Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Thoughts of a Middle Aged White Guy on the Last Days of Kwanzaa

Today is the last day of Kwanza. It is a man made holiday that was started in the 1960’s during a time when Africaan Americans were wrestling with issues of how their African origins meshed with an American identity.

The holiday starts on December 26 and ends on January 1. Each day stresses a particular value, the name of which is given in Swahili.

I looked on one of many Kwanzaa web sites for a list of the seven values stressed in the course of the holiday. The site lists the themes as follows .

Umoja (oo-MO-jah) Unity stresses the importance of togetherness for the family and the community, which is reflected in the African saying, “I am We,” or “I am because We are .

“Kujichagulia (koo-gee-cha-goo-LEE-yah) Self-Determination requires that we define our common interests and make decisions that are in the best interest of our family and community.

Ujima (oo-GEE-mah) Collective Work and Responsibility reminds us of our obligation to the past, present and future, and that we have a role to play in the community, society, and world.

Ujamaa (oo-JAH-mah) Cooperative economics emphasizes our collective economic strength and encourages us to meet common needs through mutual support.

Nia (NEE-yah) Purpose encourages us to look within ourselves and to set personal goals that are beneficial to the community.

Kuumba (koo-OOM-bah) Creativity makes use of our creative energies to build and maintain a strong and vibrant community

Imani (ee-MAH-nee) Faith focuses on honoring the best of our traditions, draws upon the best in ourselves, and helps us strive for a higher level of life for humankind, by affirming our self-worth and confidence in our ability to succeed and triumph in righteous struggle.

I am completely torn in how I relate to this holiday. Most disturbing is the total lack of any mention of a Supreme Being or Creator in the entire seven day span of Kwanzaa. I am not disturbed by the fact that the holiday is man made. I am disturbed by the fact that it is man centered. In this respect, it seems to be just another secular humanist propaganda pitch dressed in ethnic garb.

The central themes of Kwanzaa are frankly ambiguous and incoherent. If I ever had to sit through a Kwanzaa sermon on the seven principles of the holiday, I would probably nod off to sleep

Not at all disturbing to me is the Afrocentric nature of Kwanzaa. Unlike other ethnic minorities in America, most African Americans do not have a neatly mapped family tree. Most did not leave Africa under comfortable circumstances. Indeed, they were sold as slaves by rival tribes. Therefore, evidence of ties to a specific African nationality, tribe or language group are fragmentary at best. Peculiarities of dialect, folk tales passed from generation to generation or a distinctive craft can be an ethnic marker. In the absence of family names and stories passed down with a direct link to a town or village in Africa, baffling and ambiguous clues are the only way to reconstruct the past.

There is a group of African Americans in South Carolina who weave very distinctive baskets from a particular species swamp grass.The designs are very elaborate. The craft is passed down in families and is directly traceable to a particular part of West Africa. These people are considered fortunate to have so concrete a clue as the baskets they weave. The majority of African Americans do not have such certainty .

One branch of my family came to America with no information about where they were from. I know very little about them. I know what region they came from. I also know that they buried a child at sea who would be my uncle. Beyond these fragments of information, I know almost nothing. I compensate for this lack of knowledge by collecting stories of immigrants and learning about the approximate area from which my grandparents originally came . It is from this that I can understand the restlessness of African Americans, who were in most cases even stripped of their names.

Kwanzaa is a man made holiday. It is a conscious effort to create a generic African Afrocentric festival. Its vocabulary is Swahili which grew out of contact between Africans, Arabs and Persians. There are many languages spoken in Africa. Why choose Swahili? Could Norwegian be considered a language that represents Europe? Does it resemble Albanian, Czech or Sicilian? Africa is no less diverse than Europe.

The founder of Kwanzaa was a radical anti white activist named Ron Everett, who crowned himself with a cluster of grandiose African names. Even within the Black nationalist movement, he was violent to his opponents. Indeed, the time he served in prison was for the kidnapping and torture of two women who were his ideological rivals within the Black nationalist movement. The dominant themes of Kwanzaa are nationalistic and human centered rather than promoting any worship of G-d.

With all of its fatal flaws, I understand the reasons that Kwanzaa resonates with many African Americans. The African American experience is an integral part of the American historical narrative. It can not be left out of American history. To leave the interpretation of the African American experience to radical atheists or Muslims would be a tragic mistake.

Communists like to dismiss religion as “the opium of the people”. They are quick to note that the Christianity taught by slave owners to their slaves stressed servility. In some localities, teaching a slave to read was considered a crime. Understandably, literate slaves quickly identified with the narrative of the Exodus and developed a theology that affirmed the humanity of African American believers.

The African Methodist Episcopal Church is one example of African Americans defining their own faith and not leaving such a task in the hands of those who believed them to be inferior. Their web site describes their beginnings as follows.

“The AMEC grew out of the Free African Society (FAS) which Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and others established in Philadelphia in 1787. When officials at St. George’s MEC pulled blacks off their knees while praying, FAS members discovered just how far American Methodists would go to enforce racial discrimination against African Americans. Hence, these members of St. George’s made plans to transform their mutual aid society into an African congregation. Although most wanted to affiliate with the Protestant Episcopal Church, Allen led a small group who resolved to remain Methodists. In 1794 Bethel AME was dedicated with Allen as pastor. To establish Bethel’s independence from interfering white Methodists, Allen, a former Delaware slave, successfully sued in the Pennsylvania courts in 1807 and 1815 for the right of his congregation to exist as an independent institution. Because black Methodists in other middle Atlantic communities encountered racism and desired religious autonomy, Allen called them to meet in Philadelphia to form a new Wesleyan denomination, the AME.”

There are many people in Africa as well who belong to religious movements in which political control of the denomination is in the hands of Africans and not Europeans. This is an entirely understandable development. Many religious denominations were born of a desire for local control. Politics and religion are never completely separate.

Revolutionaries such as the Communists and the Black Panthers tend to blame capitalists or white people for the ills of society. Traditional faith lays primary emphasis on the responsibility of the individual to improve his or her self. Traditional faith communities recognize that the best system is still only as good as the individuals within it. An indigenous religious denomination based upon this realization can accomplish a great deal. If it is based on class warfare and denial of individual responsibility, then its fruits are likely to be bitter and toxic.

I can understand the need of African Americans to define their own history and to take pride in it. It is unfortunate that radical and destructive elements have been the first to recognise this need. There is a place for honouring the African American contribution to the world of faith and the special lessons that African American history adds to our national dialogue. Kwanzaa points to this need. It does not meet it. A holiday that is man centered and not G-d centered will not uplift those who celebrate it. If Kwanzaa were a car, it would be a lemon. As such, it should be towed, junked and replaced. I hope this happens soon.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Look Back At The "Trabi", East Germany's Most Famous Car

The consumerist dream for most East Germans was to own a Trabant . This tiny car had room for four adults and a small quantity of luggage. It had a smoky, two stroke 650 cc engine. its top speed was around seventy two miles per hour, if you put your "pedal to the metal." Despite its modest specifications and its primitive technology, the waiting list for this car was about ten years.

When the Berlin Wall came down, Trabis poured into West Germany and beyond, where they were viewed with amusement. They did not hold their own in competition with the west. Even with technical improvements, the last "Trabi" was made in 1992.

There is a small market for Trabants among "Ostalgie" buffs, those people who are nostalgic for mementos of life in the former East Germany. My interest in "Ostalgie" is not out of any fondness for East German communism. I feel that any study of history should include vivid recreations of as many facets of life in a given time frame as possible. I have found very frequently that when I discuss small details of Soviet or East German life with people who lived in those parts of the world, that it jogs vivid memories that are useful in painting a complete historical picture of a time period. This is true of other parts of the world and different time frames as well.

I heard a few Trabi jokes. My favourite is as follows.(Compliments of Wikipedia)

"A West German businessman who is driving a Mercedes through East Germany on a rainy night when his windshield wipers stop working. He takes it to an East German mechanic, who tells him there are no Mercedes windshield wiper motors in the GDR, but he will do his best to fix it. When the businessman returns the next day, to his surprise the windshield wipers are working perfectly. "How did you find a Mercedes windshield wiper motor in the East," he asks the mechanic. "We didn't," replies the mechanic, "We used the engine motor of a Trabant."

