched base with was Mark Loeb. I remember meeting him at his office at Beth El. We schmoozed for a little while, and then I asked him if I could take him to lunch. He said sure.
We got into his big, shiny car – which had a car phone, the first time I’d ever seen one of those – and started driving. “Where do you want to go?” he asked me. I suggested a couple of kosher establishments, since I figured he was a rabbi and kept kashrut.
Rabbi Loeb studied me for a moment and asked if I keep kosher. “No sir,” I replied. In not terribly gentle language, he chided me for assuming that he kept kosher and insisted that we would dine that afternoon at Linwood’s, and that “it’s on me.” We proceeded to have a great meal, and all of the staff at one point or another dropped by to say hello to the rabbi.
That was my initiation.
My other story: my mother had an old friend who passed away suddenly about a dozen years ago. The woman had a fleeting, peripheral relationship with Beth El.
While sitting with my mother at Sol Levinson & Bros. shortly before the funeral service, I heard someone going, “Psssst, psssst!” Looking around, I spotted a frantic Rabbi Loeb, who was gesturing for me to come over to the doorway where he was standing. I said hello to him, shook his hand and asked how he was doing, but he simply waved off all pleasantries.
“Look,” he said, staring hard into my eyes, “did you know this woman – the deceased—at all?!” I responded that I did know her a little bit, that she was a family friend, and he explained that getting the woman’s family to give him biographical and personal information about her for the eulogy was like extracting molars. He didn’t know her at all, and they didn’t seem to either, he said, exasperated.
I offered a few pieces of general, seemingly worthless information – that she liked to shop, she loved her grandkids, she was a bit of an eccentric, she enjoyed playing the slots in Atlantic City – and then the good rabbi said, “OK, OK,” and basically told me to beat it. I couldn’t imagine what kind of eulogy he could proffer from my scant tidbits.
Of course, he gave an absolutely stunning eulogy in which you felt that he knew the deceased quite well and made you feel the loss of this unique human being. It was a mesmerizing performance, one that made my jaw drop, and you felt you were in the presence of a master rabbi, one who could always rise to the occasion and comfort those in need. That’s a gift.
Rabbi Loeb was a no-nonsense guy who didn’t suffer fools or foolish behavior and thinking well, but he always had a smile and a kind word for me (unless I was being foolish, of course). He said what he thought, in his own inimitable style, and didn’t worry about how he would be judged by others.
There aren’t many like Mark Loeb, and I know there will be many of us who will miss him a great deal. As my friend Gilbert Sandler said to me today, after learning of Rabbi Loeb’s passing, “He was a commanding presence.”
I think we can all say Amen to that.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not sure I’ll ever feel the same way about David Letterman again.
Since the late night talk show host made his dramatic confession on TV last week that he was being blackmailed for $2 million for having numerous affairs with female employees, I’ve been talking to different people about Letterman. It seems like everyone basically wants to give Dave a free pass because a) well, he’s Dave, and just about everyone likes Dave, b) we all hate extortionists, and c) we’re all pretty sick of these silly sex scandals.
Blackmail is wrong, no doubt about it. And it certainly sounds like Robert “Joe” Halderman, the Emmy Award-winning “48 Hours Mystery” producer who was arrested for the alleged extortion plot, is a real piece of work.
But that doesn’t mean Dave should completely get off the hook. After all, this is a guy who has been more than comfortable taking potshots at peccadillo-prone politicians and actors in his monologues and Top Ten lists for decades. And then he’s fooling around with his female employees? The people for whom he signs their checks? The folks who would likely give their eyeteeth to work for a major celebrity like David Letterman? (Dave reportedly even kept a secret bedroom at his studio for his trysts.)
One friend said to me over the weekend, “Can you blame him? It’s good to be king. Why not? Who cares if he was their boss? He wasn’t married at the time, and he’s David Letterman. More power to him. Anyone would do what he did. They’d be crazy not to.”
Another person said to me, “Why was it unprofessional or unethical? Lots of people sleep with their bosses. It’s nothing new, older than the hills. David Letterman is a very powerful man, a celebrity. He didn’t do anything wrong. No one has ever filed a sexual assault or harassment complaint against him. These women knew what they were doing. It was consensual. He was just being a guy.”
This was the reaction (believe it or not) from Kim Gandy, former president of the National Organization for Women: “I don’t really care who someone sleeps with, as long as it’s not coerced and as long as there’s not some explicit or implicit promise of favors or the like. It’s another adult—it’s not a minor. If that’s all it is, he’s a single guy and he had a fling.”
Meanwhile, one CBS insider praised Letterman’s attitude toward women on the set. “I’ve worked in a lot of places, and [`Late Show’] is one of the better places for a woman,” the insider told Fox News. “Dave’s not a groper.” (How noble.)
In general, the reaction from the public has been muted and uncharacteristically forgiving. The comic geniuses at “Saturday Night Live” barely touched the Letterman mess last weekend, and it appears that Dave’s advertisers and viewers are sticking by him.
I don’t want to sound like a choirboy here, but something’s not kosher. I know that employers have flings with their employees from time to time. But this certainly sounds like more than simply a little misguided moment due to an affair of the heart. It sounds like someone having a real pattern of taking advantage of a situation because of his celebrity, influence and prestige. In some circles, that’s known as an abuse of power.
Certainly, it wasn’t illegal. And Dave admitted that what he did was “creepy” and “terrible.” But still, something feels wrong here. I guess I just expected more of Dave. And maybe of the rest of us.
On occasion, I’ve been accused by friends of being a “Luddite.” What’s a Luddite? By definition, a Luddite is someone who is opposed to technological changes, a term dating back to early 19th-century England when textile artisans protested the Industrial Revolution. (The leader of these upstarts was reportedly someone who went by the sobriquet “King Ludd.”)
Of course, if I was indeed a Luddite, you wouldn’t be reading this since I wouldn’t be using a computer and writing a blog. Nor would I have a cell phone, TV, washing machine, electric shaver or telephone answering machine.
I’d actually make a lousy Luddite. My old Royal typewriter no longer works and is only for decoration, and there are no clotheslines flapping in the breeze in my backyard.
Technology often improves our lives greatly when used well, and one of the places I’ve seen that take place is in the synagogue. For instance, where I go to shul, there’s a TV monitor that greets visitors, informing us of the day’s scheduled activities (Torah study gatherings, service times, committee meetings, etc.). We also receive frequent helpful email blasts from synagogue and religious school staffers.
But on holidays and Shabbat—times when I believe all of the denominations agree that we need to escape the hustle and bustle of modern life (translation: all of those pesky cell phones, computers, voice-mails and TVs)—that Luddite component of my personality tends to surface.
During Rosh Hashanah this year, I occasionally noticed clusters of teenagers hanging in the synagogue hallways. I have no problem with it – been there, done that. I’ve heard some people call it “Hormone Alley.” Fine. At least they’re in shul.
But when I see some of these young people standing around and using their cell phones to call and text their pals, I know something’s broken here. And it’s not necessarily their fault. Who’s to blame? Perhaps their parents, rabbis and teachers who are simply not making it clear that using modern apparatus in shul on one of the holiest days of the year is just plain wrongheaded.
After all, they’re already with their friends, enjoying themselves and chatting up Katie Perry’s new CD or whatever. No one’s shoving their butts into services. Can’t they drop the cell phones and texting for just a day, or at least until they get home? Is national security really threatened if they leave their cell phones at home?
My wife reminded me of one time when we attended a friend’s adult bat mitzvah ceremony a few years ago. It was a very moving event, but one of the worshippers was talking on his cell phone during most of the service. Even when the times came in the service to stand up and recite the Amidah and other prayers, he simply stood up, with the phone seemingly congealed to his ear, and kept chatting away. Finally, at some point, a few congregants shushed him enough that he walked out of the sanctuary, to finish his phone conversation (which I’m willing to bet was pretty unnecessary and inane) in the hallway.
It all comes down to that one precious resource so woefully lacking in our world—sechel (common sense). But if you want to call me a Luddite, so be it.
“So you’re scared and you’re thinkin’ that maybe we ain’t that young anymore.”
You know these words. You’ve heard them more than a billion times. They’re seared into your brain at this point, like a mantra.
Today is Bruce Springsteen’s 60th birthday.
Yes, you read that right.
How can that be possible?
For nearly as long as I can remember, this man has provided so many of us with the guidelines and narratives of our lives – stories about those who get stepped on and beaten up by society (“Born In The USA,” “Atlantic City”), lessons about how to get through it all with grit and determination (“Badlands”), lamentations about life and loss (“The Rising”), the pain of love gone bad (“I’m Goin’ Down”), the perils of temptation (“I’m On Fire,” “Brilliant Disguise”), the price of familial dilemmas and moral responsibility (“Highway Patrolman,” The River,” “Independence Day”), the revelry of youth (“Spirit In The Night”) and the crippling fear of death (“Cadillac Ranch”), and the fading promise of America (“The Promised Land,” “City Of Ruins, “My Hometown”).
He might be just a rocker, a pop star, a media cultural image, but in so many ways, his ideas, thoughts, poetry and philosophies have impacted the way many of us look at life. For many, he’s been there every step of the way on our own journeys, as maudlin as that might sound, like a good rebbe. Even if we’re not all working-class kids from Jersey, he provided the soundtrack of our lives.
I remember years ago writing about my old high school classmate, Steven Oken, who was eventually executed by the State of Maryland for murdering three women. I must’ve played “Nebraska” a thousand times while putting that one together.
I doubt there’s any occasion for which a Springsteen song wouldn’t work. Even when you know someone on Death Row.
