Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Woodstock, Mona Lisa, Red Squirrels and a Jewish Lament

The closest I got to Woodstock was marrying a woman who had a ticket to the 1969 three day festival but chose not to attend. 

With three of her friends Gilda bought $18 tickets to the transcendental festival after seeing a poster in Greenwich Village near where she worked for Hartz Mountain during the summer between her sophomore and junior years at Brooklyn College. Delores, Karen and Gilda would travel upstate to Bethel, NY, in Barbara’s car as she was the only one with a driver’s license and a car. 

This was nearly a half year before I showed up on Gilda’s radar, or she on mine, so the fact that she was madly infatuated with another young man at the time was not a cause of concern to me. During the summer of 1969 I was enjoying another splendid eight weeks as a division head in a sleepaway camp, Kfar Masada, in Rensselaerville, NY. 

As fate would have it, Gilda’s longing for a date with her heartthrob came to fruition on the same weekend as the Woodstock concert. She chose amour over music, sold her ticket, and bid her friends happy times.

They never made it to Yasgur’s farm. Traffic, overwhelming traffic, kept them and tens of thousands others from reaching their destination. Her friends pulled off Route 17 and found a church to sleep in on the floor. They went home the second day of the concert. 

As you undoubtedly figured out, Gilda’s love interest failed to reciprocate. Our paths crossed, repeatedly, during the next school semester. We began dating in December 1969. Yes, 1969 was a very good year.

Mona Lisa, Mon Amour: August used to be a good time to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. Parisians generally exit the city during August, leaving tourists to contend just with ... tourists. But these days there’s an abundance of tourists—the Louvre attracted a record 10.2 million gawkers last year, way more than any other museum, anywhere—meaning time spent staring at Mona Lisa’s eyes can be no more than the equivalent of a drive-by encounter, especially now that the Leonardo da Vinci portrait has been moved to temporary quarters 

I’ve gazed upon the Mona Lise several times, the first being in August 1966 when I was 17 and visiting Paris for the first time. Accompanied by my cousin’s then husband, a struggling painter who spoke no English while I, despite two years of high school instruction, knew barely enough French to ask which way to the library (“Ou est la bibliotheque”), made my way through hall after hall of the Louvre. No doubt I passed by many works by renowned masters. Sadly, I couldn’t take advantage of my companion’s expert commentary. But as I wandered around the Louvre, mostly oblivious to the treasures before me, he did manage to point out the Venus de Milo standing amidst other statues, and, after I had walked past it, he brought me back to view the Mona Lisa. Back then she was treated like any other painting, hanging nondescriptly on a wall with other works of art. 

Red Scare: I spent more than a few minutes today, I sheepishly admit, entranced by the efforts of a grey squirrel to negotiate around a large inverted plastic funnel designed to prevent the rodent and his brethren from gaining access to the bird food I assiduously hang from trees in my side yard. Most of the time the enterprising squirrel backs away or falls to the ground without clutching the suspended cage holding the desired food. If he is successful, I shoo him away, admonishing him that the food is intended for the feathered, not the bushy tailed. 
The attempted incursion is mild compared to what is going on across the pond. Seems North American grey squirrels have taken over the British landscape and are threatening the existence of native born red squirrels, a more genteel species popularized in children’s books. The reds are about half the size of their trans-Atlantic cousins who are more aggressive food gatherers and who carry a disease the reds cannot withstand. 

It’s gotten so bad that in parts of the United Kingdom bounty hunters have been hired to kill grey squirrels. It’s a scenario a nativist like Donald Trump would embrace to safeguard against an unwanted immigrant horde (https://https://apple.news/A78Qbg70wT8-GP4bZSxE-nA).

Oy, Vey Ist Mir: If you are of a certain age and Jewish, there’s an ethnic ritual your parents practiced on you. Whenever a person of distinction, be he or she an entertainment celebrity, a scientist, a professional athlete, a politician, or any position, even a hoodlum, that brought you into the public eye, your parents would point out if they were Jewish. Younger readers may recognize what I am referring to if they are familiar with Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song that highlights members of the tribe. 