In a slightly different version, a Trabi breaks down in West Germany. The mechanic uses the windshield wiper motor from a truck and has the Trabi working perfectly.

The Trabant was viewed with affection by many East Germans who viewed it not as a trophy of consumerism but a metaphor for East Germany's dysfunctional economic system. It should be noted that a powerful antidote to communist propaganda in the former East Germany was the availability of West German television and radio throughout East Germany. It was impossible not to know about the disparity in standard of living between the two Germanies. What was truly unique about the two Germanies was the language they shared. East Germans would not have been nearly as vulnerable to broadcasts in French or English as they understandably were to broadcasts in their own language.

I am including three videos with this posting. One is a commercial for consumer goods. It is interesting because the video is also showcasing what it claims is the economic success of the new postwar East Germany. It is a marked contrast to western commercials . which simply describe the goods themselves rather than discussing the economy. The next clip is a roughly 30 second Trabant commercial.

The last video is a 1971 hit song by East German singer Sonja Schmidt. Ein Himmelblauer Trabant" ( A Sky Blue Trabant) It is a light hearted song. The video was shot in the 1970's East Germany and has an interesting feel to it.

I hope that my readers enjoy this this glimpse of the Trabi in East German popular culture. I have always found that details like this make the study of history come alive. I would be interested to know if my readers agree.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Operation Exodus: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Back in the 1940’s visionary Jewish leaders recognised that the key to Jewish survival was Jewish education, not in extra curricular programs but in full-time, full-service day schools. Back then, only a fortunate handful of students was enrolled in the new Jewish institutions. It did not take long for the merit of Jewish private education to prove its worth. There was a marked contrast in Torah observance and commitment between those enrolled in the new institutions and those who remained in public schools. Now, there are Jewish schools educating their students in Torah values all across America.

Many Christians and believers of other faiths have discovered the need for an education that is supportive of the values they teach in their homes. What back in the forties was a problem only for those who feared assimilation into America’s majority faith has now become a problem for those in the religious mainstream as well.

What many thought was a “value neutral” education was really full of secular humanist values. Sex education and biased history along with disastrous experiments in “whole word” reading instruction and “new math” frustrated millions of parents who felt their concerns were being dismissed. An education bureaucracy with a hidden agenda and flawed methodology provided and continues to provide ironclad protection for ideologues from a skeptical public.

For decades, Jews and Christians who seceded from public education were nevertheless forced through taxation to pay for it as well as for their own schools. In the vast domain of public education, both the Christian majority and the Jewish minority (among other groups) are disenfranchised by secular humanists who are dismissive of their concerns.

Now, a group has formed for Christians who are sick of the toll secular humanist schools have taken on the transmission of their faith.

World Net Daily reports on the group as follows.

“Now some people are fed up with public school treatment of Christianity and have launched a campaign calling for a rescue of kids from government education programs – a “Call to Dunkirk.”

The name Dunkirk is famous for the hundreds of thousands of World War II allies saved in May 1940 when a flotilla of pleasure boats, fishing craft and others rescued the soldiers from the beaches near Dunkirk, France, where they were trapped by an advancing German army.

Author David J. Knowles, who wrote a book on the rescue that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called a miracle, said volunteers including boat owners, fishermen – ordinary people instead of trained soldiers and sailors – crossed the English Channel to effect the rescue of about 340,000 people.

Now, officials with Exodus Mandate have launched their “Call to Dunkirk” to advocate a departure from public schools.

Several officials have created a YouTube video on their plan, and it is linked here:
Call to Dunkirk”

Although this video makes extensive reference to Christian scripture, the theme of a faith community seceding from a corrupt system has a resonance that transcends denominational boundaries. Many orthodox Jews have made identical arguments couched in a solidly Jewish textual framework for their children to attend religious schools. I mention this to underscore the importance of this issue to many faith communities

The tactical metaphor of Dunkirk has particular resonance for the wide assortment of faith communities who are marginalised and disenfranchised under our current educational system. World War Two was a conflict in which disparate allies rightly sensed common interests. Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Seventh Day Adventists may have acrimonious theological disagreements and separate communities, but each group is threatened in a similar way by the values promoted in the public schools and the dismissive treatment in public schools of any sort of religious faith.

Just as businesses that compete with each other lobby together in recognition of their common interests, religious schools of any denomination must ally together on matters that affect the viability of religious education. Whether it is lobbying for favourable legislation or legal advice on maximising a school’s advantage under existing tax laws , people of disparate beliefs face many common problems.

The World Net Daily article forcefully drives home the point that an average child spends 14,000 hours of his or her life in public schools. This is a massive amount of time in which formative years are spent exposed to alien values. Counteracting this with a couple hours of Sunday School or afternoon religious instruction is in most cases wishful thinking.

For me as a Jew, values transmission and Jewish identity are central themes that can not be reduced to an occasional scholastic footnote. I have no doubt that millions of Americans of other faiths have similar concerns about their respective traditions. After the recent Presidential election a forceful show of concern by citizens of faith should serve as a wake up call to the Obama administration to treat this issue seriously.

I live in an area that is predominantly African American and in which many of my neighbours choose church schools for their children. Having expounded at length on the theme that people of all faiths are affected by this issue, it should be noted that many African Americans prefer or choose religious schools for their children. In neighbourhoods with lower average incomes, their commitment often represents a major economic sacrifice.

The issues raised by Call To Dunkirk involve the most basic right of choice, and that is the right to educate a child according to the manner deemed fit by his or her parents. Anyone who is truly “pro choice” understands this.

A generation ago, no one would have dreamed of the sort of insanity taught in schools today, such as the school in Massachusetts that teaches homosexuality to kindergarten students with the protection of a judicial decision that was so far reaching that even parents who objected on religious grounds were not allowed to remove their child from the class.

It is not an accident that Bill Ayers and others like him went from terrorism into education. Radicals rightly see the subversive potential within the educational system. America has been sleeping while they have been busy at work.

When public schools start closing for want of students, perhaps our tyrannical public school system will give way to one that expresses the wishes, goals and values of the citizenry.

The public school establishment has turned a deaf ear to the pleas of disgruntled citizens for far too long. Now, instead of the dialogue they have ducked and avoided, it looks like they may hear the rumbling sound of millions of fed up Americans voting with their feet. They asked for a rumble and they may just get it. Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Free Jonathan Pollard!

Jonathan Pollard is one of many individuals caught spying on America. He was motivated by a well founded fear of an attack on Israel by Iraq that would have caused catastrophic civilian casualties. It should be noted that Israel is a close American ally, and that spies often work on behalf of friendly powers who are keeping an eye on each other as well as the enemy.

Jonathan Pollard is sentenced to natural life in prison, which means that he will only be freed when he assumes room temperature.

It is worthwhile to look at the sentences of others who have spied not on behalf of friends but for avowed enemies of our country. What sentences did they receive?

I reviewed a list of convicted spies, a list of their offenses and the sentences they received.

Here are excerpts from that list.

1984 — Richard William Miller

Miller was a Los Angeles-based FBI agent who was arrested for passing classified documents to two pro-Soviet immigrants, who also were arrested and pleaded guilty to conspiracy. Miller pleaded innocent, saying he was trying to infiltrate the KGB. His first trial ended in a mistrial, but he was found guilty in second trial in 1986. That verdict was overturned in 1989 on a technicality. In a third trial, he was convicted again and sentenced to 20 years in 1991. He was released in 1994 after a federal judge reduced his sentence. (emphasis mine)

1985 — Walker family

John A. Walker Jr. was a retired Navy warrant officer charged with selling information to the Soviets for 18 years, including data on U.S. encryption devices that compromised U.S. communications. Once out of the Navy, Walker recruited his son, Michael Walker, a petty officer aboard the USS Nimitz; his brother, ex-Navy Lt. Cmdr. Arthur James Walker; and Jerry Alfred Whitworth, a retired Navy communications specialist, to procure classified documents that the elder Walker paid for and then sold to the Soviets. John Walker’s ex-wife tipped the FBI to his activities, and he was arrested in May 1985. The three others were apprehended around the same time.

