Thursday, August 17, 2017

Charlottesville: An Eyewitness Account Plus Open Carry Laws and Replacing Monuments

Trump is right. As he tweeted Thursday morning, some of our history and culture is being ripped apart. As well it should be. 

We should not honor men and women who fought to enslave others. We should not honor a culture that lionized slavery and its defenders. Yes, they are part of our history and culture. 

But just as we abhor from a distance Hitler in Germany, Stalin in the Soviet Union, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Osama bin Laden, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for their places in history and the offensive cultures they propagated, so, too, must we face up to the history and culture of the antebellum South and its current alt-right manifestations. 

There has been plenty of editorializing on Trump’s open acceptance of alt-right thugs and their philosophies. From a Jewish perspective, read Nathan Englander’s Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, written from the 
“comfort” of living in Brooklyn: https://nyti.ms/2vBecqh

Alan Zimmerman, on the other hand, is president of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville. His first person account of the trauma experienced on Saturday is a chilling reminder of the poisoned fruit that will emerge when the seeds of intolerance are allowed to flourish and are cultivated by politicians who should know better but for whatever reason—ignorance, political advantage, their own bigotry, or just plain stupidity—let it thrive. 

My thanks to Ned and Marty Lager for forwarding Alan Zimmerman’s eyewitness report that appeared on the ReformJudaism.org web site earlier this week:

At Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, VA, we are deeply grateful for the support and prayers of the broader Reform Jewish community. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of Heather Heyer and the two Virginia State Police officers, H. Jay Cullen and Berke Bates, who lost their lives on Saturday, and with the many people injured in the attack who are still recovering.

The loss of life far outweighs any fear or concern felt by me or the Jewish community during the past several weeks as we braced for this Nazi rally – but the effects of both will each linger.

On Saturday morning, I stood outside our synagogue with the armed security guard we hired after the police department refused to provide us with an officer during morning services. (Even the police department’s limited promise of an observer near our building was not kept — and note, we did not ask for protection of our property, only our people as they worshipped). 

Forty congregants were inside. Here’s what I witnessed during that time.

For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple. Had they tried to enter, I don’t know what I could have done to stop them, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them, either. Perhaps the presence of our armed guard deterred them. Perhaps their presence was just a coincidence, and I’m paranoid. I don’t know.

Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, “There's the synagogue!” followed by chants of “Seig Heil” and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.

A guy in a white polo shirt walked by the synagogue a few times, arousing suspicion. Was he casing the building, or trying to build up courage to commit a crime? We didn’t know. Later, I noticed that the man accused in the automobile terror attack wore the same polo shirt as the man who kept walking by our synagogue; apparently it’s the uniform of a white supremacist group. Even now, that gives me a chill.

When services ended, my heart broke as I advised congregants that it would be safer to leave the temple through the back entrance rather than through the front, and to please go in groups.

This is 2017 in the United States of America.

Later that day, I arrived on the scene shortly after the car plowed into peaceful protesters. It was a horrific and bloody scene.

Soon, we learned that Nazi websites had posted a call to burn our synagogue. I sat with one of our rabbis and wondered whether we should go back to the temple to protect the building. What could I do if I were there? Fortunately, it was just talk – but we had already deemed such an attack within the realm of possibilities, taking the precautionary step of removing our Torahs, including a Holocaust scroll, from the premises.

Again: This is in America in 2017. 

At the end of the day, we felt we had no choice but to cancel a Havdalah service at a congregant’s home. It had been announced on a public Facebook page, and we were fearful that Nazi elements might be aware of the event. Again, we sought police protection – not a battalion of police, just a single officer – but we were told simply to cancel the event.

Local police faced an unprecedented problem that day, but make no mistake, Jews are a specific target of these groups, and despite nods of understanding from officials about our concerns – and despite the fact that the mayor himself is Jewish – we were left to our own devices. The fact that a calamity did not befall the Jewish community of Charlottesville on Saturday was not thanks to our politicians, our police, or even our own efforts, but to the grace of God.