I also recall a friend who was going through some tough times with his marriage and his job. “You know,” he said, “sometimes when I get home from work, at 2 or 3 in the morning, feeling wiped out and lonely and really frustrated, I go over to the VCR and pop in Bruce’s `Live In New York’ video, and I always feel better.”
I knew exactly what he meant.
With all due respect to Mr. Dylan, Mr. Lennon and others, no one else has ever written songs like Springsteen with that kind of empathy and conscience, songs that touched people of my generation so profoundly and directly. And no one has ever performed with that kind of commitment, energy, intensity and dedication, before or since.
So I say to all of my fellow Springsteen fans out there, let’s raise a beer and say, “Happy birthday, Bruce, yom huledet samayach, and thanks for everything.”
Sixty. How did that happen?
Show a little faith.
A day or two before the general elections last November, my wife ran into what I’ll call a “quasi-relative” of mine and his son-in-law. They were all schmoozing harmlessly – the kids, the weather, the stock market, nuclear fission, world peace, etc. – when my quasi-relative, a rather crusty, self-assured fella in his early 70s who enjoys offering his opinions (solicited or not), asked my wife what she thought of this guy named Barack Obama. He said it with a certain amount of disgust dripping from his lips.
When my wife replied that she liked Obama, the guy went into full-attack mode and started kvetching up a storm, “joking” that they’d be “serving chitlins in the White House” if he won and warning of the Democratic candidate’s wicked, wicked “socialist” ways. (And this was well before all of the boisterous health care town hall meetings.)
My wife tends to be laid back and has a capacity to grin and bear these kinds of older guys (she’s from the Midwest, after all), but the man’s son-in-law was having none of it. “Oh, come on!” the son-in-law said, interrupting his father-in-law’s harangue. “You just don’t like him because he’s black, plain and simple.”
When my quasi-relative appeared stunned, protested vehemently and said he didn’t have a racist bone in his body – something quite hard to stomach for anyone who’s heard the man use the term “schvartze” on countless occasions and say other things that would fall under the category of bigoted “thought” – the son-in-law couldn’t stop himself from countering, “Oh, come on! Please!!”
Of course, at that moment, the son-in-law became my hero.
And that brings me to Jimmy Carter, who is definitely not my hero. But ol’ Jimmy says much of the criticism directed toward President Obama these days is based on – you’ve got it—race. (By the way, that’s an assessment that the White House says Obama does not agree with.)
“I think that an overwhelming proportion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, he’s African-American,” Carter told NBC television on Tuesday.
I hate to admit it, but Jimmy might be right.
I think we always have to be careful when using the race card when talking about, well, everything. It can be a very slippery slope. Not every time that President Obama is criticized is the result of racism, and there’s an inverted racism for liberals and others in coming to that conclusion automatically.
But I do think that Jimmy Carter – who has been so wrong in his analyses about the Middle East and other matters in recent years – is correct when he says that the specter of racism has permeated the recent overly harsh criticisms of Obama (i.e., Sen. Joe “You Lie” Wilson, the town hall meetings, the corporate bail-out condemnations, the controversy over merely telling students to work hard and stay in school).
How else do you explain this kind of rampant, white-hot vitriol and alarmism, the over-the-top hatred of this man (who by the way is a pretty likable guy) in such a short period of time? In only nine months, he’s been compared to Hitler, Che Guevera and Uncle Joe Stalin. We’re told he’s a commie, a liar, a dictator, a Nazi, an autocrat, a slick huckster – where does it end? Even presidents who got our boys and girls killed in wars that we still don’t comprehend never got treated with this kind of scorn and disrespect.
Maybe the other side of the political aisle just has a bad case of sour grapes, as has been suggested. No one likes to lose, and Sen. John McCain is undoubtedly an upstanding human being and a great patriot (but a lousy candidate). But sorry, there’s more going on here than simply sore losers or political differences.
Look at this country’s racial legacy. And then look at the overwhelming bulk of the people clamoring for Obama’s hide.
And then tell me Jimmy might not be right.
OK, now on a completely different note ...
Like many people weaned on the folk music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, I was greatly saddened to hear about Mary Travers’ passing this week, at age 72. Her group, Peter, Paul and Mary, were an inspiration to a lot of people for getting involved in social and political activism, and that will always be her legacy.
Mary’s death reminded me of two things. One of them had nothing to do with her, but I recalled once interviewing her Jewish bandmate, Peter Yarrow, as a cub reporter in the parking lot of the old Memorial Stadium.
Yarrow was one of the organizers of a “traveling rally” of activist tent-dwellers who were going from town to town for several months, to raise awareness and call on the powers of the world to ban nuclear weapons. In hindsight, the whole affair might sound a bit kooky, mawkish and crunchy-granola, but I was inspired by Yarrow and the hundreds of other activists there who were so committed to that cause (and to our children’s future) that they gave a chunk of their lives to it. That kind of activism, passion and selflessness just doesn’t seem to exist or resonate today.
The other thing I recall is how Mary Travers was so unceremoniously dumped from the performing lineup for the historic December 1987 rally in Washington for Soviet Jewry. The reason: organizers were warned that with Travers being a female, many traditional Jewish rally-goers wouldn’t show up because of restrictions against hearing women sing. The wind-up was the rally was a major success and helped usher in a new era, but Mary wasn’t there singing. (And I was there, looking for her.)
I understand the organizers’ sensitivities in this matter, but this was Mary Travers we’re talking about here, a person who among her many other human rights and social justice causes was a vocal and ardent supporter for the freedom of Soviet Jews. As I recall, Mary was reportedly pretty understanding about the whole thing, but it still bothers me to this day.
Mary Travers deserved better. May her memory (and legacy) always be a blessing.
So let me get this straight—the president of the United States wants to talk to the nation’s schoolchildren about the importance of education next Tuesday, Sept. 8, and the conservatives are riled up? When did we become an anti-education nation?
The speech, which is to be live-streamed from the White House Web site, is President Obama’s manipulative attempt to push his legislative agenda, according to conservative commentators and “thinkers.”
(Boy, they were right all along! This guy really is a commie! He wants kids to stay in school!!)
Some conservatives have even called for parents to keep their kids at home that day – a “national truancy day” of sorts—so they won’t be “indoctrinated” by Obama’s nefarious message. And some schools have announced that they will not show the speech at all.
Obama’s opponents – who obviously taste blood after those health care town hall meetings created such a buzz out there and sent his poll numbers nose-diving – say the president’s education message is all propaganda.
“It’s historic in the sense that it’s unprecedented. They do this type of thing in North Korea and the former Soviet Union,” said Republican strategist and commentator Andrea Tantaros.
(North Korea?! The former Soviet Union!! The man’s just saying, “Stay in school and work hard.” Does that sound like the gulag to you?)
Florida GOP chairman Jim Greer wrote a letter to the White House, saying that students are being forced to watch Obama’s speech, and that it’s an abuse of power. (Just how boring does he think the speech will be?)
I’m sorry but there’s only word for all of this: lame. I can’t imagine if former President Bush wanted to speak to students about the value of education that it would have generated this kind of outcry from liberals and moderate Democrats.
Politics is one thing, but this is entering the Theatre of the Absurd. Conservatives need a better hook to hang their hats on.
Sometimes, even when you’ve had a fleeting brush with fame and greatness, memory has a way of tricking you and then chuckling right in your face.
That happened to me last weekend while intermittently watching on television the funeral service, procession and burial of Sen. Edward Moore Kennedy. As the commentators spoke about Senator Kennedy’s distinguished service to his country for nearly a half-century – and even touched on his ability to transform himself into a vessel of great compassion and high purpose, with a feeling for those not as fortunate as himself—I thought to myself, “Man, I would’ve loved to have met this guy, or at least to have been in his presence.”
And then, it dawned on me: I once was in his presence.
Cue up the flashback music. Back in ‘86, I was a young reporter covering the contentious congressional race in the Second District between Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Maryland’s future lieutenant governor and Senator Kennedy’s niece, and Rep. Helen Delich Bentley. Ms. Bentley wound up shocking many of us, you may recall, by soundly defeating Ms. Townsend. (After all, beating a Kennedy doesn’t happen too often.)
As I remember, it was toward the end of Election Night at Townsend campaign headquarters, the votes had been tallied, and I leaned against a wall at the Towson Armory and put away my notepad. It was a long, tiring evening, and I still needed to come into the office that night (or maybe it was morning) to finish writing my share of the Election Night reporting. The speeches had all been delivered, and the crowd was thinning out. The Townsend supporters were fairly somber and broken-hearted.
But out of the corner of my eye, I happened to spot Senator Kennedy, standing alone (as I recall it), only a few footsteps away from me. He was smiling, calm and looked pretty much like he always did on TV – Uncle Teddy. He seemed lost in thought.
I tried to catch his eye, and even thought I’d pose a question or two. What the heck. I didn’t particularly relish the thought of asking him about his niece’s defeat, but how many chances do you get to interview the patriarch of political royalty, someone whose brother was a U.S. president and whose other brother served as attorney general and is an icon in his own right? Not to mention, Teddy Kennedy was the first politician for whom I ever cast a ballot, way, way back in the ’80 Democratic primary.
Alas, it wasn’t mean to be, as someone suddenly came over, grabbed Senator Kennedy’s arm and whisked him away.
Nonetheless, I can always say that I was in Ted Kennedy’s presence. And hopefully I won’t forget it this time. And even though he was always a lightning rod for conservatives out to crucify “bleeding-heart liberals,” I’ll always be proud that I cast my lot with him on the occasion of my first vote in the American democratic process.
The other day, I was sitting at a stoplight, behind a pick-up truck, spacing out. Tapping my fingers on the steering wheel to some silly tune on the radio, I noticed the truck’s bumper-sticker, with the words, “Secession: It’s The Right Thing To Do.”