Of course, not every high profile Jew elicited pangs of pride. Mobster Meyer Lansky was no source of chest thumping, though he did make life difficult for the pro-Nazi German-American Bund before World War II. Neither was Bernie Madoff a short time ago. And Jeffrey Epstein has clouded Jewish skies of late. Oy, the shame of it all. 

I’ve seen too many episodes of Homeland to categorically discount conspiracy theories surrounding how he was able to allegedly commit suicide in a federal lockup. I’m not willing to name whom I think might be behind Epstein’s demise, but I would definitely grill all the security guards at the Manhattan Metropolitan Correctional Center. Someone(s) had to be paid off. The key, as it was in Watergate, “Follow the money.” Someone is going to start spending dollars way beyond their pay grade. It might take years before the urge to splurge surfaces, but it will. It always does. 

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Rantings on Boycotts, Reading Lists, Japan and Tourism

So Mika Brzezinski, co-anchor of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, is boycotting Equinox, SoulCycle and Hudson Yards because Stephen Ross, one of the investors in the projects, is a big-time Trump supporter and is hosting a fundraiser for his re-election in the Hamptons Friday night. 

Really!?! Have we sunk so low in our ability to think for ourselves that we need media celebrities to promote their actions to generate outrage among the masses? It is regrettable we have made newscasters, if indeed Mika fits that identification, into role models upon whose actions we cling (probably because the media is in cahoots with each other to promote their members’ importance). 

I doubt all the newscasts on all broadcast and cable stations have an aggregate audience anywhere near what Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley had 50 years ago. My point is we are imbuing in today’s news personalities status beyond their reach, influence they don’t deserve. 

If we choose to boycott companies whose leaders or silent partners are not to our liking because of their politics, employment practices or social/religious beliefs, many of us wouldn’t shop Walmart or any other store, let alone Amazon, we wouldn’t buy cars or gasoline, log onto Facebook or Twitter, or eat in Chick-fil-A (rated the favorite fast food restaurant by the American Customer Satisfaction Index for the fourth consecutive year). 

Grow up, America. Make up your own mind.

Reading Lists: Brooklyn College is my alma mater. I’m used to getting mail from it, usually fundraising solicitations. So I was bemused to open an email from the school’s Office of the Provost that began, “Dear Faculty,”.  Apparently I have not submitted my “textbook information to the Brooklyn College Online Bookstore” and Fall classes begin in less than three weeks.

Okay, the bottom of the email notes in really small type, “You are receiving this email because you are a member of the Brooklyn College alumni community.” So, I’m on a mailing list. 

Maybe that’s also the reason theteachersnetwork is now following me on Instagram. I’d like to think musings on my blog, Facebook and Twitter provide some educational insight, and my past does include after school Jewish instruction in a Far Rockaway children’s home when I was in college; in-car driver’s ed instruction after I retired from Chain Store Age; volunteer help at the English as Second Language study hall at White Plains High School; and one-to-one sessions with foreign students as part of the Conversation Partners program at Westchester Community College. 

But, no, I never had a formal teaching position, so why Brooklyn College wants my reading list for a course I am not giving is beyond me. 

Update from March 14, 2011: More than a quarter century ago I provided reflections on my family’s visit to Japan, including the following: 

“Japanese women craved more fulfillment and independence. They deferred marriage for careers and, frankly, because the men were immature. The men had four passions: sumo wrestling, playing pachinko (a vertical pinball game), reading comic books and drinking. Delaying marriage contributed to the country’s negative birth rate.

“Women’s status was so stunted that even if the highest executive at a meeting was female she was still expected to serve tea to all the men. Men did not defer to women, or children, when entering an elevator. They would push Gilda, Dan and Ellie aside to scramble in first.”

A recent article in The New York Times affirmed the choices women were making in deferring marriage, sometimes forever, and the impact their decisions are having on the economy (https://nyti.ms/2yCwMz3). 