And yet, in the midst of all that, other moments stand out for me, as well.

John Aguilar, a 30-year Navy veteran, took it upon himself to stand watch over the synagogue through services Friday evening and Saturday, along with our armed guard. He just felt he should.

We experienced wonderful turnout for services both Friday night and Saturday morning to observe Shabbat, including several non-Jews who said they came to show solidarity (though a number of congregants, particularly elderly ones, told me they were afraid to come to synagogue).

A frail, elderly woman approached me Saturday morning as I stood on the steps in front of our sanctuary, crying, to tell me that while she was Roman Catholic, she wanted to stay and watch over the synagogue with us. At one point, she asked, “Why do they hate you?” I had no answer to the question we’ve been asking ourselves for thousands of years.

At least a dozen complete strangers stopped by as we stood in front the synagogue Saturday to ask if we wanted them to stand with us.

And our wonderful rabbis stood on the front lines with other Charlottesville clergy, opposing hate.

Most attention now is, and for the foreseeable future will be, focused on the deaths and injuries that occurred, and that is as it should be. But for most people, before the week is out, Saturday’s events will degenerate into the all-to-familiar bickering that is part of the larger, ongoing political narrative. The media will move on — and all it will take is some new outrageous Trump tweet to change the subject.

We will get back to normal, also. We have two b’nai mitzvah coming up, and soon, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur will be upon us, too.                                                                                         

After the nation moves on, we will be left to pick up the pieces. Fortunately, this is a very strong and capable Jewish community, blessed to be led by incredible rabbis. We have committed lay leadership, and a congregation committed to Jewish values and our synagogue. In some ways, we will come out of it stronger – just as tempering metals make them tougher and harder.


Open Carry: The intimidation factor of open carry laws cannot be denied. How to contain violence that surely will come one day from the promiscuous acceptance of lethal often semiautomatic weapons is addressed in the following Op-Ed: https://nyti.ms/2v5BfWB


Replacement Monuments: Trump also tweeted his regret that “the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”

I have a suggestion. For every Confederate statue taken down, how about replacing it with a statue of a true hero, such as a doctor whose breakthrough discovery or surgical procedure has saved thousands if not millions of lives. Jonas Salk. Michael DeBakey. Albert Sabin. Denton Cooley.

Perhaps we should honor great inventors and businessmen whose creativity and ingenuity have transformed our lives. Thomas Edison. Steve Jobs. David Sarnoff.   

Want to keep a military theme? Commemorate Congressional Medal of Honor winners. 

No, Donald, there is no dearth of deserving candidates to fill the vacancies in our parks and public squares. There are just vacancies where your heart, soul and brains should be. 



Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Charlottesville and Lessons of History

Have we forgotten history, or just not been instructed in it? As a people, have we forgotten that prior to World War II, thousands, tens of thousands, of our citizens rallied in support of the German-American Bund, an organization dedicated to the principles of Nazi Germany?

It is not just today that we are confronted with a fringe element of society that harbors fascist thoughts that advocate white supremacy, anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia. It is part of our history.

Let’s face it. Buried deep in many an American soul there is latent prejudice. Maybe not outright bigotry, but definitely a feeling that some of our fellow residents are not as equal as we are. 

Over more than a century our culture has masked that bias, has tried to alter reality by substituting a sepia-tinged fictional record of history. From James Fallows of The Atlantic, I learned today on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show, that in the aftermath of the Plessy v. Ferguson U.S. Supreme Court decision of 1896, permitting legal segregation in public and private institutions, many Confederate Civil War monuments were erected until 1919 when race riots broke out in numerous cities. Yet Confederate monuments are still being built in this century, even in states outside the South.

The monuments revere men who fought to break up the Union, who believed it was God’s will to permit the enslavement of another person because they were inferior beings. 