In late 1985, John Walker Jr. pleaded guilty to espionage charges as part of a plea agreement to testify at Whitworth’s trial and provide full details on what he gave to the Soviets in exchange for a lesser sentence for his son. The elder Walker was sentenced to two life terms plus 10 years, and his son, who also pleaded guilty, was sentenced to 25 years. Arthur James Walker was convicted of seven counts of espionage in late 1985 and was sentenced to life in prison. Whitworth was convicted of espionage and tax charges in 1986 and sentenced to 365 years.

1994 — Aldrich Ames

Ames was characterized as probably the most damaging turncoat in U.S. history. A career agency official, Ames began selling U.S. secrets to the KGB in 1985, when he was head of the CIA’s Soviet counterintelligence unit. Within a decade he had revealed more than 100 covert operations and betrayed at least 30 agents. Ten of the spies revealed by Ames were later executed by the Soviets, including Dmitri Polyakov, the top CIA informer inside Soviet military intelligence. Ames’ activities also may have allowed the Soviets to dupe the CIA by sending fake intelligence to the agency through the agents whom Ames compromised.

Along with his co-conspirator and wife, Rosario, Ames was paid more than $2.7 million for the information before he was arrested in 1994. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole, while his wife, under the terms of a plea agreement, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years and three months in prison for conspiring to commit espionage and evading taxes.

# 1996 — Edwin Earl Pitts

A 13-year veteran of the FBI, Pitts contacted the KGB in 1987 to offer his services and continued selling secrets to the Russians until 1992. He supposedly received $224,000 from the Russians for his services. Tipped off by a Russian double agent, the FBI launched a sting operation of Pitts in 1995 in which agents posing as his Russian handlers paid Pitts $65,000 in exchange for classified FBI information. Arrested in December 1996, the 43-year-old Pitts pleaded guilty to espionage charges in 1997 and was sentenced to 27 years in prison.

# 1996 — Harold Nicholson

Nicholson, the highest-ranking CIA officer ever to face espionage charges, was arrested at Dulles International Airport outside Washington in late 1996 as he was attempting to board a flight for Switzerland. Federal prosecutors said he was carrying 10 rolls of film of classified documents and still-uncracked coded messages on a computer disk and was planning to meet his Russian handlers, who paid him more than $180,000. He was charged with espionage, attempted espionage and conspiracy to commit espionage and pleaded guilty in 1997. He was sentenced to 23 years in prison after cooperating with prosecutors.

# 1996 — Robert Kim

Kim, a former Navy computer specialist, was arrested in September 1996 at a diplomatic reception at Fort Myer, Virginia, and charged with passing classified information to a South Korean navy captain. Originally indicted on three espionage charges, he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of conspiracy to commit espionage. The government agreed to the plea bargain to avoid a trial that would involve making public what it said were highly sensitive government secrets. He was sentenced to nine years in jail on July 11, 1997.

It is interesting to view the list above with the intent of measuring the proportional gravity of the offenses of the spies listed above. With one exception, they were spying for avowed enemies of our country. Jonathan Pollard, spying on behalf of a friendly power, was put in jail as long as some of the most injurious perpetrators of espionage, such as Aldrich Ames, who has the blood of ten Soviets who spied for America on his hands.

The most persuasive argument against Pollard is that his information might have fallen into enemy hands once in Israel. The same argument could have been used against Robert Kim, who passed classified information to a South Korean navy captain. Does South Korea have no spies from communist North Korea? And what can be said about Harold Nicholson, who got 23 years for handing secrets over to the Soviets?

It is important for there to be powerful deterrents against spying on America. There are more than a few people willing to risk life and liberty for personal gain. The price of perfidy must remain high. Jonathan Pollard has paid with the best years of his life for spying on this country. He remains a living example of the perils of the path he chose, but he was also spying for a friendly power, and much of what he handed over should have been shared officially and legally according to treaties of friendship between Israel and America.

The law is geared to distinctions of gravity in espionage offenses, despite the misleading pronouncements of misguided individuals such as Ed Koch. There is a specific criminal offense of “passing information to an ally.” The median sentence for such an offense, according to federal guidelines, is two to four years. Pollard has served 24 years. Why such a harsh sentence?

The information that was withheld from Israel included Syrian, Iraqi, Libyan and Iranian nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and capabilities that were being developed for use against Israel. It also included information on missiles being developed by these countries with offensive capabilities and intelligence concerning planned terrorist attacks against Israeli civilian targets

Israel was legally entitled to this critical information according to a 1983 Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. and Israel.

Pollard discovered this suppression of information and spoke to his superiors about it Instead of the information being passed on according to treaty obligation, he was told to “mind his own business”, and that “Jews get nervous talking about poison gas; they don’t need to know.”

Pollard was not a mercenary but an ideologue. He was never accused of harming the US by passing on war plans or information about American military capabilities. He was charged with spying for an ally.

Pollard waived his right to a trial in exchange for leniency. Instead of leniency, he got an unimaginably harsh sentence and a violation of his rights that is shocking.

Just before Pollard’s sentencing, Caspar Weinberger, who was then Secretary of Defense, delivered a 46-page classified memorandum to the judge who was passing sentence. Since then, neither Pollard nor any of his attorneys who had security clearance were ever allowed to freely review and rebut the memorandum to contest the spurious charges it contains. This was a blatant abrogation of Pollard’s rights.

The day before Pollard was sentenced, Caspar Weinberger delivered a four-page supplemental memorandum to the judge. In it, he accused Pollard of treason. Also in the supplemental memorandum, Weinberger urged the judge to hand down despite Pollard’s plea agreement. Pollard should have been offered a chance to go to trial after the plea agreement was essentially abrogated The only implication that can be inferred from Pollard being accused of “treason” is that Israel is an enemy state. This makes his sentence a blatant insult to a loyal American ally.

Pollard was shown the supplemental Weinberger memorandum only once, just moments before sentencing. Given the certainty of substantial jail time for Pollard, an adjournment of sentencing to prepare a rebuttal to the Weinberger memorandum would have been well within legal norms.

Pollard has been repeatedly let down in efforts to secure his freedom. When Benjamin Netanyahu went to Washington to participate in the Wye Accords, he pressed Bill Clinton for Pollard’s release. Despite promises to set Pollard free, Clinton slyly yanked the release off the table at the last minute. After a tug of war between Netanyahu and Clinton, Israel released 750 Arab prisoners with blood on their hands and got nothing in return


Bill Clinton used his powers of clemency to release 16 Puerto Rican FALN terrorists who never expressed regret for their total of 120 bombings. The terrorists repudiated neither their goals nor their means as a precondition for clemency. Even Jimmy Carter joined in the widespread condemnation of this group of pardons. It seems that every scoundrel, terrorist and common criminal seems to be leaving prison before Pollard.

There is no plausible explanation for the harshness of Jonathan Pollard’s treatment. It seems very likely that a full disclosure of the reasons would embarrass the government in front of the citizenry rather than

damage national security. Over twenty four years have passed since Pollard’s arrest in 1985. The Soviet Union, our most formidable enemy (not Israel) in the 1980’s no longer exists. The geopolitical seismic shifts since 1985 have rendered the world in which Pollard was arrested almost unrecognizable. Any information that he might have disclosed that might have been injurious then is now inconsequential.

Pollard has paid a heavy price for the acts for which he was convicted. The large chunk of his life that he has lost for his offenses stands as a looming lesson to any who might want to follow in his footsteps.

No further justice is served by his continued incarceration. The judicial system is unlikely to afford Pollard any relief. George Bush has the legal right to pardon Jonathan Pollard. It would be decent and compassionate to pardon Pollard, who has expressed regret for his crimes repeatedly. It is my hope and my prayer that before he leaves office on January 20, 2009, that President George W. Bush pardon Jonathan Pollard.