Stay Away: In the wake of recent mass shootings in El Paso, Dayton and Gilroy, several foreign countries and Amnesty International are warning tourists about the dangers of visiting the United States. They’re advising travelers to stay away from crowded areas. 

Which leads me to ask, why bother coming to America is you’re going to limit your visit to desolate parts of North Dakota or Utah?

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Secrets Exposed by The Farewell Span Cultures

“The Farewell,” a new film about extraordinary acts by a family to shield its matriarch from being told she is dying, has received lots of press lately including a piece Thursday by Brian X. Chen, a Chinese-American staff writer of The New York Times (https://nyti.ms/2LDH9Lq). An underlying premise of the film is that Chinese, or for that matter many East Asian cultures, choose to keep secrets, even tell lies, rather than reveal truths that might be harmful emotionally or physically to the uninformed. 

I cannot dispute the notion but I would not limit silence as a tool to just Eastern Asian cultures. Even after my siblings and I grew up and married our parents kept quiet about health issues, about impending hospital stays. They didn’t want to burden us is how they would explain their silence. 

Perhaps it was an Eastern European thing, as well. Our father’s closest friends all emigrated from the same small town, Ottynia, in Galicia, at various times part of Austria-Hungary, Poland and now Ukraine. Many lost relatives during the Holocaust. During their monthly poker games, wives included, nobody talked about Ottynia. Nobody talked about departed, murdered, family members. They kibitzed about the cards, about business, about everyday life. Nothing about the past. Nothing about Ottynia. 

Was it any different from veterans of the Second World War who kept the horror locked inside military-issue chests stashed in attics, basements or garages until their exploits began surfacing after Tom Brokaw’s revelatory 1998 book, “The Greatest Generation,” released their collective heroism and trauma to a nation grateful but mostly uninformed to the sacrifices they made to protect and secure freedom for peoples around the globe? 

I can think of no example of silence more profound than what transpired between my father and his best friend from Ottynia, Charlie Brooks. Charlie was the youngest of three brothers. Adolph the oldest. Next came Harry. All three with their wives were part of the poker game that floated each month from home to home of the eight or so couples who were regular players. 

Eventually, all but Charlie, his wife Lily and my parents remained alive. They would see each other often. They usually ate dinner, then played cards to pass the evening. 

His voice was loud, a combination of a cement mixer with a bad muffler. Charlie was an effusive, stocky man. Always smiling. Laughing. He always was happy to see me. And Gilda. 

Several weeks before Ellie was born in December 1981 we came with three-year-old Dan to my parents’ home in Brooklyn one Friday evening for a weekend visit. Over dinner we asked about Charlie. 

Matter of factly my mother said Charlie had died. What!?! When!?! 

Right there, at the dinette table at which we were sitting, she dispassionately related. During a card game one Saturday night in August he suffered a heart attack. While they waited for an ambulance my father tried to revive him. He couldn’t. 

Lily never forgave his failure. You have to understand. To many emigres from Ottynia my father was an unquestioned leader of extraordinary talents. It was incomprehensible that Charlie could die in his house at his dinner table. That Kopel could not save him. 

I think my parents were caught up in the complex myth, as well. So they kept Charlie’s passing a secret, to be released only because we asked of him. Gilda and I did not have the opportunity to attend his funeral or make a shiva visit. My parents felt it was better to spare us the immediate sorrow of his death. 

Charlie is buried a few yards from my parents in the communal plot assigned to members of the Ottynier Young Men’s Benevolent Association. 

As is the Jewish custom, each time I visit my parents’ graves I place rocks atop their headstones and those of my father’s brother and his wife. And one on Charlie’s, as well. 

Friday, July 26, 2019

Move If You Want to Save the Republic

Volunteers needed: Who wants to move to Pennsylvania?

Or Michigan? Or Wisconsin? Maybe you would prefer a sunnier clime? Okay. How about Florida or Arizona? 

It is all for a good cause. It doesn’t have to be permanent, but it does require a residential move relatively soon that would appear to be forever but has to last through November 2020. 