I have to admit, my first impulse after seeing this bumper sticker was to drive around to the truck’s driver, roll down my window and yell, “Hey, moron, the South lost. It’s time to move on already, Einstein!” And in my younger years, I might’ve done so. (With youth comes a great deal of chutzpah and stupidity.) But I decided I wasn’t interested in endangering my life, so I just kept my mouth shut. When I drove by the guy a few minutes later, I did look at him rather dismissively, shook my head and sped by. I might’ve cut him off, too. (Old habits die hard.)
It’s been nearly 150 years since the start of the Civil War. It’s a fascinating part of our history. (Just ask Ken Burns.) But why won’t this thing go away?
To a degree, I understand Southerners’ need for preserving their legacy and heritage. I think I have a good understanding about why many people feel the war was not so much about slavery but about states’ rights and economic subjugation and such.
But how long can you hold onto something? Even I can’t hold a grudge that long! Especially because when all is said and done, we’re talking about owning human beings in a country that is supposedly founded on freedom and equality?
When I was in Louisiana a few years ago, a Baton Rouge native tried to explain it all to me. (Down there, they talk about the war like it was last month.) “We Southerners just never got over the war,” she said. “There was so much pain and anguish there. The cruelty and barbarism of the North is something we’ll never, ever forget. We just can’t. It’s in our DNA now.”
In your DNA? Secession? Maybe it’s just something a boy living in a Mid-Atlantic state and born to New York-bred parents can’t get. But to me, in an age when our president is African-American and our newest is Supreme Court justice is a Latina, talking about seceding from the Union seems about as archaic as gathering up rocks to toss in defense of stampeding dinosaurs.
I don’t want to pat myself on the back too hard. After all, one must always keep their ego in check. But in my many years as a reporter, I’ve written about a lot of topics: murders, suicides, interfaith relations, immigration, neighborhoods, education, politics, spirituality, discrimination, sexual abuse, you name it. I once even covered a dog fashion show, believe it or not, in Hampstead. (A docile, doe-eyed beagle named Penny emerged the victor, if memory serves correct).
But never – and I mean never – in all of my professional years have I received an avalanche of responses from readers about an article like I have about my recent story on what I call the “mystery building” on S. Caroline Street in East Baltimore. I can’t tell you how many calls, letters and emails I’ve received on this matter—all for an article that I almost didn’t write because, frankly, I thought a lot of people would consider it a bit irrelevant, silly and provincial.
How did it all begin? Well, about a year ago, I was driving through East Baltimore, on my way to Fells Point or someplace like that, when I noticed an old, church-looking building. I love old architecture and wondered to myself if this abandoned building—padlocked and surrounded by weeds and broken glass in a not-so-safe section of town—might have once been a shul. I noticed the cornerstone, and sure enough, there was a Hebrew inscription etched into it, with the year “1925.”
But then I looked up, and I saw an insignia at the top of the building with a Star of David and with what appeared to be a dollar sign in the middle of it.
Dollar sign?! Huh? It blew my mind. Why would a dollar sign be in the middle of a Star of David? (Anti-Semitism? A Jewish bank? A Hebrew loan society?) Then, I parked, got out of my car and took a closer look at the cornerstone. There was a Psalm in Hebrew written on it, but also a reference to the Gospel of Matthew. You don’t have to be a crack reporter to know something was very different about this building. (And not too kosher.)
So I decided to go to my trusted sources on this one – Gilbert Sandler, whom I call the Bard of Jewish Baltimore, and Dr. Deborah R. Weiner, research historian and family history coordinator at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. To my amazement, I stumped these two Jewish Baltimore experts, something that doesn’t happen too often. Deb’s hunch was that the building used to belong to Hebrew-Christians, or Messianic Jews, who reached out to the Jews of East Baltimore in the first part of the 20th century.
But I wanted more information, especially about that vexing dollar-sign Mogen David. So I decided to open the field and write an article about it, seeing if anyone in the community had any answers, recollections or insights. And to my amazement and delight, I’ve been flooded with interest. One older gentleman even told me that the article was the main topic of conversation at a recent gathering for senior citizens at Beth El Congregation, and I know of other recent situations in the community where it’s been widely discussed.
I’m not going to tell you yet what I’ve come to learn about this building. With the help of many people, I believed I’ve pieced it all together – for the most part – and plan to write a follow-up article in the Jewish Times (I don’t want to scoop myself).
But I will tell you one thing I’ve learned in this process.
There’s a feeling out there that in our society today, people don’t care about history. “It’s old news” – that’s the conventional wisdom. We practically don’t teach history in our schools. I’m astounded by how little history is taught in my children’s public school. As a result, most kids (and subsequently adults) think it’s boring and irrelevant. It has no meaning in their lives (unless it’s taught with the rapid-fire special effects and uber-concise narratives of the History Channel).
But this article has proven to me that besides the fact that people love a good mystery, they also have an unquenchable thirst for history, whether it be Jewish history or Baltimore history or whatever. The future may be a mystery, but so is the past in many respects. And for the most part, analyzing history is the only way that we can get an inkling of what’s ahead. We need to know history to know who we are.
I almost didn’t write this article because I figured no one would care. Instead, I found that there’s a burning interest for this type of historical exploration and remembrance. That’s something Gil Sandler’s been telling me for years.
We shouldn’t lose sight of this in an age of historical illiteracy. The ramifications could be perilous.
(By the way, for what it’s worth, I’m sure that if she were still with us, Penny the beagle would agree.)
Look, I don’t like to be the bearer of bad news. But I knew I had to tell him. He’d want to know. So reluctantly, after coming home last Wednesday night from the charred remains of the Suburban House, I called “Jersey Boy” – my good buddy who lives in the so-called Garden State – to let him know that the landmark Pikesville restaurant suffered a major fire.
There was a long pause on the phone, and I even wondered if some tears were being shed. “Is it gone?” he asked, sounding fragile. I told him the damage was fairly extensive, but I was hopeful that they would reopen.
I sensed a great relief. “That’s good,” he said. “That place just has to stay open.”
Whenever he comes to town for a visit, Jersey Boy always wants to go to S&H (as Suburban House is known in the local vernacular, a holdover from the initials of the first names of the former owners). Jersey Boy loves their food, and obviously a lot of other fressers do, as evidenced by the customers being evacuated from the building while carrying plates full of food. Along Reisterstown Road, I swear I saw plates with half-eaten hotdogs and onion rings left on the grass and sidewalks.
(They couldn’t just leave the food while fleeing a fire?! They had to bring it with them?!! When I told this to a colleague, she shrugged and simply responded, “That’s our people.” I’m sorry, I’m Jewish, too, but you tell me that a restaurant’s on fire, I’m hauling my butt out the door and leaving the kreplach and kasha varnishkes far behind. No food is that good!)
But you know, the community’s longtime love for S&H goes far beyond the quality and abundance of its old-world Jewish cuisine and noshing appeal. It may not be the most beautiful or well-decorated place. One has to have a love of kitsch and nostalgia to truly appreciate it. (For example, paint-by-number-style portraits of Abe Lincoln in the dentist’s chair might not be everyone’s idea of high art.) Some people might not enjoy being the youngest person in a restaurant by a good 30 years. (One friend told me, “I always feel like I’m in a senior center or a nursing home when I go in there.”) I’ve always said that S&H is the Jewish version of the old Women’s Industrial Exchange restaurant in downtown Baltimore (but without the tomato aspic).
And the informality of S&H isn’t everyone’s cup of tea when it comes to fine dining. Cases in point: loud, boisterous conversations among families, and octogenarians helping themselves to third, fourth and fifth cups of coffee without permission from the waiting staff. Some people might not like the décor (paneling, mirrored walls, autographed portraits of local “celebs,” and painted, shlocky beach scenes) nor the spinning dessert case.
But as Baltimore Jewish bard Gilbert Sandler told me yesterday, all of that is part of the charm of the place. The minute you walk into S&H, you immediately know you’re in a decidedly and unabashedly Jewish restaurant. The corny placemats with the silly Borscht Belt humorisms (about mothers-in-law, “goyim” buying retail, and Liz Taylor’s countless marriages). And then there’s the schmoozing (oh, the schmoozing!). The laughing and kibitzing and wheeling and dealing. The arguments.
S&H reminds us that we’re still Jews, we’re not WASPS yet. We don’t have to put on airs there. We can just be ourselves, among our own. We don’t have to keep our pinky fingers in the air there when we drink our coffee, or worry about getting a few crumbs or stains on our shirts.
That’s why it’s one of the last of its kind. It’s not just the soup with the matzoh ball that’s bigger than your head. Or the omelette that could feed Ghana. Or the coddies or shiva trays or gefilte fish or chicken-in-a-pot special. It’s the way S&H makes you feel when you go in there. You not only feel welcome, but you feel like you can take your time and be yourself. A lot of places say their customers are like family to them. At S&H, you don’t feel like family; you feel like mishpachah. There’s a big difference.
Everyone has an S&H story or two. They used to always go there with their zaydie or bubbie every Sunday morning. Maybe they went there after the movies while on their first date with their future wife. Perhaps their family went there after someone’s bris. (Ouch!)
Here’s one of my S&H stories. A couple of years ago, I bought Jersey Boy a great big pen at S&H’s counter with the restaurant’s information imprinted on it. I knew he’d love it because a) it was a souvenir from S&H, and b) it lit up in the dark. Of course, he was thrilled with it, but I decided to go back and get one for myself.
Trouble was, they were all out. The hostess at the cash register apologized profusely, but they didn’t have anymore. However, Joe Stowe, one of the co-owners, must’ve seen the disappointment on my face and came over.