Popular culture portrayed Southerners as high-minded, virtuous and chivalrous. No poor white trash among them, except one scene in Gone with the Wind when Scarlett O’Hara is assaulted as she tries to drive her wagon passed a camp of unemployed white men disaffected by Reconstruction, fiction’s link to today’s angry Trump alt-right supporters. Not to worry. The “good folks” of Atlanta knew how to deal with those miscreants. 

Few older movies portrayed slavery as a reprehensible assault on human dignity and family relations. Only in the last few years have we witnessed a collection of films from a black person’s perspective, movies such as Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave, The Birth of a Nation (not to be confused with the silent film by D.W. Griffith that heralded the origin of the Ku Klux Klan). 

It wasn’t just the templars of Southern society who exuded righteousness. From 1959 to 1961 the TV show The Rebel, starring Nick Adams as Johnny Yuma, chose to portray the defeated Southern soldier as a knight errant wandering the West righting wrongs. Two decades later the General Lee, an orange Dodge Charger with a Confederate battle flag painted on its roof, was a prominent part of The Dukes of Hazzard. The Dukes fought the swamp of political corruption in their own comical way. 

(A personal digression: I watched The Rebel, but never The Dukes of Hazzard, though my father for some reason did. Indeed, when our son was young, less than 5, they would watch the show together. I found this out one day when we drove to a friend’s house and Dan asked to get out of the car “like the Dukes do.” I didn’t understand, so he explained that the General Lee had no windows so the Dukes would shimmy out through the window slots. I let him do it that one time.) 

No one is more exalted by Southerners than Robert E. Lee, the commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia. Given a choice of fighting to preserve the United States, Lee, a West Point graduate, chose to fight to shatter it.

Facts have a way of hiding behind the seams of history. Take, for instance, the evil of slavery in the United States as I was taught in school. As you might recall from past postings, I attended 12 years of Hebrew school education. We learned to call it the Civil War, not the War Between the States, as Southerners preferred to categorize the conflict. But I cannot recall ever learning about Jewish complicity in the slave trade, nor were my classmates and I advised that Judah P. Benjamin, a Jew, was a prominent member of the Confederate cabinet, at various times serving as attorney general, secretary of war and secretary of state.

When a people are oppressed it is not uncommon for them to react violently to symbols of that oppression once it is lifted. Think back to the toppled statues of Saddam Hussein and the image of the man beating the sculpture with his shoe, a potent act of disdain in the Arabic world. Likewise, when the Iron Curtain was lifted, monuments to Lenin and other Communist leaders came tumbling down. Others were removed to less public places. 

Removing Confederate monuments from display in public places should be a priority for all levels of government.

The heritage of the South is part of our nation’s history, but it is not one we should venerate. As dedicated as the common Confederate soldier and their generals were, they swore allegiance to a vile, repressive society. There can be no excusing their treason and inhumane actions any more than one can accept a president of the United States, or any citizen, failing to remonstrate most violently and without equivocation against Nazi ideology. 

The moral authority of the office of the presidency and of the United States of America as world leaders has been tarnished and diminished by Donald Trump. 


Reporting the News: Here’s an interesting comparison of evening news outlets. Following Trump’s explosive news conference Tuesday afternoon, CBS News, currently anchored by Anthony Mason, devoted its full telecast of reports (roughly 21 minutes) to the ongoing coverage of the Charlottesville, VA, violence and its political aftermath. 

The multi-faceted story generated just 11 minutes of coverage from David Muir of ABC News. Lester Holt of NBC News spent 14 and a half minutes on the story.


Teaching Hate: Bragging rights for the most liked tweet of all time belongs to former president Barack Obama. He quoted former South African president Nelson Mandela: 

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion … People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love … For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

A noble sentiment which reminded me of a song written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II for their Pulitzer Prize winning musical South Pacific. The 1949 musical included the following song, You've Got to Be Carefully Taught,” a warning about racism. Here are the lyrics:

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught

To hear it sung, click this link: https://youtu.be/l0Kam23fsMg








Sunday, August 13, 2017

Catskill Memories

To my knowledge our family when I was a youngster never stayed at Grossinger’s or the Concord, the two dueling grande dames of the Catskills serving Jews seeking refuge from sultry summer days in Brooklyn and Queens or looking to spin a few circles in an ice rink or slush down a slope in winter.