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Friday, December 26, 2008

Thoughts on Christmas and Fond Wishes To My Neighbors

Today, I spent the day in a cultural bubble. My children went to school. I went to the doctor and also grocery shopping. I had a prescription filled. At each step along the way I wished others a good Shabbos and a Happy Channukah. When I stopped to speak with Christian neighbors, I wished them well on their holiday.

What was odd about my day was that it was December 25, the biggest holiday on the Christian calendar. Despite my aloofness from it, there was a quiet in the streets and a serenity among the Christian passers by.

A couple of years ago I was in Israel on Purim, a holiday at the end of winter which is observed with the reading of the Book of Esther, delivery of food to friends, and an increase in alcohol consumption. When riding a train, I could not get over the fact that the spirit of Purim predominated not only on the train but in a country in which Judaism is dominant. Since that day, I feel a joy that the world has been apportioned among nations with diverse traditions. When I see the predominance of Christianity in a Christian country, I am happy for my fellow citizens that they are able to observe what is important to them and that I in turn am able to “march to a different drummer.”

When my children were very young, they asked me about the Christmas decorations of our neighbors, who spare no expense in celebrating the holiday and decorating for it.

I explained that part of passing your faith on is making it attractive to the children. The Christian neighbors were doing this in ways established by years of practice.

I gave the example of going to a restaurant in which another table gets a birthday cake delivered by the waitress, who sings “Happy Birthday” along with the dining party. Most people who are not celebrating a birthday smile and nod to those who are cutting up the cake. Everyone knows that not every day is your birthday. Life is like that. Be happy for those who are enjoying now what you will enjoy later.

When people file suits against Christmas displays and public observances of faith, an absurd image flashes through my mind of someone in a restaurant throwing a tantrum because they didn’t get a birthday cake.

Most bosses I have worked for over the years like to personalize their work environment with pictures of family. In a sense, it reminds them of a very important motivating factor in their cycle of work and personal life. It seems that in a sense, the family photos say, “This is what I work for.”

There is a collective need in society to decorate the landscape with something besides merchandise. During a religious holiday of any faith tradition, people are reminded of the past that shaped them and the values that drive them. Secularizing public spaces during holiday seasons which in this country include Christmas and Easter rob the public thoroughfares of a quality that leaves passers by disoriented from their past.

What about minority faith communities in America that do not celebrate Christmas such as Jews, Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses? What about their feelings? I can answer with the following example from within Jewish tradition.

In Judaism, after the Sabbath ends, we recite the “havdalah” prayer during which a candle is lit and extinguished. A blessing is said over this act, which distinguishes the Sabbath, during which fires may not be lit or put out from the weekdays during which such activities are permitted.

Some people turn out the lights when the candle is lit so that the flame will stand out more brightly against the darkness. It is indeed pleasant to behold havdalah said in such a way.

When I heard havdalah for the first time in Yeshiva in Morristown, New Jersey, Rabbi Abraham Lipskier, who was the head of the Yeshiva, told me not to turn out the light, as I was accustomed to doing. He said that it was better spiritually to be drawn to light. Rather than extinguish surrounding lights, it was better to be drawn to the havdalah light.

To me, Rabbi Lipskier’s admonition is on a certain level a metaphor for the attitude that is fitting for a Jew living as a minority in a Christian country. It is better for us to “kindle our own lights” by learning of and practicing our own traditions than to seek to mute the observances of our neighbors. A time when Christian observances are so predominant is a time when a Jew or a member of any other faith minority should “kindle his or her own lights” and draw close to them. It is important for us to do this rather than to neglect our own G-d given festivals and join in the general celebration. It is a far greater gift to stay true to one’s own path than to imitate the outward behavior of the majority. The best gift you can give the world is to be yourself and to encourage your neighbors to do likewise.

In Israel, I saw the beauty of a country in which Judaism, my faith, is in the air. A shadow of this exists on Jewish thoroughfares in America which are completely closed on the Sabbath. It is this cultural bubble in which I live and thrive.

I am grateful to America and to the American people for the safety and protection accorded to those like me who “march to a different drummer.” I wish the citizens of this great country peace, health and happiness during their Christmas season. May all who dwell in this country in peace know only tranquility as they follow in their chosen paths.

G-d bless America. and its people! G-d bless America, a land of kindness and decency!

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Thoughts on the Latter Days of Hannukah in a Christian Land

The frequent overlap of Channukah and Christmas often gives rise to well meaning misstatements. One such misstatement is that Channukah is a "minor holiday" This is a misconception. It is minor only if you attach less importance to a holiday during which one may not drive or kindle flame such as Shabbos, Passover Shavuos, Sukkos , Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.

The outcome of Channukah was that the Bet HaMikdash was rededicated after a long period during which it was forcibly appropriated for idolatry. The miracle of the oil, in whih a vial of pure oil was made to last eight days is told for very profound reasons.

The menorah in the Bet HaMikdash (which has seven and not eight branches has a correlation to the openings in the human head. Two ears, two eyes, two nostrils and a mouth add up two seven. These openings are not only sensory gates but also the portals through which air, the most basic substance appointed for our physical survival reaches us. When we listen to and speak the word of G-d, these orifices are illuminated and elevated.

The lesson of Hannukah is a universal one of repentance and return. The oil that was found undefiled represents that last voice of G-dliness, the conscience that does not stay silent when a person is completely mired immorality and denial of G-d.

The historical lesson which comes back to its central focus involves finding our spiritual centre and purifying our Bet HaMikdash of the influences alien to Judaism that had been put into it. The Greeks did not mind if we observed rational commandments. They cared only if we observed supra rational commandments such as circumcision and keeping kosher. They could accept the Torah as literature. They could not accept its veneration and adherence to its statutes as the word of G-d. They in fact took harsh measures to counteract such attitudes and practices.

The central focus of Jewish survival was Torah study, even at the risk of being killed for it. The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe narrowly risked getting killed for his efforts in this regard. Many of his followers did indeed also lose their lives in Stalin's gulag. Tens of thousands of other Jews also paid heavy prices for their Torah observance. I do focus on Jews under communism not to slight the millions of Christians murdered but to stress that godless communism was as much a plague for Jews as it was the rest of humanity. Those who were driven to embrace communism by the Czar and Christian Jew hatred paid a heavy price for their abandonment of Judaism. This is a needed counterbalance to the demagogic blame that is thrust upon Jews for pushing communism upon the world.

It is not the Jewish way to rejoice in warfare. But it has its place. Torah study provides the particulars of observance and a raison d'etre. But we are not pacifists. It says in Ecclesiastes that there is "a time of peace and a time of war." Jewish warriors from Jerusalem to Warsaw, from the Maccabees to the IDF are like the glass around the candle that is carried in a wedding procession. The candle burns brightly only because the glass is protecting it. A Jewish soldier's motive is that which he is protecting, the people behind him, the flame behind the glass.

There is a saying "The Trotskys make revolutions and the Bronsteins pay for them." Leon Trotsky's birth name was Lev Davidovich Bronstein. He spoke Yiddish and spent time in yeshiva. Who can say how differently history might have turned out had he not been kicked out ou Yeshiva?

Why did I jump more than two thousand years in explaining Hannukah? Do I have Attention Deficit Disorder?

I skip to the present era in my explanation of Hannukah because its lessons reverberate through time. It was made a Jewish holiday by our sages because its central themes recur in each individual life and in every generation. The modern day "Greeks" are not only Athenian. They can be a representative of any faith or force that urges Jews to abandon Judaism. Muslims, Christians and Hindus who urge Jews to adopt their faith are sowing the seeds of destruction for the Jew and for themselves. Karl Marx was baptized at the age of six. His Christian upbringing was only a stop on the path to the creation of the godless religion (Marxism) with the highest body count in the history of the world.

G-d did not make an eternal covenant with the Jewish people, change his mind and make a "new covenant.". G-d did not give the Torah to 600,000 witnesses in the open desert and then revoke it in the presence of thirteen men. The eternal G-d does not have Attention Deficit Disorder.