“You know what, I’ll look through my house, I’m sure I have one of those pens lying around,” he said to me. “Give me your address and I’ll mail it to you.” He didn’t know anything about me (such as that I write for the Jewish Times). He was just being a mentsch. Then, he turned to his hostess and said, “If a customer wants a pen that badly, I’ll find it for him.”
And damned if a week later, that pen didn’t show up in my mailbox. That says a lot about a place, that it takes its customers’ loyalty seriously and doesn’t take its following for granted. If only more businesses were run that way these days.
When I finished my conversation with Jersey Boy on Wednesday night, he seemed encouraged about S&H’s future, despite this setback. “They’ll find a way to reopen,” he said. “They’ve got a good thing going there. The next time I come to town, we’re going back.”
You’ve got a date, Jersey Boy. And the matzoh ball soup’s on me (figuratively speaking).
Someone asked me the other day, “So, pray tell, what’s the Jewish angle on Michael Jackson?” Then, they chuckled.
Of course, there is a Jewish angle on the late, great King of Pop. (Isn’t there always?) Supposedly, his ex-wife, Debbie Rowe, is Jewish, and thus two of his three kids are members of the tribe (well, at least from a halachic point of view). And then there was one of his best pals, Liz Taylor, who’s among the most famous converts to Judaism in history (after she snatched Eddie Fisher from under Debbie Reynolds’ nose back in the late ‘50s).
But there really isn’t much of a Jewish angle to Jacko, who will be memorialized in Los Angeles today at a service unlike any other in history that’s expected to be viewed by an estimated billion or so. He was raised a Jehovah’s Witness and reportedly dabbled in Islam and perhaps even kabbalah.
But as I watched the mayhem beginning to unfold in L.A. this morning on the TV talk shows—all covering Michael’s farewell service while giving short shrift to President Obama’s work with the Russians on nuclear disarmament (after all, what’s the planet’s safety next to whether the Gloved One’s children are really his, or whatever happened to Bubbles the Chimp?)—I couldn’t help but be struck by a few words from the Rev. Al Sharpton.
In footage from his sermon last Sunday morning, Rev. Sharpton, who seems to be quite ubiquitous right now, condemned the media for examining some of Michael Jackson’s controversies (drugs, his manner of death, the molestation case, the plastic surgeries, etc.) and infamously odd habits and eccentricities. Right now, he said, is a time to focus on the brilliant entertainer’s positives and not the negatives.
Fair enough, even though I don’t necessarily agree.
But then, Rev. Sharpton spoke of a double-standard regarding coverage of Michael’s passing, strongly intimating that the racist media don’t go after white dead celebrities in the same vicious and no-holds-barred manner.
“I’m here because of the disgraceful and the despicable way [the media are] trying to destroy the legacy [of Jackson],” he said. “You have had other entertainers that have had issues in their life. [The media] did not degrade and denigrate them.”
Rev. Sharpton and I must watch different TV channels. Because from what I can tell, dissecting and beating up celebrities – white or black, dead or living – has become blood sport in this country. Where do you start? Elvis, Heath Ledger, Farrah, even poor Ed McMahon, etc. Celebrity-bashing, especially the deceased ones and particularly before they’re put into the ground, has become an American media tradition. I’m not saying it is right, it just is the way it is. That’s now the big business of our media in a celebrity-obsessed culture. This is what people are talking about at the water cooler.
For Rev. Sharpton to bring up race in this situation is inappropriate and does a disservice to the times when racism actually is a factor (which is plenty) in society. Let’s face it, Michael Jackson is just as fascinating in death as he was in life, and his sudden exit from this cacky coil leaves us (once again) with more questions than answers.
Rev. Al should know better. There are plenty of other times when he can play the race card. A celebrity of Michael Jackson’s stature and caliber has died, and no mention of the weirdness or controversies? Just that he had great moves and an amazing ear for hooks and riffs? To loosely paraphrase Michael himself, expect a full-court media circus and post-mortem, it don’t matter if you’re black or white.
It’s a tough call. What do you do? You hear that a controversial group – a church outfit, no less – is coming to town, for a rally in front of three Jewish institutions. They want us all to repent, and they don’t mind getting nasty and bigoted in their condemnations and proclamations. They’re famous, most of all for holding protests in front of funerals for U.S. soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. (How vile and sacrilege can you get?)
They’re fundamentalists who believe that everyone else is going to hell and only they have the true answer, and that the rest of us better straighten up and soon. (Some people would say that really means they’re just a bunch of nutjobs.) And they obviously love attention and media coverage, almost as much as they love their so-called religion, not only because it gets their word out but it also pays for the butter on their bread. After all, they might be small in numbers but they obviously have deep pockets from external sources, to go around the nation and protest at soldiers’ funerals and other venues.
So what do you do if you’re a media outlet? Do you give them their much-cherished publicity? Or do you just ignore ‘em, like a nagging toothache?
That was our staff’s dilemma yesterday when those crazy folks from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kans., dropped by and held protests in front of the Park Heights Jewish Community Center, the Jewish Museum of Maryland and the headquarters of the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
Only three Westboro members actually showed up – Shirley Phelps-Roper, the hateful, acid-tongued daughter of the church’s longtime spiritual leader, and her two obviously brainwashed kids, Rebekah, 22, and Gabriel, 13. A fair-haired boy in t-shirt and shorts, Gabriel looked like he’d rather be anywhere else than where he was. He had that look on his face that many boys his age wear when they’re at their overly-affectionate aunt’s house for a family dinner. Simply put, he looked absolutely miserable.
The Westboro folks’ message for Jewish Baltimore? It’s time to atone – for killing Christ, for stealing the land of Israel, for murdering Palestinians, for condoning homosexuality, for being generally wicked. (There was no mention of deplorable driving habits on Reisterstown Road during rush hour.) They also seem to have beefs with Ed McMahon and Michael Jackson, both of whom they say are now dancing the tango in hell for their sinfulness (and whose funerals they plan to protest).
At times, their rallies here yesterday seemed rather lame and pathetic. Singing hateful songs against Jews and gays with insipid lyrics to a blasting iPod. Yelling at and arguing with motorists and passersby, until they’d resort to quoting specific biblical passages or singing loudly to avoid further discussion. And with only three of them here, it frankly just seemed a bit silly. Wearing a bunch of signs with provocative messages, they looked like clowns on a picket line.
Which goes back to the earlier stated question—is it really worth covering these guys, with such a small number of “protesters” and with their obvious craving for attention? One person even said to our executive editor, Phil Jacobs, that these guys wouldn’t even bother coming out of their holes and do this kind of stuff if those of us in the media would simply ignore them.
To be honest, I go back and forth on it. I don’t enjoy giving people like this a pedestal for their expressions of hatred. Why give them what they want?
But on the other hand, I think it’s important that we know who we’re dealing with. These folks are nationally-known, have been on virtually every major national news program and in every major publication, and not everyone out there thinks they’re nutjobs, even if they themselves wouldn’t personally go out on a street corner and scream that Jews are murderous reprobates heading for a fiery demise.
It’s important that we know who is lurking in America’s underbelly, even if we have to occasionally give them their 15 minutes of fame. And to come face to face with such unadulterated and perverse hatred is something to behold, even if it did get a little boring after a while.
At one point during one of the “rallies” yesterday, when arguing with a University of Baltimore law school student, Rebekah Phelps-Roper alluded to the victims of 9/11. In her defense of Westboro’s tactics, she said that those victims are now in hell because of America’s hedonism and wickedness, its failure to truly adhere to biblical law. A pause fell over us, and I looked at the U of B student next to me. It was as if both of us were telepathically saying to each other, “OK, do you want to hold her down while I knock her silly, or should I?” But then, we seemed to think better. We knew that’s what she and her ilk would have wanted.
So we let them have their say. And then we move on.
Sometimes in our little sporadic sectarian skirmishes (the Owings Mills JCC/Shabbat issue, family holiday meals, etc.), those of us who are not as observant as our traditional friends, relatives and neighbors often forget about what they go through in their daily lives in America.
This slapped me upside my head the other day.
My last blog entry, as you may or may not recall, dealt with my almost 7-year-old son and I hearing a bizarre anti-Semitic comment made at a recent Fort McHenry Flag Day gathering. The reason for the comment was that a family walking behind us had the audacity to be Orthodox and wear traditional attire. (Me, I thought people were allowed to dress in the manner in which they choose in America, as long as they weren’t buck naked.)
Anyway, I happened to see a neighbor a day or two later, and I told him about how shocked and upset I was about this dork yelling out something against Jews because he happened to see folks in yarmulkes and long dresses. But my neighbor, who is Orthodox, just stared at me incredulously.
“Alan,” he said, “don’t you know I deal with this all the time. All the time. Where’ve you been? It’s a way of life for us.”
He proceeded to tell me about how when walking to services on Shabbat, he and his family are routinely harassed and ridiculed by motorists and other passersby. One non-Jewish neighbor’s kids occasionally yell, “You’re going to hell!!” One driver has a penchant (and reputation) for stopping in the middle of Smith Avenue on Shabbat and leaning on his horn for a long time when he sees an Orthodox person or family crossing the street or walking along the sidewalks.
And this is in Pikesville, mind you, not Ames, Iowa!!
My neighbor told me he’s had pennies thrown at him on occasions. (If anyone threw pennies at me, I must admit, I think I would get myself killed in some kind of melee.)
Furthermore, my neighbor told me about when he was hospitalized as a teenager after being jumped by a group of anti-Semitic idiots while attending a yeshiva in the Midwest. He also told me about how he was once at Lexington Market and a kind, elderly woman told him to get out immediately, because she heard some thugs saying they were going to mess with him because they could tell he’s Jewish.