We stayed instead at Brown’s where Jerry Lewis once was a busboy. And at the Granit. And the Pines. And the Pineview. And the Nevele. All venerable Borscht Belt hotels during the heyday of ethnic entertainment getaways in the 1950s and 1960s.

Those were my pre adolescent years. At least once each spring we would pack the car for a weekend in “the mountains,” the pleasureland of eastern European Jews seeking shtick, sunshine and lots and lots of food. (For a change of pace, sometimes we would go to resorts in Lakewood, NJ. It was on one of those alternate trips that my sister Lee, two years older, admonished me to tell anyone who asked that she was 16, not 14.)

To get to the “Borscht Belt” (for the uninitiated, borscht is Yiddish for beet soup, an acquired taste among eastern Europeans, served either warm or, more often, chilled, usually with a dollop of sour cream swimming in the middle of the bowl), we would drive from Brooklyn through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, waving to the policemen assigned to patrol the walkway along the tiled tunnel, up through Manhattan along the cobblestoned West Side Highway into the Henry Hudson Parkway to Westchester. Passing the Hawthorne Circle signified we were halfway there. 

We would cross the Hudson at the Bear Mountain Bridge then head up Old Route 17 to whichever town was home to the hotel of our moment. Along the way we would pass billboards for each hotel, the most memorable being that of the Brown’s featuring a huge caricature of a laughing Jerry Lewis in profile.

The weekends did not happen haphazardly. They were the brainchild of Mr. and Mrs. Clubs of our temple or Hebrew school. Bonding times for families, though to be honest, I do not recall any of my temple friends or classmates ever showing up for these weekends. (One weekend in the Catskills, though, was different. Harry Weissman’s bar mitzvah was celebrated at the Pioneer Hotel in Greenfield Park. Unlike the other hotels, the Pioneer was strictly orthodox. It was there I first encountered the novelty of the sabbath elevator. It automatically stopped at every floor. For some reason rabbis had absolved one from the sin of riding in such a conveyance on the sabbath because it was self propelled.)

Back at “normal” hotels without friends to play with, my brother, sister and I would roam the grounds, play some ping pong, maybe get included in a father-son softball game, though our dad never played, or watched our parents play poker. Essentially, we waited around until the next meal which was served in a large, loud dining hall. Your waiter could bring you anything on the extensive menu, as many appetizers or entrees or desserts as you desired. All accompanied by soft, round, sweetly delicious egg or onion rolls.

At night everyone would repair to the show room. You’d sit at rectangular tables set like wheel spokes emanating away from the rounded stage where a singer and a comedian performed. Many were quite good but invariably too many of the comedians’ punch lines were spoken in Yiddish. While the rest of the audience exploded in laughter my siblings and I were left in wonder and ignorance.

Grossinger’s and the Concord were too expensive for our parents’ crowd. Like other hotels in the mountains their time passed, though as The New York Times reported there is hope of a revival (https://nyti.ms/2uGEFz0).

I finally made it to the Concord as a college freshman during a winter break ski weekend. I discovered skiing was not for me.


Years later Gilda and I almost registered there but turned away after being turned off by a yoga instructor more fit to be a sumo wrestler. For a more complete tale of our attempt at a romantic Catskill weekend click the link to my borscht-belted blog entry http://nosocksneededanymore.blogspot.com/2010/09/borscht-belted.html?m=1

Friday, August 11, 2017

An Electrifying Experience

Did you see the news clip last week in which a Ft. Myers, FL, airport worker was almost electrocuted by a lightning strike on an airplane he was touching (http://youtu.be/ofT2OW9QXgc)?

Scary. It brought back memories of when I almost was electrocuted while working in my parents’ factory during the time between college graduation and the start of graduate school.