There is an Indian greeting "namaste" which translates as "I salute the divinity within you." This thought is constantly in my heart as I greet my gentile neighbours. It is this love of the nations of the world, descendants of Adam and Noah that motivates me to be forthright in rejecting their offer to share their faith with me.

A Christian friend mentioned to me only in the course of stressing another point that he went to the foot of a bridge overpass every Saturday morning to bring food to homeless families. I was humbled by his physical immersion in the tenets of loving kindness in contrast to my own meager exertions. He has never mentioned this labour of love again since he once mentioned it in the heat of an argument. It is to him and the millions like him that I say "namaste". May G-d grant him many more years in fullness of strength to continue in his path of kindness. May he dance at the weddings of his righteous children and grandchildren.

My friend is only one of millions. He may live in a north eastern city, but there are millions like him. Their deeds can be measured against our eternal Torah. Their deeds can and should be studied and emulated. But we must not abandon the Torah that is our compass in a world where direction is so easily lost.

America should be praised for its concept and implementation of religious and political freedom. For a believer, freedom is a tool to serve G-d. The first act of a believer is to trade his liberty for the yoke of Heaven. Anyone who does not understand this should reflect upon the right to work where one pleases. Most thinking individuals will trade this freedom as quickly as possible for a business or work opportunity.

We should always be thankful for the freedom that we have. But we must recognise it as a gift from God delivered by men. Every person born came to this world with a mission. We Jews have ours. Other nations have their mission as well. In the time of Moshiach, the mission of each nation will be revealed and we will be as harmonious as the limbs and organs of one healthy body.

The comparison between the Menorah and the human head has universal implications. The Jew and the gentile of course share this common characteristic of two ears, two eyes , two nostrils and a mouth. Physical creation is replete with clues to the path of divine service.

It is out of love of the nations as much due to my love of Judaism and the Jewish people that I reject Christian scriptures and holidays and offer instead the universal lessons of Hannukah.

My Christian friend who feeds the homeless is an example to me, as are the many Christians like him. It is only fair that I identify him by the faith in which he so deeply believes. To use a metaphor, he wants the scoreboard for his team to light up when he scores a basket. I feel the same way about my team.

The nature of this world is one of concealment. G-d could end all of our religious disagreements by an unmistakable revelation that would open all eyes. It is not the will of G-d yet that every letter of divine truth be as self evident as the laws of gravity. For want of such revelation, we must respect G-d's will and respect each other's differences. To my Christian friends I say" Happy Hannukah". You may return my greeting as you please. G-d bless America. G-d bless us all. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Thoughts of Matisyahu and "Irregular Chassidim"

The career of Matisyahu, the orthodox Jewish Reggae singer has been followed with avid interest by many Jews in the observant world. Through his music, a whole genre of music that had been has been outside the realm of what is considered Jewish music found its way to the ears of listeners struggling to reconcile different musical worlds.

The first"guides" that Matisyahu found in his search were Lubavitcher chassidim. For a long and very public stage of his personal and professional evolution, it was the writings and teachings of Chabad that provided Matisyahu's inspiration and peer support. Because of his great talent, a process of spiritual evolution that would have been a private affair became the dinner table conversation of strangers.

At this stage of his spiritual development, Matisyahu, like many people defines himself as an observant Jew with no additional denominational subheadings. He has expressed a fondness for Breslov chassidic teachings with their emphasis upon spontaneous speaking to G-d in one's own words as a supplement to formal prayer. Additionally, he has a personal spiritual mentor who is not exclusively rooted in the Chabad community and belief system.

It is hard for a person raised in a religious home to imagine the massive adjustment made by Matisyahu. I do not know him. I have never met him. My thread of commonality with Matisyahu is that of being raised outside of orthodox Jewish tradition. He discovered a whole new Jewish world complete with rivalries of text, tradition and personalities. He also discovered within himself an amazing talent that was itself a vehicle of discovering and transmitting spirituality. This is a lot to absorb and incorporate into an existing identity and world view. For anyone becoming religious, the new found discovery of a faith does not just answer a multitude of questions. It raises a host of new issues as well.

I became an observant Jew at around the same age as did Matisyahu. Additionally, Lubavitch was my "port of entry". It did not take long for me to discover that there is great diversity in orthodox Judaism. In the Jewish faith tradition, disagreements do not die in the generation in which they were voiced. The dialogues and arguments themselves become a guide for the generations. Indeed, the Talmud itself is a set of arguments that often spanned generations, connecting the living and the (physically) dead.

Everyone experiences this diversity within Torah tradition differently. Some people incorporate an intact tradition into the warp and woof of their very being, fashioning a vibrant and spontaneous dialogue with the world on the terms defined by their spiritual masters. The world needs such people like wayfarers need hotels and gas stations. They are a laudable part of the spiritual and philosophical landscape.

There are others who are find it harder to define their spiritual journey in the language of one master. Some may be generically Jewish yet be attracted simultaneously to aspects of Lubavitch, Breslov and Arab Jewish elucidations of Torah Judaism. Such individuals need the "spiritual innkeepers" who maintain a world view that is not in a certain sense "hybrid" even as they move upon their life path.

It is good for those who are spiritually settled to be kind to Jewish "wayfarers". This is good not only for the tactical reason that it is more likely to win "converts" to one's ideological strain. Such kindness is praiseworthy in its own right. Every cashier clocks out at the end of the day and becomes a customer. Every waiter sits down eventually at his own table. Life is a wheel.

I find my approach to Judaism and that of Matisyahu to have an eclectic common denominator. When I read in The Forward of Matisyahu discovering strains of thinking outside of Lubavitch, it reminded me of my reaction to religious diversity within orthodox Judaism. His discovery of spirituality within reggae was also something that resonated with me.

Matisyahu's music is more "plugged in" than my personal reggae preferences. I favour the softer strains of "Lucky Dube", who fuses his music with a social and spiritual message. Lucky Dube was from South Africa and his music reflected the post apartheid struggles in that country. His death in 2006 in a carjacking in South Africa still pains me. His music focuses upon a message prominent in Judaism that liberation from external oppression is only a prerequisite for the inner struggle for perfection. If Matisyahu's music ever starts reflecting an influence from Lucky Dube, I will note it with pleasure.

Sometimes the public nature of a celebrity's life becomes an artistic statement to supplement and deepen the appreciation of his or her actual artistic work. I do not speak of tabloid gossip. There is nothing praiseworthy about tearing away the curtain of privacy from a public figure. Thankfully, Matisyahu has not been the fodder of such trashy fare.

Matisyahu has been very open about his religious journey, about its stretches of uncertainty and its changes in spiritual landscape. As much as his music resonates with a message, his words off stage with journalists strike a responsive chord in my soul. His eclectic mix of spiritual influences and his feeling of being a "work in progress" has a resonance to those who have taken an exit but are still navigating the side streets . I am very grateful to him for sharing such a wide range of feelings from his spiritual journey. He has deepened my respect for him. He has also given an articulate voice to the spiritual yearnings of many whose lives play out on a smaller stage. He has my respect and admiration.

This is a song called "House of Exile" from Lucky Dube (1964-2006)
of blessed memory Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Look At Corruption In New York And Chicago

It is interesting to hear about all the corruption in Chicago. When I read about Obama’s complete innocence of any wrongdoing it reminds me of the “teenage daughter phenomenon in which a kid walks out of her room for an evening with friends looking like a page from a Vogue magazine photo shoot. When you look into her room after she leaves, the floor is barely visible. If a burglar ever ransacked the place, you wouldn’t know the difference. What is even more amazing is that the kid knows exactly where everything is. And when you clean the place up , the first thing you hear is, “Now I’ll never be able to find anything!!!”

If Obama really doesn’t know jack diddly about corruption in Chicago, then he is a miracle like that of teenage daughters across America and their messy rooms. Maybe he’s telling the truth. I just can’t figure out how.