After telling me all of this, my neighbor smiled and laughed gently. He could see the look of horror and indignation on my face. “You’re naïve,” he said to me, “you just don’t know what it’s like out there. We’re used to it. Your guy at Fort McHenry, he was just a kook. I don’t worry as much about the kooks as the other kinds. They’re the ones who scare me.”
Maybe I am naïve. I’ve never doubted that dressing as a traditional Jew (or any other kind of outwardly religious person) draws its share of stares, moronic comments and occasional juvenile behavior in our society.
But to this extent—where one is subjected to fairly constant belittlement in a largely Jewish area, to the point of hearing about an anti-Semitic comment and not even being alarmed or spooked by it – was a real wake-up call for me.
A couple of years ago, when chatting with a close Jewish friend about anti-Semitism, he simply looked down at one point, took off his glasses, shook his head woefully and said, “They just hate us so much. They hate us so much.”
I’m not sure I’m willing to go to that point of capitulation. I still believe that the majority of people in this country believe in the freedom of religious expression and practice, and don’t really care if I wear a kippah, turban or a nun’s habit.
But hearing my Orthodox neighbor’s stories about what he goes through reminded me that – OK, cue up the maudlin violin music—Jews of all stripes and flavors still need to stick together. Maybe we’re not really “One,” as our Jewish organizations like to tell us during solicitation drives. But if we think we’re out of the woods and completely accepted by secular American society, we need to think again.
Last Sunday night, I took my son to a great fireworks show at Fort McHenry, the birthplace of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” in honor of Flag Day. He got his first real taste there of good old-fashioned American patriotism, with a brass marching band belting out prideful tunes and dazzling red, white and blue colors lighting up the downtown skies (and reflected in the murky harbor waters).
But he also got something else that I hadn’t bargained for – his first real taste of good old-fashioned American bigotry.
Here’s what happened. After the program ended, we and thousands of others headed back to our parked cars, many of which were located outside of the fort. It was a beautiful night, and everyone was in a great mood after the wonderful presentation. The police officers kept us in line, asking folks to make sure to stay on the sidewalks, to keep the main street clear for emergency vehicles and motorists who were lucky (and early) enough to park inside the fort itself.
But as we all made our way out, I saw a strange-looking man on the street near the sidewalk who appeared to be selling fluorescent glow sticks. I barely paid any attention to him, he was just one of those guys you see at events selling stuff, when I heard him yell out (while looking down at his merchandise), “The Jews are accursed by God! The Jews are accursed by God!” Then, he said nothing.
Huh? The Jews are accursed by God? Where’d that come from? Was he some kind of Old Testament prophet with a dire warning? (He did have a straggly beard and glazed-over eyes.) Did he have some kind of inside information? What do Jews have to do with glow sticks?
At first, I didn’t think I heard him right, so I just kept on walking. But his odd words continued to ring in my ears. “The Jews are accursed by God!” I thought to myself, “Why did he just say that out of the blue?” So I looked around and noticed an Orthodox family walking directly behind us, dressed in kippot and long dresses. When their young children asked about the man’s odd words, the mother looked embarrassed and tried to laugh. “He didn’t say anything,” she told them, “don’t pay attention. Everything is fine. Don’t worry about it.”
I didn’t think my 7-year-old son caught it, but when we got into my car, (sure enough!) he asked, “Dad, why did that man say that Jews are cursed by God? What did he mean by that? I don’t get it.”
I thought for a moment before answering. “Well, Josh,” I told him, deciding to go for the honesty route, “there are a lot of weird, sick, strange people in this world, and I guess that man is just one of them. He doesn’t like that Jewish people are different from him, and that’s not what tonight was all about.” Then, of course, I tried to change the subject. But from my rear-view mirror, I could see the little wheels spinning in my son’s head.
Driving home, I thought about that great scene in the film “Witness” when Harrison Ford, playing a tough Philly cop hiding out in an Amish community and posing as a “plain person,” beats the living hell out of a couple of secular ne’er-do-wells who mess with him and Kelly McGillis’s family. I daydreamed about going over to that anti-Semitic street vendor creep and showing him a few new things he could do with those glow sticks.
But then I thought better. After all, strangling a nut-job in front of one’s kid and other youngsters might not be the best or most mature way to handle an unfortunate situation.
But in the same week that a white supremacist walks into the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and kills a security guard, and a Republican activist makes a “joke” about the First Lady being related to a gorilla, you can’t blame a man for daydreaming about kicking a bigot’s butt, now can you?
Maybe sometimes we Jews are a bit too civilized for our own good. Maybe at least one of us should’ve gone over and looked Mr. Glow Stick in the eye and said, “Do you have something to say, pal? Who’s really cursed here?”
Ah, why do I always think of these things too late?
This afternoon, James W. von Brunn, a noted white supremacist and Holocaust denier from Annapolis, stepped into the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., wearing a Confederate hat, and opened fire indiscriminately with a long rifle, killing a security guard named Stephen Tyrone Johns before being shot in the head by two other guards.
Von Brunn, 88, reportedly a World War II veteran, did this while the museum – sacred ground to many, many Americans – was filled with innocent schoolchildren.
The assault comes only a few days after President Obama’s historic and touching visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Von Brunn’s action doesn’t make any sense, of course. It defies logic. But for years, he has been outspoken about his hatred for Jews and African-Americans, and even told one of his ex-wives that he planned to go out in a fiery blaze of glory.
As of this writing, he is barely holding onto life and is in critical condition at George Washington Hospital.
Perhaps his action will inspire his fellow adherents of hatred. But it should also encourage those of us who strongly believe in equality, justice and non-violence to recommit ourselves to fighting the hatred in our midst.
More than anything else, it should remind us not to be lax about the bigotry out there. We all have a tendency to look at discrimination and hatred as a thing of the past, something that fills the history books but has no place in our lives and society anymore. We’ve moved on, we figure. People’s ethnic heritage, race and religion don’t matter in America anymore. We’ve achieved Dr. King’s dream. After all, we now have a black president. People don’t openly use ethnic slurs anymore. (Or they usually don’t.) Stereotypes are viewed as boorish and passé, like polyester suits and perms.
This horrible happening in the nation’s capital today should remind us that this is not the case, and that hatred is alive and well here. We always have to be ready to meet it head-on.
Let’s hope that those kids in the museum today, rather than being scarred by the experience, will always remember the sounds of those gunshots ringing out as a call to never forget the hatred that unfortunately seems to be a component of the human condition.
The other day, I was driving through the Greengate neighborhood when I passed by the Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Hebrew Congregation. For those of us who grew up in this area, that shul was, and always will be, in our minds, Liberty Jewish Center.
Driving by, I couldn’t help but notice the prominent stone monument in front of the synagogue’s parking lot, designating the area the “Rabbi Jacob A. Max Torah Campus.” I wasn’t looking for it, but there it was, a proud and bold homage to the congregation’s rabbi emeritus.
It all would seem quite innocuous if one didn’t know all of the facts.
A couple of months ago, Rabbi Max, as most of you undoubtedly already know, was convicted, at age 85, of sexual molestation. Since news reports first surfaced of the conviction, a sizable number of women have called the Baltimore Jewish Times office, to report their less-than-honorable interactions and memories over the years with Rabbi Max.
Now I understand that the folks at Liberty Jewish Center feel a sense of allegiance and loyalty (and rachmones) to Rabbi Max. After all, he was their spiritual leader and life force for more than five decades. His smiles, his words of comfort and guidance, served congregants at their highest peaks and lowest valleys, and that can never be forgotten. He was there for them.
But at the same time, we must never forget the pain, humiliation and self-loathing of those who have suffered at the hands of people who have this compulsion or disease or disorder, or whatever you want to call it, that seems to be rampant in our society (and yes, even in the Jewish world). Their needs and comfort levels must be remembered, too.
So I say this as someone whose wedding was officiated by Rabbi Max, and whose family was always touched by this complicated man at virtually all of our simchas and sorrows. I say this as someone who spoke at Rabbi Max’s retirement gala. To borrow very loosely from the late President Reagan regarding his line on the Berlin Wall (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”), I say, “LJC, remove that stone! Please.”
I’m sure this is an exceedingly difficult, painful, awkward and confusing time for the congregation. That’s understood. But the healing must begin, at once, and taking away that in-your-face reminder is a first step. I hope that the synagogue’s elders will not tarry on this matter. There is a time to “committee” things endlessly, and a time to quietly and quickly take care of a situation.
Now is a time for the latter.
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.
The issue of same-sex marriage is a complicated enough one without having idiots getting involved to stifle our freedom to express what we believe in, or without the Politically-Correct police swooping down on us.
Perhaps you’ve heard about the recent controversy involving a Miss USA contestant and Perez Hilton, the celebrity blogger and gay activist. It seems Mr. Hilton, who served as a judge at the pageant last weekend, had a decidedly pointed question for Miss California, a.k.a. Carrie Prejean, about whether she supports same-sex marriages.
Ms. Prejean did something that’s getting to be pretty rare in American life – she said how she really felt.
In a respectful, gracious way, she replied, “I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman—no offense to anybody out there. But that’s how I was raised. And that’s how I think that it should be, between a man and a woman.”
Everyone agrees that the candid response likely cost Ms. Prejean—who was the runner-up—the Miss USA crown, including the young woman herself. Meanwhile, Perez Hilton has gone on just about every TV talk show that will have him, screaming bloody murder about this woman and basically accusing her of extreme homophobia and sectarian myopia.
Furthermore, other pageant judges have criticized Ms. Prejean for not making her response more parve and for not hitting that fastball right down the middle, to not offend anyone. (How lame.)
“I am so disappointed in Miss California representing my country,” Mr. Hilton ranted on a video blog on his Web site. “Not because I believe in gay marriage, but she doesn’t inspire and she doesn’t unite.”