The factory, or as our family called it, “The Place,” was then located in Manhattan, at 683 Broadway, at the corner of West 3rd Street. It was a typical rectangular loft leased by small apparel manufacturers, mostly lingerie makers like my father, about 5,000 sq. ft. Down the center of the production floor stood a cutting table about 15 yards long and six feet wide, where Ricky would spread out rolled piece goods before cutting them into patterns for half-slips, panties and later, when that business tanked, T-shirts. 

Along the perimeter near the tall, wide windows that never seemed to provide enough air during late spring and summer—it didn’t help that the windows faced the southern sun all day—sat the sewing machine operators. Eloise, the lace trimmer, was first in line, sitting nearest Broadway. In the middle, when she showed up around noon, usually hung over and often bent over her machine for short naps, Little Mary. Even so, she turned out more garments that any other seamstress working a full day, which generally was 8 to 5. At the end of the line was Big Mary.

My job entailed several tasks, first and foremost being not getting in my father’s way followed by doing just as I was told. Usually preparing orders, then packing and shipping chores. No deviation allowed lest I awaken the wrath of Khan, or should I say Karl (also known as Kopel), my father. My brother aptly nicknamed him “The Boss,” not for his singing abilities, though he did sometimes serenade his workers while trying to inject more life into an aging Merrow sewing machine.

One hot day, with my mother working in her air conditioned office, Dad went in there as well, but not before telling (never asking) me to move an upright industrial metal fan from its location behind Big Mary’s chair.

I didn’t shut the fan off before grasping the metallic column with my sweaty hands. Immediately current started pulsating through my body. I shrieked.

I remembered my first aid classes—to free someone from an electric current, never touch them or you will be electrified as well. Rather, pull them away with a towel or some other non conductive material. But I was the victim. Apart from screaming I couldn’t convey any suggestions to my co-workers.

By this time Mom and Dad came running to see what all the commotion was. I can’t explain what happened next other than to relate that somehow I was able to let go of the fan. As soon as I did Big Mary fainted.


Needless to say, ever since I have been super careful around electric appliances.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Over and Over, Trump Reuses Catch Phrase "Like the World Has Never Seen Before"

They’re not the same vibes—unless, of course, you happen to live in Seoul or Guam or Hawaii—as back in October 1962 when the world thought it might be coming to an end as Russia and the United States eyeballed the brink of mutually assured destruction over missiles based in Cuba, but the tension everywhere is still palpable as our unpredictable, unrestrained mad-libber-in-chief practices schoolyard diplomacy with  an equally juvenile despot longing for recognition as a world leader.

Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” ad-lib response to North Korea’s nuclear threat was widely reported. But it took Stephen Colbert Wednesday night to put Trump’s coda “like the world has never seen before” in context. He aired clips of the Trumpster using the same tagline at least four times before, when speaking about his political movement (12/8/16), unleashing an energy revolution (8/8/16), economic deals (8/27/17) and airports he’s landed in (3/29/16). https://youtu.be/xzdaSklrg6w?list=PLiZxWe0ejyv8l1W8d5rKFdHYSYIqkpf7b.

Trump doesn’t mangle the English language as, say, George W. Bush sometimes did. Yet, despite telling us he has the best vocabulary, he constantly repeats words, such as “sad,” “amazing,” “beautiful,” making it understandable that he would repeat a catch phrase “like the world has never seen before” whenever he wants to add emphasis to his hyperbolic pronouncements. In so doing, however, he waters down the impact. So sad!


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Dennis Prager Brings Out Conflicting Emotions

How am I supposed to react when I see a person I went to school with for 16 years be the subject of an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times? And then, before I complete a blog about it, another Times article shows up in the Arts section Wednesday concerning a different controversy involving him. So what am I to feel?

Envy? Pride? Impressed? Depressed?

Conservative columnist Bret Stephens chastised Dennis Prager for recently tweeting the (liberal) media was a more existential threat to America and Western civilization than Russia. Among other things, Prager is dismissive of actions on college campuses that have shut down conservative speakers (https://nyti.ms/2tsxZIU and don’t forget to link to Prager’s online column for Townhall). 