New York has its own corruption. I divide it into two categories. One type of corruption is a violation of the law that makes life livable. The other is just plain stealing. Sometimes, it’s a mix, where someone isn’t totally honest but he spreads the love around.

There was one guy who liked to make you remember him at election time. He used to donate turkeys to food banks and books to the library with dedication stickers on the inside cover. He was eventually convicted for a crime only an accountant could explain. He allegedly stole e few thousand dollars, though I’d vote for him again in a heartbeat. I think somebody wanted a piece of his action. Pulling the race card would have been totally justified, but he didn’t. He’s what I would call a mensch, a decent human being.

We had a governor named Elliot Spitzer whose “honeymoon” was measured on a stopwatch. Elliot Spitzer started off with a nutty plan to give driver’s licenses to illegal aliens. Then he vowed to “steamroll” anyone who got in his way. He defunded one guy’s health programs in his district because he stood up to him. How did Spitzer get elected? He ran on a “clean government” program and ran some of the sappiest commercials in the history of political advertising.

As attorney general, he had a reputation for being a pit bull. He liked showy arrests, where you go into a guy’s office and lead him out in handcuffs. The problem is that some of the people he so theatrically shamed were found innocent. Where do they go to get their reputations back.

What really disgusted me was when Spitzer went after a controller named Alan Hevesi. What was Hevesi’s crime? His wife was critically ill and needed to get to and from doctor’s appointments. Hevesi had his chauffeur drive her around on the taxpayer’s nickel. “Honest Elliot” piously and indignantly drove Hevesi from office, even after Hevesi reimbursed the “improper” use of state money. The electorate, the greatest jury in the land, felt convinced that the allegations were sufficiently trivial to reelect Hevesi despite the improprieties.

When Elliot Spitzer himself was busted for going to Washington DC to hang out with hookers, there were plenty of people who would have looked the other way. Some were even relieved that we had a heterosexual sex scandal instead of a gay one like New Jersey.

Unfortunately for Spitzer, people decided to be as harsh and unforgiving with him as he was with his enemies. So now we have a governor, David Patterson, who is facing some of the toughest financial problems in state history.

What I am most grateful to Governor Patterson for is his signing into law a piece of landmark legislation designed to protect New Yorkers against lawsuits designed to chill free speech, the “libel tourism law”. He is not a charismatic governor. He is not a passionate ideologue of any stripe. He is just a guy who does what has to be done. I will most probably vote for him if given the chance.

What is going on in Chicago puzzles me. I think they should let Blagojovitch, accused of trying to sell the Illinois Senate seat, plead guilty on charges relating to that awful hairpiece he’s got. That would cap his sentence at about two years. In truth, he probably didn’t want to split his money with the right people.

With a vacant Senate seat in New York, I don’t even want to know what kind of horse trading is going on behind closed doors. I’ll bet there is just as much sleaze behind closed doors here in New York, raising the question of whether open seats should be appointed or elected.

But think about some of the stuff we let fly. We appoint ambassadors to foreign countries based on their contributions to the sitting President’s campaign. It’s totally legal, and it’s totally stupid. What if if we go to war with some country with a chump ambassador that bought his post. He could make things a lot worse.

Joe Kennedy was just such an ambassador. He was serving in Great Britain in 1940 when it was under attack from Germany. He praised Germany to the heavens, when its planes were in London’s skies. A friend of mine’s mother went to him for a visa. He told her, “America is a very nice country. It is very nice to Jews. So now we have too many Jews. I can’t help you.” He ended up offending so many people that Roosevelt had to get him out of London. He was a disgrace and an embarrassment. He wasn’t all bad. They say that deep down he was a nice guy.

We used to have a system in New York where the private garbage companies divided up the city into territories with no bidding. There were all kinds of extra fees. I remember a store in my neighborhood that closed for vacation and didn’t want to pay the carting service while they were gone. The next morning, they had dead, rotten fish dumped in front of their store that you could smell two blocks away. Rudolf Giuliani put an end to that and a lot of corruption that blighted the lives of New Yorkers on a daily basis. Giuliani was the kind of guy who saw a possibility of a better life for New Yorkers and went for it.

The problem is that people said Giuliani was insensitive, arrogant and controlling. That’s so terrible. I wish we had more arrogant, insensitive and controlling people around now. It would do us good.

Sphere: Related Content

Monday, December 22, 2008

Orianna Fallaci Fondly Remembered

Political ideology has many characteristics of a religion. It codifies itself. It develops a literary canon. It even usurps the passion of religious faith. It makes blindness a virtue as facts inconvenient to the serenity of a true believer are swept beneath a carpet that bulges with discarded secrets.

Orianna Fallaci was a hero to me. My admiration for her survived my migration across the political spectrum. Her parents were socialists. As a teenager she fought the Nazis as a member of the Italian partisans, delivering messages and carrying explosives. She returned from that formative experience with a small monetary award from the postwar Italian government with which she bought shoes for her siblings.

As a journalist she was injured on more than one occasion, including a brush with death in Mexico City in 1968. My father translated for me an interview she conducted with Henry Kissinger which he described as “the single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press.” As a young leftist, I was delighted with the manner in which she so deftly skewered Kissinger.

One of her more famous moments was an interview with Ayatollah Khomeini during which she sarcastically asked him how women can swim wearing Islamic garb.

Khomeini answered her indignantly as follows.

“Our customs are none of your business. If you do not like Islamic dress you are not obliged to wear it. Because Islamic dress is for good and proper young women.”

Khomeini’s answer gave Fallaci the opening she needed for her famous riposte.

“That’s very kind of you, Imam. And since you said so, I’m going to take off this stupid, medieval rag right now.”

At this point predictably, the interview ended abruptly.

She has interviewed famous and controversial figures from Muammar Gadaffi to Yasir Arafat and Deng Xiao Ping as wee as an infamous interview with Henry Kissinger.

She has reported from war zones including Vietnam and Lebanon. She has suffered from bullet wounds in the course of reporting, including a punctured lung. She narrowly escaped being killed by Mexican police during student riots in 1968.

It can never be said that her focus on common people was lost in the course of her sitting with world leaders. It can be truly said that she had an intimate familiarity with war, having fought in her own country as a partisan.

Fallaci was unafraid to publicly espouse unpopular and even eccentric opinions. In her latter years, she struggled with cancer. She believed that cigarettes do not cause cancer. She was forthright and articulate about this conviction according to Unpublished Portrait of Oriana Fallaci.
Smoking,” she says, “disinfects the lungs.” And woe to anyone who attributes the cancer to the cigarettes. She loses her ancient-lady composure and shouts “This story of cigarettes and smoking is a totally ignorant explanation. The more ignorant a doctor is, the more he attributes diseases to smoking. You’ve got heart disease? It’s the fault of smoking. Got a stomach ache? It’s the fault of cancer. Got a callus on your foot, breast cancer or lung cancer? It’s the fault of smoking. My mother didn’t smoke and she died of cancer. My father didn’t smoke and he died of cancer. My sister Nee’ra didn’t smoke, and she died of cancer. Uncle Bruno didn’t smoke and he died of cancer. My sister Paola never smoked and cancer caught her before it did me. In my house we only die of cancer. And, please note, it came to me last, when only my sister Paola and I were left. Anyway, cigarettes have nothing to do with it. If in my case smoke has anything at all to do with it, it’s the smoke I breathed in Kuwait right after the Gulf War. Remember the oil wells Saddam Hussein set fire to? I call it the Story of the Black Cloud. I was with a platoon of marines in the desert, and all of a sudden the wind whipped the tail of the Black Cloud. A dense, muddy, sticky soot descended upon us. We were enveloped in total darkness. We were forced to stop because if we had proceeded blind we would have risked striking mines. We held up for around an hour and a half. And when it was all over we were half dead. We were gathered up and taken to the military hospital where the marines were held in the infirmary. But I was forced to return to Dahran to write the article. I was very unwell in the days that followed, and while I was feeling so unwell I had to interview a high official of the Petroleum Ministry to whom I told the whole story. ‘Do you smoke?’ he asked me. ‘I certainly do,’ I answered. ‘Well, inside the Black Cloud you breathed the equivalent of ten million cigarettes. From now on you can smoke whatever you want.’ A year and a half later, exactly when the 450 marines who had breathed the Black Cloud were being held in various American hospitals, especially the one in Bethesda, I got cancer too. I have to admit that before the operation I made a vow: I promised myself that I would never smoke again. But when I awoke from the anesthetic two of the surgeons who’d operated on me were at the foot of the bed, smoking. ‘What!!’ I said, dumbfounded. “Ms. Fallaci,’ they answered, ‘cancer is genetic. Cigarettes have nothing to do with it.’ In that case, give me one right now,’ I said. I started smoking again right there in bed in the clinic. And I haven’t stopped since that day.”
Fallaci’s unorthodox approach to warfare extended to the final fight of her life, to the fight against the cancer that killed her. According to Unpublished Portrait of Oriana Fallaci, she spoke of the illness that took her life in personal terms almost imputing sentience and reason to her deadly adversary.