(Hold on? Miss USA is supposed to inspire and unite us? Especially about something as complex and potentially divisive as same-sex marriage? Isn’t Miss USA just supposed to be a well-poised babe who looks swell in a bikini and doesn’t – usually—trip on a runway? Isn’t the whole thing a bit of an annual charade?)
Anyway, on a morning talk show the other day, Mr. Hilton also said, “There were various other ways she could have answered that question, and still stayed true to herself without alienating millions of people.”
So let’s get this straight, Senator McCarthy: she basically should’ve lied or fudged her answer, just to make everyone happy, to be able to snag the crown?
Look, I don’t like beauty pageants much, and I don’t happen to agree with Ms. Prejean about her views on same-sex marriage. But I think her stance on this matter has become irrelevant here. Something bigger is going on. She is entitled to her opinion – one that is shared by millions and millions of Americans, by the way, for a variety of reasons – and I don’t appreciate anyone who says she’s not.
To use a timeworn cliché (and I say this as the proud son of a World War II veteran), American soldiers fought for Carrie Prejean’s right to answer that question.
To say she is not entitled to her opinion is an un-American impulse, one that is embraced far too often these days by liberals and conservatives alike. We’ve gotten so caught up in our narrow agendas that we’ve lost a sense of mutual respect, graciousness and acknowledgment in our discourses. I might disagree strongly with you, it might even infuriate or repulse or alienate me, but I’m still willing to hear what you have to say.
At best, Perez Hilton is standing up for gay rights, certainly a noble cause, but at worst he’s using this moment in the spotlight to simply augment his fame. Whatever. But where I come from, I always heard that if you ask someone a question, don’t be shocked if you don’t like the answer.
When discussing this matter of Perez Hilton vs. Miss California the other day, a friend – half-jokingly, I suspect—said to me, “Oh, you’re just on her side because she’s really hot!” But it’s not about being on sides, or the banality of beauty pageants. It’s about being allowed to express yourself, which by the way is something that folks in quite a few corners of this planet still aren’t allowed to do.
The final, fleeting hours of Passover are now upon us. With visions of garlic bagels, croissants and pizza slices dancing in our heads, we prepare to reenter the leavened realm, hopefully with a new appreciation of the role of bread in our lives and, more importantly, the great privilege of living in a free, open society.
I was honored recently by a request from Rabbi Ron Shulman of Chizuk Amuno Congregation to write a piece, to be sent out via the synagogue’s email list, on how I mentally, spiritually and emotionally prepare for Passover. Rabbi Shulman asks several congregants every year to share their reflections on how they get ready for Pesach.
I must confess, I don’t do as much as I should to prepare for the holiday. We’re all so busy, the holiday just seems to sneak up on us, without any warning. Wisely, Rabbi Shulman gently prods us into participating in this process, and I must say that it enhanced my Passover and forced me to really contemplate what it’s all about, from my perspective.
I’m not sure that I completely delivered the goods. After all, I never brought up Moses and the Children of Israel, Pharaoh, the seder, or even how (or if) I clean my house from top to bottom of chametz. But since I’ve received some good feedback from others on the piece, I decided to reprint my “Kavanah” here.
Passover may be just about over, but its essence is eternal.
Growing Young Again
by Alan Feiler
Years ago, I went with a close friend to a trendy coffee house where a rock band was performing. Not far from us, while we sat and enjoyed our joe, a young woman, dressed in a flowery dress and swaying beads, danced alone, uninhibited, like a child. She was either blissfully ignorant or utterly indifferent to the stares fixed in her direction.
My friend simply gazed at her, sighed and said to me, “Can you imagine being that free? How did we ever get so old?”
What a drag it is, to paraphrase an ancient sage. But is there a way to regain the sense of freedom we felt when we were younger, when such issues as family commitments, mortgages, bills and health concerns were merely something we overheard others talking about?
Passover forces us to revisit our concepts of freedom, from interior and exterior perspectives. To get mentally and spiritually prepared for the holiday, we have to reacquaint ourselves with the notions of freedom we enjoyed as young people. It was a freedom that filled us with the exhilaration for life, optimism for our future and what we could achieve in this world. (We once had the well-intentioned hubris to think we could make a difference.)
We’ve lost that elasticity in our lives, and it hurts. Deadlines and commitments prohibit our ability to do what we want to do. True, every adult must own up to this and grow up. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to reconnect with the joy that is life at its core.
Freedom will increasingly be in short supply. Things once taken for granted—our livelihoods, our homes, the “American Dream” itself, our children’s inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness—are now up for grabs. Thanks to the merchants of greed and self-indulgence (translation: us), it all now seems quite up in the air and fragile, flimsy and wispy, like a sheet of matzoh.
Faith is the key, not in human beings so much (for we too are fragile, flimsy and wispy) but in some kind of higher power, to direct us to our source for true freedom.
Is Passover only about cleaning our homes, obliterating all that pesky hametz, and cooking enough food to feed Cameroon? Is it only about avoiding all leavened products, just so we can say, “Well, I’m not much of a Jew, but at least I don’t eat bread on Pesach”?
It’s about recommitting to the sacred, and to what really matters to you. That means turning internally, to your past and your values system, and to looking externally at what freedom has meant, and continues to mean, for us as a people, as Jews and Americans.
It means, in many ways, to grow young again.
Maybe I’m just getting a little overly-sensitive or cranky in my old age. I don’t think I’m a right-winger. And as someone who has worked in journalism his entire adult life, I’m certainly not a media-basher.
But the headline slapped me upside my head and made me, well, annoyed. It was an article in today’s Sun about Shlomo Nativ, a 13-year-old Israeli who was brutally killed by a Palestinian man wielding a pickax on April 2. The headline was, “Palestinian Kills Israeli Settler, 13.”
Now it’s true that Bat Ayin, where Shlomo lived, is a settlement located in the Judean Hills of the West Bank. I’m not going to start getting into that whole thing.
My point is, this was a 13-year-old boy. He was a boy. This was a terrible, senseless tragedy. I would never call a boy a “settler,” even if some Palestinians would.
The article starts off by mentioning this horrific act, but then gets bogged down in the fact that it was the Netanyahu administration’s second day on the job, and as a conservative government pondered how it may or may not respond. It’s not until the eighth paragraph that you get the terrifying details about what happened in Bat Ayin. Then, the article quickly transitions into a financial probe regarding Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Look, I’m not an advocate for holding onto lands conquered in the Six Day War, and I’m certainly not in the habit of criticizing other publications. But this is not good journalism, and it’s not sensitive, humane reporting about a tragic situation.
Maybe I’m getting mired down in semantics but, again, this was not a settler. It was a boy.
So word has it today that a judge in Malawi has turned down a petition by Madonna – oops, I mean Esther, as she’s known in kabbalistic circles – to adopt a second child from that southeastern African country.
Madge, now 50, adopted her 3-year-old son, David Banda, in Malawi in 2006. Now, it seems that a residency requirement there has prevented the pop superstar and mystical dabbler from adopting 3½-year-old Chifundoercy James, whom she first encountered in an orphanage three years ago. The residency requirement for prospective parents is 18 to 24 months in Malawi.
Shockingly, Madonna, who lives in New York and London, doesn’t apparently plan to move to Malawi anytime soon.
I admit, I’ve never been a big fan of the Material Gal. But I do admire the tremendous amount of good work she’s done for poor and abandoned children in Malawi. Quietly and publicly, she’s raised a lot of money and awareness for orphanages and fighting AIDS and poverty there, and kicked in her own bucks as well. She also co-founded a non-profit group called Raising Malawi, which provides programs to help the needy.
She obviously cares.
But at the same time, I’m getting pretty sick and tired of goofball American entertainers zipping into struggling and impoverished lands, snatching their kids (largely because their wealth and celebrity status bring special privileges and hyper-expedited red-tape treatment) and then parading themselves in the media for their mitzvahs
Intention must count for something.
Perhaps Madonna’s star doesn’t shine as brightly as it did in the mid-‘80s when she first came to the public eye. Maybe she’s bummed over her most recent broken marriage, and series of failed relationships. Perhaps now in the throes of middle age, she needs a new toy.
But a child is not a toy.
Besides David, Madonna already has two other children, daughter Lourdes, 12, and son Rocco, 8. She should focus on them and be satisfied, or if she must adopt, there’s a few kids here in the ol’ U.S of A. that wouldn’t be averse to moving into one of her manses.
This judge in Malawi was absolutely right when she said children need real parents, “not someone who just flies in and out.” My guess is the judge wasn’t just talking about Madonna and this particular adoption case, but also about American society and its feel-good hubris and condescending attitude toward Third-World nations and cultures.
Of course, I’m sure Madonna will appeal, and eventually win her adoption bid. She’s not the type who gives up easily, or likes to lose.
Let me just say this: I’ve never been to Prague. Much to my dismay. I think I flew over it once, on my way to Israel. And I’ve read some Kafka. (He drives me buggy. Bad joke.) But I’ve never visited the Czech capital.
At the same time, I’ve always been interested in cemeteries. I know that sounds somewhat depressing. Having written about local Jewish cemeteries over the years (including the really old, compelling ones in eastern Baltimore and Baltimore County), I think such final resting places can tell you a whole lot about communities and their history and sense of priorities. Plus, they can be aesthetically fascinating.
As a result, I was mesmerized by the documentary “House Of Life: The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague,” which will air next Monday at 10 p.m. on Maryland Public Television (Channel 67). I was fortunate enough to receive an advance copy of the 54-minute film, and I was impressed by what I saw.
You wouldn’t think a doc about an old graveyard halfway around the world would be all that interesting, and maybe even more than a tad morbid, right?
Not so. This film is about the living. It’s a celebration of life and culture, and of being a Jew. After all, we’re still here, and so is the old Jewish cemetery in Prague.