For those who don’t know, Prager is a talk radio host, a prolific writer and co-author with Joseph Telushkin of two books on Judaism. Dennis and I were schoolmates through three different schools during our elementary, high school and college years. As high school freshmen, while our class was studiously trying to master French (ou est la bibliothèque?) at the behest of Mr. Rosenthal, Dennis was peering at a book under his desk teaching himself Russian. 

His intellect was what we would now call “gifted,” though back then, 55 years ago, it was unrecognized. We were in the B class. So was Telushkin. I spent the four years of high school in the same classroom with Joseph, but our ties go back even earlier. We were sleepaway camp bunkmates for four or five summers at Massad Aleph during our pre-teen years. Joe was not the best of athletes, but a fun guy to be around. 

In high school, he, too, never seemed intellectually challenged. One of my memories of Joseph was watching him play desktop golf during class. This was pre computer days. When I refer to desktop golf I mean there was a hole carved into the top of his wooden desk. He would make mini golf balls out of paper scraps, and from different spots on his desk would flick the wads of paper with his finger toward the hole. 

Aside from his dedication to the game, Joseph’s other defining characteristic was a spot of white hair at the front of his otherwise dark locks. He’s balding now so you’d never know it was there.

I’ve known for years, decades actually, that Dennis Prager held and espoused conservative views. Many, too many, of my Brooklyn Hebrew high school classmates do.

But I must say it goes beyond the pale (an intended pun, as the phrase “beyond the pale” comes from the tsar’s restriction on where Jews could settle in Russia) that anyone could equate a free and vibrant press with existential threats. It is widely agreed that democracy, a central platform of Western civilization, is strongest when the press is diverse and unfettered. 

Of course, voices on the left decry press outlets that advocate restrictive voting rights and repressive prejudicial laws while supporting a strong man president unchecked by Congress or the courts.

But let’s not give liberal media and activists a pass. Liberals have their own set of biases playing out in another Prager chapter. 

One of Dennis’ lifelong passions has been classical music. Often he conducts orchestras for charitable causes. He signed on to lead the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra August 16 at the world renowned Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

But his writings and rantings, specifically about LGBTQ issues, offend several members of the volunteer orchestra who refuse to play for him and want his invitation to conduct rescinded (https://nyti.ms/2vdl1OL).

So far Prager and the leaders of the orchestra are standing firm. Good for them. And bravo to those musicians who decline to participate. We should not condone intellectual boycotts no matter how repulsed we are by someone’s political or social stances. No one is forcing anyone to attend the concert or a lecture or watch a cable news station. 

Nor should we condemn individual musicians whose conscience does not allow them to perform. Keep in mind, members of Congress have chosen not to attend presidential addresses. Protest is a right enshrined in the Constitution. 

So, how do I feel? Sad, actually, that our country has devolved into a seemingly non stop pissing match where opponents barely respect their adversaries. Sad, because their antipathy often devolves into disrespect. Sad, because I doubt this condition will change in the foreseeable future.


Friday, August 4, 2017

Summertime Reflections on Sleepaway Camp

Our daughter-in-law Allison sent a short video of five-year-old Dagny cannonballing into a neighborhood pool along with a note that seven-year-old “Finley passed their deep end test by swimming the length of the pool down and back and then treaded water for a minute!” 

Naturally I am proud of them, but also envious, as I am, at 68, still a non swimmer. But what her note really accomplished was stimulating me to write this blog.

Actually, I’m a little late writing and posting this entry. A year late, to be perfectly honest. I had intended back in 2016 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of my first year at sleepaway camp, but I wound up spending too much time channeling Gloucester Island, Mass., summer resident Walt Whittaker (played by Carl Reiner) trying to warn fellow Americans, “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!”

Okay, I promise you—no more Trump talk this time.