If you haven’t figured out my idea yet, then you haven’t read Nate Cohn’s recent analysis in The New York Times that swing states Donald Trump barely won in 2016 may be sliding further into his Electoral College victory column despite an expected national surge in popular votes for the Democratic nominee no matter who she or he may be (https://nyti.ms/2Y7SdX9).

Since Trump won the Electoral College votes of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania by a combined 77,744 votes it is simply a matter of realigning residencies for some, okay, many, anti Trump voters from sure-win Democratic states to battleground states to turn them from red to blue. 

So, are you with me? Who enjoys cheese? Who can visualize themselves in the fall wearing a tricornered cheesehead hat cheering on the Green Bay Packers? Forget how cold and snowy Wisconsin can be come December. Your patriotic duty to defend our country should warm the cockles of your heart, even as your fingertips and toes tingle with early stage frostbite (of course, you can buy those glove and sock warmers for the one season you’ll be  exposed to a Wisconsin chill).  

Or maybe you’re a Revolutionary War or Civil War buff and would like to live closer to where the action was, say in Valley Forge or Philadelphia or Gettysburg. See, it’s not as if you have to move away from East Coast civilization to save our democratic republic. You could be happy in Pennsylvania. 

We can’t take anything for granted in 2020. No doubt, Republicans will get wind of this plan and try to pass laws that require at least two years of residency before a newly arrived citizen may vote. Let’s be thankful Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin have Democratic governors who would veto any such legislation because we all know which way the Supreme Court would rule if a court challenge ever reached its once hallowed hall of justice. 

Saving a democracy requires commitment. It won’t be enough to spend a few days in a battleground state canvassing districts or driving seniors to the polls. You have to be like the pig in the old joke about breakfast and the roles played by a chicken and a hog. For a bacon and egg breakfast a chicken must make a contribution. A pig must make a commitment. 

Keep in mind you can return to your posh liberal quarters after November 2020. In the meantime, you could Airbnb or VRBO your home. Saving our republic can be concurrently profitable and patriotic.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Sell the Sizzle, Not the Steak

Robert Mueller’s testimony Wednesday on his investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible conspiracy and obstruction of justice by Donald Trump, his campaign and administration reminded me of one of the first tenets of successful marketing I learned when I started covering retailing back in 1977: 

“Sell the sizzle, not the steak.” Presentation, not taste, was more important in restaurants trying to capture consumer acceptance. The concept applies to almost all consumer goods. Watch most automobile ads and you’ll see what I mean. Car ads sell you a feeling, an experience, not an actual product.

Sadly, watching or listening to a 74-year-old man dodder his way through six hours of grueling and grilling testimony, roughly half of which was intended to pierce his patriotic professionalism in defense of our country while his detractors defended a would-be despot, was an exercise so painfully depressing Gilda and I independently had to turn off the broadcasts we were tuned into in separate rooms, she while doing her yoga, I while eating my breakfast. 

Bob Mueller was no 34-year-old John Dean testifying cooly and controlled before Congress about a “cancer” growing on the presidency of Richard Nixon. Of course, most of the country wasn’t alive back in 1973 when Dean testified during the Watergate hearings while his wife Mo (Maureen) sat pertly and stoically behind him, her blonde hair pulled back tightly in a bun. 

The substance of Mueller’s findings were already known from his 448 page report. Anti-Trumpers wanted bold vocal confirmation that obstruction of justice had taken place in the Oval Office, that Russia had compromised the election. They had to settle for a less powerful than hoped for performance. 

Pro-Trumpers—in other words Republicans and the man himself—reveled in the optics. They claimed no verbal knockdown meant they won the day, ignoring Mueller’s assertion his report did not exonerate Trump from a charge of obstruction and that once he left office he could face prosecution. 

For those who didn’t tune in for all six hours of testimony, their take on the proceedings came from their main news outlets. So their views were reinforced. 

Few minds, I would think, changed opinions on the matter. You either like Trump or fear for our republic. 