“The film is really about the survival of the Jewish people,” Mark Podwal, one of the documentary’s creators, told me last week. “The cemetery is a metaphor for the Jewish people. The fact that the old Jewish cemetery survived intact—despite pogroms, fires, floods, plagues, Nazis, communists—is a miracle.”
Indeed. The cemetery, which dates back to the 16th century, is the home of approximately 12,000 tombstones, but as many as 100,000 members are believed to be buried there, on various different levels of earth. It just confounds the mind. You can see how you could spend weeks or months there, just walking around, reading the stones and looking around, and still not see nearly everything.
The Prague cemetery is haunting, to say the least. But its allure stems largely from its austere and brooding ambience, with its thousands of gravestones seeming to grow like wildflowers and inhabiting a beauty, grace and poetic asymmetry of their own. And of course the history there – Prague’s old, once-vibrant Jewish ghetto, the great Rabbis of the Middle Ages, the folklore, the legends, the Golem tale—is amazing.
It goes without saying that Prague itself is absolutely gorgeous. The filmmakers brilliantly marry images of the cemetery with scenes of the city today, reflecting the deep relationship and synergy between the two.
Mr. Podwal made “House Of Life” with Allan Miller, an Academy Award-winning documentary maker, with narration by actress Claire Bloom. One particularly amusing and bizarre passage in the film is when a Prague resident, a woman in her 60s or 70s, recalls the days after World War II when people used to have sexual escapades in the cemetery. (Do these people have no respect or sense of propriety? Does that really turn them on? Can’t they get a room somewhere?)
So why should someone in Baltimore watch this film, or even care about the old Jewish cemetery in Prague?
Mark Podwal, a New Yorker, puts it this way: “I want people to see what the Jewish people experienced in Europe. The cemetery serves as the focus of all this history, for us to tell these stories about what happened around the cemetery.”
These stones speak to us, about ourselves and our faith and tradition. This film is a revelation, the next best thing to going to Prague and seeing the cemetery itself. Check it out.
For information about the film, check out houseoflifefilm.com/ .
From time to time, friends (and my wife) make fun of me because in the middle of the workday, I’ll occasionally run down the street and grab a quick lunch at the nearby Blimpie sandwich shop.
It must be something about that silly name – Blimpie—that just sets people off, like some kind of Pavlovian response (but without the mutts).
“Oooooh! Why would someone eat at a place called Blimpie?” a co-worker once asked me, intimating that becoming a great big “blimp” was not an enticing notion to her. (I never said it was gourmet or necessarily diet-friendly cuisine, but what’s in a name?). Another person put down the quality of the food there, even though she admitted that she’d never actually eaten there.
“Hey,” I’ve responded to all of the Doubting Thomases, “don’t dis the Blimp.” (How’s that for an ad slogan?)
Anyway, a very nice, 30-ish Korean lady named Sue owns and operates the local Blimpie. I don’t want to sound too maudlin or cliché-ridden here, but Sue’s one of those hard-working people who always has a smile on her face when you see her and a pleasant word or two for her customers. And you can just tell it’s genuine. During these tough times, a kind smile and friendly greeting go a long way.
Recently, during a slow afternoon, Sue schmoozed with me a little bit about coming here from Seoul at age 15, knowing no English, getting through high school and college (Towson University, with honors), and starting her own business (the Blimpie franchise, which she bought from another Korean entrepreneur). We marveled about how much Jews and Koreans have in common – an almost obsessive concern with family, a respect for tradition and values, an entrepreneurial spirit, a fixation on education, a strong work ethic, a sense of community, etc.
Of course, there are times when I feel like Jews have become so Americanized, so settled, so affluent and complacent, that we’ve lost some aspects of that rugged, new immigrant spirit in which we look after each other (like members of the Korean community tend to do) and try anything to get ahead. In a lot of ways, we’re sterling examples of the American Dream, but where to go from here?
The Koreans are indeed “the New Jews,” and God bless ‘em for doing what they do, but it’s up to us to determine the direction of “the Old Jews.” Of course, regardless of what we do or don’t do, the tough economic times might dictate what that new direction might be. Depending on each other and being more compassionate might have to become our new modus operandi, just to survive in a tough market, like our grandparents did back in the Great Depression. (How many times did your Bubbie tell you about how her mishpacha and friends helped out each other in the ‘30s and ‘40s?)
Sue told me that her kids, who were born here, are not fluent in Korean and are quite Americanized, but she sends them to Korean school, to learn their ancestral mother tongue and remain familiar with the customs (beyond eating kimche). “No matter what,” she said, “I want them to know who they are. It’s important. My generation will never know what my parents’ generation went through, with World War II and the Korean War, but we have to pass all of this onto our children.”
We can learn a lot from Sue and her Korean brothers and sisters.
And like I always say, don’t dis the Blimp.
People keep using that `D-Word’ nowadays – Depression. I don’t mean the mental or emotional state of anguish and dejection – let’s face it, that’s an ongoing saga for our times, regardless of the Dow – but Depression as in, “Let’s ride the rails, get out our harmonicas and live in hobo jungles, with sepia Dorothea Lange images, `Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime?’” kind of Depression.
As a child of Great Depression-era kids, I’m not sure what to make of that word’s current usage. How many times have I heard the stories about how my mother didn’t have soles in her shoes because times were tough back then? Or that my dad had to quit high school and joined the Merchant Marine to make ends meet for his family?
Or that my grandparents needed to leave New York for Baltimore because my grandfather had to find work desperately? Or that my grandmother took in foster kids for a few extra bucks?
A few weeks ago, I asked my old friend Gil Sandler, who lived through the Depression of the ‘30s himself, if he thought reports of a new Depression were greatly exaggerated. To my dismay, he didn’t exactly dismiss the notion. “We have to see how things fall out,” said Gilbert, probably not noticing me gulping and hyperventilating a bit, since I wanted him to say it was utter nonsense. “We just have to see what happens with all that’s going on.”
But when I asked another expert and survivor of the Hoover era – namely, my mother – what she thought, she scoffed at the notion.
“Where are the bread lines? Where are the people jumping out of skyscrapers?” she said. “Everyone’s panicking too fast. Have a little faith. And believe in this president.”
Let’s pray that my mother, who’s been known to be wrong on more than one occasion, is right on the money about this point. We can’t minimize all the pain and suffering already going on out there. Just take a look at the abandoned shopping centers already springing up. But at the same time, we somehow can’t allow ourselves to forget what history and our elders have taught us, or fall prey to alarmism and fear.
Perhaps you’ve been reading the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES long enough to remember our old “Kvetch” column, which allowed our faithful readers the opportunity to vent about nearly anything that passed through their minds.
No one was more of a participant or enthusiast of this column than a gentleman who went by the poetic sobriquet of “El Syd,” aka Sydney Goldfield of Pikesville. I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with Syd and his lovely wife, June, a few years ago, and even wrote a profile on him. The piece was written shortly after the column was put to bed, chronicling Syd’s lament over “Kvetch’s” demise.
I recently read in our paper’s death notices that Syd, a true character if there ever was one, passed away. In his honor, I’d like to reprint here my article about him.
May Syd’s memory always be a blessing for his family, friends and those who came into contact with him.
Syd, thanks for the kvetches. Wherever you are, I know that you’re kvetching.
It was the tone of the voice that broke my heart. Captured by the miracle of voice-mail, it sounded dejected, beaten, inconsolable. “I’m really sorry to see it go,” the voice lamented. “Hmmm. That was one of my outlets.” Pause. “Well, that’s how it goes.”
Right off the bat, I recognized the voice as the one and only “El Syd,” the gentleman caller who for the past few years has rung up the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES’ ” Kvetch-line” every Monday morning like clockwork to voice his displeasure about some annoying matter. More often than not, he proffered a witty or ironic observation about the state of the world.
(As most of you undoubtedly know, the JT’s “Kvetch” column was discontinued a few weeks ago after a successful six-year run. Nothing’s forever, folks.)
Still, I worried about El Syd, as he referred to himself a couple of times in his kvetchings. He sounded like an older man on his voice-mail drive-bys, and the column was obviously something he cared deeply about.
“What’s going to happen to that guy who calls every Monday?” queried a former colleague. “Aren’t you concerned about his welfare? What will he do with himself?”
At first, I tried to put it out of my mind, even after hearing his last mournful “Kvetch” submission. He’ll be fine, I told myself.
But then a letter arrived from Syd, bemoaning “Kvetch’s” demise. “I shall miss it; I hope others do, too,” the letter read. “I kept a list of my printed entries, which totaled 185. I had a goal of 200.”
Oy, he kept track of how many kvetches he submitted?! Wow! That was it — I had to meet El Syd face-to-face and figure out who this person is.
Fortunately, he signed the letter and tagged on his phone number to boot, so tracking down El Syd didn’t require formidable investigative prowess.
Turns out El Syd (a longtime self-dubbed moniker) is Sydney Goldfield, a 74-year-old retired RCA executive and Social Security program analyst. When reaching the Scotts Hills residence he shares with his wife of 34 years, June, I immediately recognized the timbre and tone of his voice.
Initially during our conversation last Friday afternoon, Syd, an Atlantic City native and grandfather of three, seemed a bit reticent about discussing something that obviously became an obsession over the years. When I probed too deep, he tended to resort to non-sequiturs. “That’s his way of avoiding the subject,” explained June.
But then it all came out, including the stunning admission that he occasionally recycled his old kvetches just to see if anyone here was paying attention.
“I don’t consider myself a kvetchy person. I just consider myself a humorous kvetcher,” he said without blinking. “I’m definitely compulsive. Small things interest me. I just liked ‘Kvetch’ and thought it was funny. When I get on something, I don’t let go.”