I was just four months passed my seventh birthday when my parents shipped me and my brother and sister out for eight weeks to Camp Massad Aleph in Tannersville, PA, at the base of Mount Pocono. We did not want to go. When they first told us about our upcoming summer adventure, while driving on the highway, we instantly rebelled. Dad threatened to stop the car if we didn’t quit complaining. We had grown accustomed to our annual stay at the Takanassee Hotel in Fleischmann’s, NY, (subject of a future blog) and had no interest in being away from our parents for two solid months, especially if we had to be at a camp where you were expected to speak Hebrew all the time. 

As if the trauma of being away from our parents wasn’t enough, we soon found out our mother would be taking an extended trip to Israel, Italy and France and therefore would miss both visiting days. Quite an adventurous trip for a woman by herself in 1956 traveling to countries where she did not speak any of the languages (Dad had to stay home to run their business). 

When school ended in late June away we went. To get to Massad we had to board buses somewhere in midtown Manhattan for the more than two-hour ride. My loneliness and trepidation began at the bus when my older brother and sister entered separate buses. I sat way in the back, on the right side of my bus, my head propped up against the window to stave off nausea. 

Of course, we all wound up loving summer camp. I spent 15 July-Augusts at sleepaway camps, the first five at Massad, winning all-around camper awards despite never learning to swim (each year my division head counselor would caution I would not win the award the following year if I failed to achieve aquatic success).

The years at Massad have a way of jumbling together in my mind but I have some very distinct memories of that first summer. We were, for example, warned not to play catch with a baseball. Softballs only. Naturally, some boys didn’t follow orders, until one bunkmate miscalculated his lunge for the hard ball and was struck right in his two front teeth which promptly exited his mouth. 

Another boy, Dennis Keene, had to retrieve a ball thrown over a fence behind our bunk. He found the ball among the trees sitting atop what turned out to be a yellow jacket nest. He emerged from the thicket shrieking, for good reason. His shirt and shorts were covered with yellow jackets dead after stinging him. No one dared go on the other side of that fence for the rest of the summer.

Every group had its own schedule. We ran on “camp time,” one hour earlier than time back in the outside world, so that it was dark by 8 pm. Each day counselors issued marks for your performance at various activities and for speaking Hebrew. Awards were handed out for each activity at the end of the year.

My first year arts and crafts project reflected the mores of the time—I made ashtrays for each of my parents, a brown one for my father, a sandstone one for my mother. On a bookshelf in my living room sits the sandstone ashtray. 

Twice a day we had swimming in the man-made lake, instructional in the morning, free swim in the afternoon. I remember being cold, standing waist-deep in the water, a thin reed of a boy unable to stay afloat when putting my head in the water, flailing my arms, kicking my legs. I did, at least, put my head under the water, not like an even thinner bunkmate, Michael Khan, who would shake his hands wildly when the instructor would ask him to dip his head in the water. 

Every day we would raise the American and Israeli flags in the morning, lower them in the afternoon. We learned the special way the American flag is folded into a tri-cornered shape. 

Around 4 pm every day we had chocolate milk and crackers or cookies. Thin kids like me could get a second helping of chocolate milk.

Friday afternoons the camp mother came by to wash our hair, vigorously. I never realized until many years later she was checking scalps for lice.

For Friday evening Sabbath services we’d dress in white shirts and blue shorts or pants, the colors of the Israeli flag. After dinner, we’d sing Jewish folk songs in the dining room. Before it got too dark, the girls our age would join the boys outside for Israeli folk dancing. Few boys were interested in this activity.

Saturdays were spent praying in the morning, free time in the afternoon except for a mandatory discussion hour on Jewish subjects, all conducted in Hebrew. 

At the end of summer camp we had color war, called maccabiah at Massad. My first year team was “Poalim,” Hebrew for workers. I can still recite the words and melody of our Hebrew cheer song. My team won.