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Does Trump Fit The Profile of a Fascist?

Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 amorphous description of obscenity (“I know it when I see it”), fascism is a concept much bandied about lately but little understood. It is often invoked to disparage political extremes on the right or left, leaving its true meaning murky. Most people associate fascism with Hitler and Mussolini and they want nothing to do with it. 

Of course, the reality is more imprecise in our application of the epithet “fascist.” Is Donald Trump a fascist or just an ill-spoken nationalist? 

Here, thanks to an article in Haaretz, a liberal Israeli news organization, by Dan Tamir, author of “Hebrew Fascism in Palestine, 1922-1942,” is a critical analysis of the features of fascism (https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-when-jews-praised-mussolini-and-supported-nazis-meet-israel-s-first-fascists-1.7538589). You can decide if some or all strains of the fascist model have invaded our government: 

“... what is fascism? What sets it apart from other right-wing political streams? In 2004, Robert Paxton, in his book “The Anatomy of Fascism” (disclosure: this writer [Tamir] translated that book into Hebrew), listed seven features that collectively might delineate the nature of fascism as an ideology and as a political practice. They are: 

“certainty in the supremacy of the groupnational, ethnic—over every right of the individual, and the individual’s subordination to the group; 

“belief that the group in question is a victim of other groups, as a consequence of which there is justification for every action taken against its enemies (domestic or external, real or imagined); 

“fear of harm befalling the group from liberal tendencies or ‘foreign’ influences from outside; 

“the need for closer integration of a ‘purer’ national community, whether by agreement or through violence;

“insistence on the group’s right to rule others without any limitations—a right accruing to the group by dint of its singularity or skills; 

“a sense of the existence of a severe crisis, not amenable to any traditional solution; 

“belief in the need for the authority of a lone and solitary leader, and obedience to that leader based on the conviction that he possesses supernatural insights or capabilities.”

Tamir added an eighth characteristic: “Another trait that some would add is fierce opposition to socialism in all its forms—a characteristic that was especially apparent in the practice of fascist movements active in the second half of the 20th century, even if not in their declared ideology.”

I’m not quite ready to declare Trump a fascist but it is troubling to see features of fascism that may be checked off when reviewing his actions. How many would you check off?

Friday, July 19, 2019

Bonding Between Males by Kiss and Hug

Here’s a question intended for just male readers. Do you kiss the adult male members of your family (on the cheek, neck or lips)? Do you kiss your close male friends when greeting them or saying goodbye?

I cannot recall if my father did. I’m sure he kissed me when I was young, but did he continue to show such affection after my bar mitzvah, after I was 13 and presumed a man by Jewish custom? I cannot recall. Neither can my brother or sister.

Hugs. I cannot recall him hugging me as an adult. Bearhugs upon greeting or departing are common among men. They show affection beyond a strong handshake. I don’t recall receiving any bearhugs from my father or his brother, the sole survivor of their immediate family’s annihilation in the Holocaust. I don’t recall ever seeing them hug. Or kiss. Or hug or kiss any of their childhood friends from Ottynia who emigrated to America before and after the Holocaust.

Some years ago, at least a decade I would imagine, I became indoctrinated into the custom of kissing while embracing some of my close friends. It was awkward at first. Like my first time driving on the left side of the road in England. We hug. We kiss each other’s cheek or neck in a much more meaningful manner than the peck on the cheek one dispenses to a female friend. 

I don’t hug and kiss all of my dear male friends. They or I sense it would be awkward. Neither party wants to initiate the exchange. So we shake hands firmly. Or just fist bump. 

It was only after I was initiated into the kissing club that I started to kiss and hug my now 40-year-old son and son-in-law. I sense my son is still a little uncomfortable with it. 

I am sure psychologists or relationship therapists could provide explanations why most men have not embraced the kissing embrace. I won’t insult them by offering my analysis. 

I will, however, strongly suggest this world would be a far better and friendlier place if we all did a lot more fraternal, not sexual, hugging and kissing.