Things evolved to a point where June said she would be driving with Syd to appointments and notice he was jotting things down on the backs of envelopes. Then, he would mull over these ramblings at home during the week and throughout the weekend, with as many as three rewrites for each kvetch. By the time the JT arrived the following Friday, they would play a game in which June guessed which kvetches were penned by Syd.
Just by looking around Syd’s abode, it wasn’t hard to see he’s compulsive about a lot of things. His massive collection of 45s and long-playing records lined the shelves of his den, not far from his stacks of TV Guide fall preview editions dating from the early ‘60s (did someone say Frank Costanza?).
A nearby framed Baltimore Sun article from a few years back hailed Syd for his documentation of more than 9,600 books that he’s read over the course of his life (and he has the handwritten list to prove it). He also collects postcards, autographs and baseball cards.
Hammering home the point about his being compulsive were the stacks of cutout pages of “Kvetch” sitting on his living room table, dating back to his debut on June 12, 1998. Syd also keeps copies of the pages, all dated and indexed by order of appearance, for posterity.
His “Seinfeld”-esque observations have railed against the medical community, SUVs, youngsters with a penchant for loud and irritating behavior, and incompetent drivers. (Syd always kept away from sex and politics).
Some of his favorites:
“When you push an ‘up’ elevator button and the red light comes on, someone behind you will push the same button. I guess they think their touch is better.” (Nov. 27, 1998)
“My kvetch is that suddenly I cannot think of a good kvetch.” (April 30, 1999)
“We kvetch when it doesn’t rain and when it does rain.” (Sept. 6, 2002)
“Ever do physical therapy? Oy, does it hurt! Now that’s a kvetch.” (Sept. 20, 2002)
“I see where reality shows are the big thing on TV. Well, we don’t watch them.” (March 7, 2003)
During his prolific career as a kvetcher, Syd said one of his pet peeves was another regular of the column, a woman who enjoys calling herself “Kvetchy Suzanne.”
“Suzanne has always bugged me,” Syd confessed, while admitting he doesn’t personally know the woman. “Three of her last four kvetches were mine. And I think she goes on and on. I’m always concise. Also, I always felt the ‘Kvetch’ column was for kvetchers without names. She wanted the glory. I don’t.”
That’s not to say Syd didn’t occasionally “out” himself and tell those closest to him that he was one of the unheralded kvetchers. June even scanned some of his best offerings and e-mailed ‘em to friends and relatives across the country
“A couple of relatives I shared my kvetches with said they didn’t get them. You’d have to wonder, ‘What the hell is wrong with these people?’” Syd growled. “I was saying things that should be said. This was my way of expressing my point of view.”
Now that “Kvetch” is history, Syd said he’s thinking of looking into the possibility of having all of his kvetches published in a book. But what about the fact that they’re all anonymous? No problem, responded Syd, he keeps a log of all of his kvetches, each original and rewrite handwritten and dated.
I asked him what publisher would seek this kind of, shall we say, unique material?
“Look,” Syd snapped, “I already have been published, whether anyone likes it or not. ‘Kvetch’ was addictive for me. I set the goals. First, it was getting 25 kvetches printed. Then, it was 50. And then 100. It was the thrill of getting printed.”
But then came that dark day a few weeks ago when June opened the Jewish Times and said, “Uh, Syd, you’re going to be very unhappy.” Learning about the column’s abrupt ending, he said, “was very traumatic. I died. I demised. Pages were wet.”
Still, Syd said he’s managing to keep his chin up. “I’ll be OK,” he promised. “I’ll miss writing them, but I’m 74. This isn’t the first thing I’ve run into in my life. Life goes on. I’ll keep kvetching, with the hope that someday, someone will start it again.”
Well, you can’t blame a good kvetcher for dreaming, now can you?
Sometimes when I go to shul – just about any shul – I can’t help but think about how the maintenance staff views what’s going on there. After all, the majority of maintenance workers at our synagogues and temples tend to be non-Jewish, and you’ve got to wonder what goes through their minds when we conduct our services, gatherings and such.
This thought particularly weighed heavily on my mind the other night when I attended Purim services at a local mega-shul (which I’ll leave anonymous). The scene was typical for Purim. The service, of course, was pure pandemonium, bedlam and decidedly juvenile, and understandably so—to get the kids revved up about the holiday. After all, Purim is really a holiday for kids, even though it deals with such heavy themes as potential annihilation, bigotry, revenge and sexual exploitation.
But what the heck, the kids love it! And the truth is, most Jewish holidays are so serious and morose, so let the young ones have one.
The aftermath of the service, however, is what surprised me a bit (although not too much). The auditorium at the shul was basically transformed into a discotheque, with thumping beats blasted by a deejay, adolescent girls on the stage dancing suggestively, kids stuffing their faces with hamantaschen and running amok, etc. I’m not saying I felt like I was watching a director’s cut of “Caligula,” but `over-the-top’ might not be an inappropriate expression here.
The corridors of the shul, of course, were turned into an endless sea of brash teenagers (are there any other kind?), flirting each other up like crazy and relieved to be far from their dorky parents and li’l siblings. The scene looked more like a Jonas Brothers concert than a house of worship.
Then, the aforementioned dorky parents, who were situated about a mile or so away, in another part of the shul, enjoyed their alcoholic beverages (which is encouraged on Purim) and took turns at shredding eardrums by singing on a karaoke machine. They, too, just seemed glad to be away from their offspring, and I couldn’t help but wonder when Bill Murray would show up, as his old “Saturday Night Live” lounge lizard singer alter ego, to entertain the crowd.
As I fled the scene, I couldn’t help but notice that the building was basically trashed, with broken grogger parts, shards of paper, miles of crumbs, and other jetsam and flotsam everywhere on the floors of the shul, as if Woodstock had just concluded. And again, I wondered about these people who clean and take care of our synagogues – what could they ever think of us and this surrealism as they watch? Because of job security, they must keep their lips zipped. But at times, they must think to themselves, “Just exactly what kind of religion is this?”
My guess is that they could write at least a few volumes about American Jewry in the 21st century, and where it went wrong.
Sometimes in our busy, chaotic existences, something happens that shakes us out of our dusty zones and reminds us that something else may be going on in the cosmos. It extracts the cynicism and fear that tend to dominate these times and makes you think about what some people like to call “the bigger picture.”
That happened to me recently when writing a news article about a young lady named Hannah Schlessinger.
In March of 1998, Hannah, a beautiful, vibrant 7-year-old Bolton Street Synagogue religious school student, was on her way to a ballet class with her mom when they got into a three-car collision near Greenspring Station. Hannah didn’t make it, and one look at her beaming face in the family photos tells you that the world lost a major ray of light that day.
Hannah’s parents, Andy and Kitty, her sisters and Bolton Street recently dedicated a memorial sculpture—by Baltimore-based, internationally-renowned sculptor Rodney Carroll—in the back of the Roland Park synagogue, near its playground, by the Stoney Run stream. The sculpture, a bench and Chai-shaped arch with 18 chimes to signify Hannah’s intense love for life and Judaism, was dedicated in honor of what would have been her 18th birthday.
When I started working on the article about the memorial, I went into the Jewish Times’ Web site archives, just to check if our publication ran an obituary on Hannah in 1998. I found the article, but also noticed in the archives that Hannah’s name was mentioned in a piece dated about six weeks earlier. When I looked it up, there was no mention of Hannah, except for a caption.
I then looked up the article in our bound volumes from that year, and I found a profile on Bolton Street. Sure enough, Hannah was not actually mentioned in the story, but there was a beautiful photo taken by former JT photographer Kyle Bergner of a smiling Hannah and a proud Mrs. Schlessinger, the mother’s arm lovingly wrapped around her child. For some reason, the article never mentioned the Schlessingers, but a photo was taken of them and published.
I found the original picture in our photo files, had it scanned by our art department, and emailed it to the Bolton Street folks, to see if it would be OK if we ran the picture with the article on the memorial. They, in turn, sent it to Hannah’s parents. Andy Schlessinger immediately wrote, informing me that they were overwhelmed since they had, for some reason, never actually seen that photo before. It surfaced out of the blue for them.
As a parent myself, I can only imagine how emotional and moving seeing that photo must’ve been for the Schlessingers, especially since it was likely one of the last pictures ever taken of their daughter. And to boot, Mr. Schlessinger told me that that day itself happened to be Hannah’s actual 18th birthday.
The story doesn’t stop there. Mr. Schlessinger asked if they could have a copy of the photo, and of course, it was sent to them. A few days later, I got an email message from him. It seems that a few days before the official dedication ceremony, the sculpture was transported from Mr. Carroll’s studio and installed on Bolton Street’s campus. Mr. Schlessinger dashed out of his house, grabbed his mail and raced to the synagogue, to oversee the installation with Mr. Carroll and the workmen.
After getting there and watching the meticulous unpacking and placement of the sculpture, Mr. Schlessinger said he scanned his mail and opened the envelope with the Jewish Times logo. As he pulled out the 11-year-old photo of his wife and daughter, he said a gust of wind suddenly began ringing the chimes and made all of the workers stop in their tracks. It was almost as if Hannah’s soul was passing through, making its presence know.
“Everyone stopped what they were doing and gathered round, looking at Hannah and hearing those chimes,” wrote Mr. Schlessinger. “It was a moment that could not be staged or repeated. … It remains something of an epiphany for me: it was Hannah saying, yes, this is the way I want to be remembered, forever part of children’s lives, their play and their dreams. It all made sense.”
Now I know that some of you might read this anecdote, shake your head, roll your eyes and call it hocus-pocus or wishful thinking. But to quote the immortal bard, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Perhaps, in her own way, Hannah was telling us that she never really left our midst after all.