Alien is the name that she gives cancer - a reality of which she says, “I’m convinced that cancer is an intelligent malignity, a creature that thinks. When the big one grabbed me ten years ago I said ‘I want to see it.’ And two days later I saw it through a microscope. Seen that way, it was only a white stone. Clean, almost graceful. Sectioned, however, it seemed like a crowd of people going mad. You know, that crowd that goes to rock concerts and to audiences with the Pope? There was something in this mass of cells fighting among themselves that made one think of a creature from another planet. Very, very interesting. From then on I named it The Alien and I had a very intense dialogue with it - the same kind of dialogue I might have with Usama Bin Laden if I found myself in intimate circumstances with him. As in the case of Bin Laden, I don’t actually know where he’s hiding - in what cave, in what region of my body. But I know he’s there, I know he wants to kill me, and that he will kill me, and therefore I engage in a dialogue with him. I tell him, ‘You’re smart, but you’re dumb. You’re a frigging idiot. You don’t understand that you exist because I exist, that to live, you need me. Therefore, if you kill me, you die with me. Isn’t it worth it to you to try to coexist with me and let me finish what I have to finish?’ My oncologist, who is a woman, thinks that I’m right. She thinks that cancer can be staved off by the brain more than it can by the surgeon or chemotherapy or radiation therapy. However things stand, the fact remains- keeping my fingers crossed - that through this dialogue I’ve staved if off for some years. I talk with it and I talk about it. I never hide the fact that I have cancer and I think someone who does so is wrong. It’s a mistake to think having cancer is shameful or wrong. I find it monstrous that some define it as an ‘incurable disease.’ Why incurable? It’s not true that it’s incurable! Of course it can be cured! It’s a disease like any other, like viral hepatitis, TB or heart disease. It isn’t even the most unpleasant disease, in that it’s not contagious. It’s actually one of the few non- contagious diseases that exist in the world! And I owe it a lot. Before having The Alien, I took all for granted [given in English]. I mean, everything seemed my due. The sun, the blue sky, the miracle of life… Since I have it I value life more. I value the sun, the blue sky, the rain, the fog, the heat, the cold: Life. Finally, I value the miracle of life. And then I owe to The Alien the fact of having found the courage to write the novel that I’d never had the courage to begin, because I knew how long and difficult it would be - the novel to which I allude in the preface to Rage and Pride. I brought that book back to life. When The Alien attacked me I said, ‘Damn it, this is deadly. I’ve got to get to work right away.’”

Orianna Fallaci defies easy characterisations. One of her most powerful books was “Letter to a Child Never Born.” With relentless honesty, the book portrayed a professional woman in dialogue with her unborn child. The woman in the story bore an uncanny resemblance to Fallaci, who had the convictions and lifestyle of an ardent feminist.

The Catholic journalist John L. Allen Jr notes the context and the impact of the book as follows.

“In the 1970s, during a bitter referendum campaign in Italy which eventually legalized abortion, Fallaci wrote her famous work Lettera a un bambino non mai nato (Letter to a Child Never Born). She had found herself pregnant, decided to keep the child, and then lost it. The book is regarded by some as one of the most eloquent reflections on maternity and the gift of life ever written, and it brought Fallaci to the attention of a new German bishop and fellow intellectual, Joseph Ratzinger.”

The book embraces and amplifies the personhood of the unborn, echoing in its pages the philosophical tone of parental reveries. A recurring theme in her writing is the “chosenness” of being born. If I ever wanted discuss abortion with one of its proponents,” Letter to a Child Never Born” would be on my short list of discussion materials. It is a book that is characteristic of Ms. Fallaci’s relentless intellectual honesty. As a woman, she lives at that frontier where one live touches another. She does well in bringing her expressive gifts to describing that wonder. The following excerpt gives a flavour of Ms. Fallaci’s core beliefs and the beauty of her treatment of the unborn.

But I’ll be just as glad if you’re born a man. Maybe more so, since you’ll be spared many humiliations, much servitude and abuses. If you’re born a man, or won’t have to worry about being raped on a dark street. You won’t have to make use of a pretty face to be accepted at first glance, of a shapely body to hide your intelligence. You won’t have to listen to nasty remarks when you sleep with someone you like; people won’t tell you that sin was born on the day you picked an apple. You’ll have to struggle much less. And you’ll be able to struggle more comfortably to maintain that if God exists he could even be an old woman with white hair or a beautiful girl. You’ll be able to disobey without being derided, to love without fear of pregnancy, to take pride in yourself without being laughed at. But you’ll run into other forms of slavery and injustice: life isn’t easy even for a man, you know. You’ll have firmer muscles, and so they’ll ask you to carry heavier loads, they’ll impose arbitrary responsibilities on you. You’ll have a beard, and so they’ll laugh at you if you cry and even if you need tenderness. You’ll have a tail in front, and so they’ll order you to kill or be killed in war and demand your complicity in perpetuating the tyranny that was set up in the caves. And yet, or just for this reason, to be a man will be an equally wonderful adventure, a task that will never disappoint you. If you’re born a man, I hope you’ll be the sort of man I’ve always dreamed of: kind to the weak, fierce to the arrogant, generous to those who love you, ruthless to those who would order you around. Finally, the enemy of anyone who tells you that the Jesuses are sons of the Father and of the Holy Spirit, not of the women who gave birth to them.

Child, I’m trying to tell you that to be a man doesn’t mean to have a tail in front: it means to be a person. And to me, it’s important above all that you be a person. Person is a marvelous word, because it sets no limits to a man or a woman, it draws no frontier between those who have that tail and those who don’t. Besides, the thread dividing those who don’t have it from those who do is such a thin one: in practice it’s reduced to being able to grow another creature inside one’s body or not. The heart and the brain have no sex. Nor does behavior. Remember that. And if you should be a person with heart and brains, I certainly won’t be among those who will insist that you behave one way or another—as a male or female. I’ll only ask you to take full advantage of the miracle of being born and never to give in to cowardice. Cowardice is a beast that is forever lurking. It attacks us all, every day, and there are very few people who don’t let themselves be torn to pieces by it. In the name of prudence, in the name of expedience, sometimes in the name of wisdom. Cowardly as long as some risk is threatening them, humans become bold once the risk has passed. You must never avoid risk: even when fear is holding you back. To come into the world is already a risk. The risk of regretting later that your were born.

Maybe it’s too soon to talk to you like this. Maybe I should keep silent for the moment about sad and ugly things and tell you about a world of innocence and gaiety. But that would be like drawing you into a trap, Child. It would be like encouraging you to believe that life is a soft carpet on which you can walk barefoot and not a road full of stones, stones on which you stumble, fall, injure yourself. Stones against which we must protect ourselves with iron shoes. And even that’s not enough because, while you’re protecting your feet, someone’s always picking up a stone to throw at your head. I wonder what other people would say if they could hear me. Would they accuse me of being crazy of just cruel? I’ve looked at your last picture and, at five weeks, you’re not quite half an inch long. You’re changing a lot. Instead of a mysterious flower you now look like a very pretty larva, or rather a little fish that’s rapidly putting out fins. Four fins that will turn into arms and legs. Your eyes are already two tiny black specks enclosed in a circle, and at the end of your body you have a little tail! The captions say that at this period it’s almost impossible to distinguish you from the embryo of any other mammal: if you ere a cat, you’d look more or less the way you do now. In fact you have no face. Not even a brain. I’m talking to you, Child, and you don’t know it. In the darkness that enfolds you, you don’t even know you exist: I could throw you away and you wouldn’t even know I’d done so. You’d have no way of knowing whether I’d done you a wrong or a favor.