I went back to summer camp for 14 of the next 15 years. I learned how to play different sports. I learned how to be competitive but always show good sportsmanship. I learned leadership skills. I learned how to be independent. I learned about young love. But unlike my grandchildren, I did not learn to swim.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Chaos-Creator-in-Chief Inflames Passions over Immigration, Leaks, and, Naturally, Chaos

I wonder how many of you would be alive today if your immigrant ancestor(s) had been subjected to the proposed entry requirements put forward by the Trump administration. I doubt my father, who fluently spoke four languages (Yiddish, Polish, German and Hebrew) would have passed the English language proficiency hurdle. 

I wonder if Donald Trump’s grandfather, Friedrich Trump, a 16-year-old German immigrant, would have qualified. What we do know is that Friedrich was a draft dodger in Germany, stripped of his citizenship when he returned to live in his native land 15 years later, necessitating his re-entry to America in 1905. 

After 27-year-old Kopel Fuersetzer came to New York in 1939 from Danzig (Gdansk), he enrolled in night school to improve the rudimentary English he procured during his voyage to America. He was sufficiently fluent by the time he was inducted into the army in December 1942, barely two months after marrying my mother. Sylvia Gerson was four when she arrived in New York from Lodz, Poland. 

Immigration, both the legal and illegal kinds, is a hot-button topic these days. I don’t mean to wade into that roiling issue at this time other than to suggest, as others have done, that with the exception of Native Americans all of us are descendants of immigrants. African-Americans were brought against their will, but most others came voluntarily with little in their pockets but big dreams to the potential of life in America. 


Guess Who: The most widely played political parlor game 45 years ago was: “Guess who is Deep Throat?,” the secret and revelatory source of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s detailed reporting on the Watergate break-in coverup that ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Suspected leakers included Martha Mitchell, wife of Attorney General John Mitchell, and former White House counsel John Dean. It was not until 2005 that we learned Deep Throat’s true identity—Mark Felt, the number two man at the FBI. Imagine that: A top FBI official was the patriotic leaker. 

Fast forward to 2017 and Deep Throat II is waiting to be unmasked. Could it be deposed White House chief of staff Reince Priebus or the comical former White House press secretary Sean Spicer? Both would have been privy to details included in the Washington Post bombshell that during the flight home from the G-20 summit in Europe Donald Trump authored his son’s initial response to the inquiry about a previously undisclosed meeting with Russians during the presidential campaign.

Who else could it be? Sarah Huckabee Sanders? Kellyanne Conway? Steve Bannon’s boy wonder Stephen Miller? Steve Mnuchin? Gary Cohn? Surely it must be someone privy to the inner doings on Air Force One or one of their confidantes.

It is deliciously ironic that Trump, a consummate practitioner of leaks, is being tormented, and perhaps could even be toppled, by leaks.


Thou Shalt Not: My rabbi is fond of noting that many societal rules found in the Bible, such as prohibitions on bestiality or the drinking of blood or the ripping of a limb from a live animal for food, are there because they were practices common to mankind at the time and God wanted the children of Israel not to do them.

Which brings me to Trump’s tweet Monday, “No WH chaos!” It seems to me that if there were no chaos the chaos-creator-in-chief would not have seen the need to proclaim serenity where he now resides and is, heaven please help us, the titular head of the free world.


Sticking With the Bible: A recent article in The New York Times (https://nyti.ms/2tNdzuC) started with the following: “There is a story in the Hebrew Bible that tells of God’s call for the annihilation of the Canaanites, a people who lived in what are now Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the Palestinian territories thousands of years ago.

“You shall not leave alive anything that breathes,” God said in the passage. “But you shall utterly destroy them.”

Accurate as far as it goes but then the author is seemingly amazed that descendants of the Canaanites are reportedly to be found in Lebanon. 

Duh! Had the writer turned a few more pages in the Bible, to Judges, Chapter 1, he would have discovered repeated references to Canaanites living within the land promised to the children of Israel. 

Here’s just one example, verse 27 (King James Bible): “Neither did Manasseh drive out the inhabitants of Bethshean and her towns, nor Taanach and her towns, nor the inhabitants of Dor and her towns, nor the inhabitants of Ibleam and her towns, nor the inhabitants of Megiddo and her towns: but the Canaanites would dwell in that land.”