In this short excerpt, Fallaci confounds feminist orthodoxy far more than she does that of Christian faith. Indeed, in her final years, she had a reconciliation of sorts with the Catholic Church. In the absence of heirs, she left her estate to the Catholic Church This might explain why the book has gone out of print despite the timelessness of its subject matter. It is truly a pity that this book has gone out of print. I sincerely believe that there are people living today because their mothers read this book. These are souls that could rightfully be credited to the merit of Oriana Fallaci. If the book were to go back into print, it would stop the death of yet more unborn children.

Fallaci ended up being disowned by the left not only for her eclectic approach to feminism but for her opposition to radical Islam. The Rage and the Pride, Inshallah and The Force of Reason are books in which she made her case against radical Islam and also got sued in European courts for attacking Islam, theoretically facing actual jail time for her frank assessment of radical Islam’s threat to Europe.

The Rage and the Pride is unique in a stylistic sense. Fallaci wrote it in her own Italian accented English, refusing to assign the task to a translator. Even with its unconventional tone, it has a rare eloquence that would have been diminished by editing.

There is a growing number of Christian atheists who despite their denial of a Supreme Being staunchly defend Christian culture. Despite Fallaci’s atheism, she recognises the role of Christianity in forming her value system.

Jews have faced before the conundrum of how one can be a Jewish atheist. A stress upon beginning with good deeds and working towards faith (ha maaseh hoo ha ikkar or”the deed is what is essential”) is what makes it possible for a Jewish atheist and a Jewish believer to find common ground. What this means for adherents of other faith traditions could be the subject of lively debate

I once read a story of a Jewish man who went to visit the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson.

“Rebbe, I am an atheist.” the man stated simply.

The Rebbe’s reply has been quoted countless times since.

“The god you don’t believe in, I also don’t believe in”.

The words of the previous Rebbe have a special resonance today in which the name Allah or God is used to justify the worst in human behavior.

What undoubtedly moved Fallaci towards a peace with Christianity in her latter years was a sense of a common threat that evoked comparisons with the Nazi threat to Italy and to Europe. She did not mince words in comparing the mindset of Europeans in the early 21st century with those of the 1930’s.

“I am convinced that the situation is politically substantially the same as in 1938, with the pact in Munich, when England and France did not understand a thing. With the Muslims, we have done the same thing.”

As a partisan, Fallaci experienced the need to recognise friend or foe as a basic survival skill. As a student of history, both ancient and modern, Europe’s amnesia was painful for her to behold. Her relentless intellectual honesty is all too rare a commodity in today’s marketplace of ideas.

Fallaci has made a priceless contribution not only to literature and journalism but also to political discourse. As a young girl, she risked death for her belief and patriotism. And as a frail woman dying of cancer, she fought some of her most pitched battles.

The death of such a visionary and courageous woman is a loss to us all. Her relentless intellectual honesty, her willingness to speak the truth as she saw it constituted a standard to which we should all aspire.

The refusal to varnish and excuse tyranny and wickedness need not die with those who fought Hitler and Stalin. It is possible with G-d’s help and with intellectual honesty to recognise the threats in each new generation and to take their measure and fight against them.

Oriana Fallaci is dead. She had a unique style and personality that will never be precisely duplicated. But she also left a message, a warning and a challenge that we can and must heed not only for the sake of her memory but for ourselves

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Free Speech and “Libel Tourism”

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

"I Want To Be a Rebbe" Video: My Comments

It was with sadness that I watched the video "I Want To Be a Rebbe" on You Tube. I am told that it has been pulled numerous times and keeps showing up again. I do not believe that suppressing it is the answer.

The video shows the encroachment of materialism upon chassidic Jewish values. The portrayal of identifiable rebbes does not seem to be an identification of them specifically but of the general problem of inordinate respect for the wealthy and the desire to join their ranks. It is satire that has a connection to reality.

Chassidic Judaism is just one range of "flavours" in spectrum of Jewish orthodoxy from mizrachi to mainstream orthodox, from modern to Litvish. The general question of the spiritual challenges of wealth is not unique to this generation or to chassidim. The attitude that the poor and the struggling are "children of a lesser god" presents a big temptation to those who have "made it". It would be unfortunate if people other than chassidim were to smugly point fingers at chassidim when the same behavior may exist in their own community in different garb. It would be an even greater mistake to think that the challenge of wealth and accompanying pride is unique to Jews.

We are the only nation that canonises its protest literature . Our prophets do not pat the reader on the back. Some prophets were even killed. Jeremiahu was a political dissident, stating truths that his generation did not want to hear. He was devoted to Judaism and loved his people. It can not be said that his criticism was that of someone who opposed the Torah. That is what made his admonitions so hard to take. It is all too easy to dismiss someone who has discarded their faith. Jeremiah did not offer that easy way out.

Do we have any prophets today? Do we have anyone who surveys the whole range of our shortcomings from those of the rich to those of the poor , from the learned to the ignorant and admonishes us in a manner that touches the heart?

I feel that the way to make our prophets come live is to compare their words to our generation. I once heard a story about a Jewish drunkard in a shul in Boston who was thrown out whenever his alcoholic scent crossed the synagogue threshhold. In the declining years of the shul, when most congregants had left for the suburbs, the remaining members struggleg to maintain a minyan, a quorum for prayer. They ended up paying the drunkard to remain in shul for the duration of a minyan. In his declining years and that of the congregation, his value was appreciated.

The lesson of the drunkard is one that I reflect upon frequently. Without even knowing his name, he has taught me a great deal. Every person is born with a value and a potential that is not ours to scorn.

The State of Israel has a Law of Return. According to it, every Jew has the right to come and claim citizenship. The term for coming to Israel to live is "aliyah" or "going up". There are more commandments that can be observed in Israel, It is the land G-d promised us. That is why coming to Israel is viewed as an ascent.

Observant Jews believe that the Torah is true and that its commandments are meant for every Jew, that it contains also universal laws incumbent upon all. If you honestly believe that, then observant communities are a place in which one can spiritually ascend, to make an "aliyah".

The Right of Return is very important. Every Jew should feel a connection to the land that G-d gave us. I believe that there should be an additional Right of Return in exile. Every Jew should be offered a place in which to observe Judaism fully, and most importantly a Jewish education. No one should be turned away from Jewish education. From the gifted and devout to the dull and cynical, there should be a place for all. We have no right to appraise a Jewish soul as worthless, to treat a person who seems materially or spiritually poorer than us with scorn.

This attitude requires a realignment of communal priorities. It entails sacrifice. It will ultimately change the way we see ourselves , our value and our mission. We need to realise that it is a loss to the Jewish people when one of our number does not choose to learn and transmit our tradition. If we are not bothered by that, on a certain level it reflects upon the deepness of our commitment.

I have spent many of my working years among Jews whose level of observance ranged across a wide spectrum from Jewish in name only to very observant. The common purpose provided by a working environment enabled us to see value in each other. It is an experience that spreads to our life outside of work. Such awareness should shape the policy of Jewish organisations.

I am presenting this video at the end of this posting. I am asking my readers to view it as a mirror of themselves rather than a caricature of others. If you visualise materialism in different garments, even your own, then you will in my opinion be viewing it in the proper light. When we say the al chet, the confession of sins in the daily prayers, we thump our chests with our fists. We do so gently, hitting our own chest and not that of our neighbour. It is in that spirit that I am presenting this video.

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