Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Yiddish "Fiddler": A Reality Check on Survival

One of the eternal laugh lines of any staging of Fiddler on the Roof, including the production in Yiddish currently playing at the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene inside the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan, comes in the opening song, “Tradition.” 

As Tevya the milkman introduces the audience to the varied characters that populate his shtetl hometown of Anatevke, a pious resident asks the rabbi if there is a proper blessing for the Tsar. 

Of course, responds the rabbi. He chants, “May God keep the Tsar … far away from us!” 

Like Jesse Green of The New York Times who reviewed the play (, Gilda and I shed more than a tear or two as we sat through a preview last Thursday. We know but a handful of Yiddish words, but as veterans of prior Fiddler productions (including, for me, the original Broadway cast starring Zero Mostel), the story line and songs required little translation, though the theater provided both English and Russian supertitles on both sides of the stage. 

Through the decades since its debut in 1964 Fiddler has conjured up a fantasy world of the hardscrabble peasant life—make no mistake about it, most Jews were peasants in the shtetls of the Pale of Settlement, the restricted zone to which Jews were confined by the tsars. Nevertheless, they no doubt loved Mother Russia and were truly saddened when uprooted from their homes. Even those who came to America shared fond memories with their descendants.

Jesse Green wrote the Yiddish version of Fiddler evoked the “sound of my own grandparents and all they lost in leaving their Anatevkes.

Fiddler on the Roof always makes you cry for that loss.”

Yes, tears do flow, but a reality check is in order. Had they stayed in the Pale, Gilda likes to point out, they likely would have perished, if not during World War I, surely during the second world war. 

So, I’m going to give the tsar a pass. Not a blessing, and surely not the kiss of friendship, or is it fealty, proffered by Donald Trump to Russia’s current nominal tsar, Vladimir Putin. 

Jesse Green and millions of other Jews in America, Israel and numerous countries around the globe are alive today because the rabbi’s blessing to keep the tsar far away fell on deaf ears. Or, perhaps, God took the request literally and arranged the mass emigration of his chosen people to safer lands not ruled by a tsar. 

Far-fetched? Could be. But as The Times headline observed, “Fiddler in Yiddish? Sounds Crazy, Nu?”

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Politics and Poker Don't Mix in the Age of Trump

The monthly poker game was at my house Tuesday night. Unlike a scene in the Tony award winning musical Fiorello!, which ran for 795 performances on Broadway beginning in November 1959, we did not talk politics while cards shuffled around the table. 

In case you’re not familiar with the song “Politics and Poker,” here’s a link to the original cast rendition ( For those not interested in musical diversion, here are the appropriate smart and jaunty chorus lyrics that encase deliberations of New York City Republican machine politicians grappling with the difficulty of finding a candidate to run for Congress in a district thought to be unwinnable): 

Politics and poker, politics and poker 
Shuffle up the cards and find the joker 
Neither game's for children; either game is rough 
Decisions, decisions, like 
Who to pick, how to play, what to bet, when to call a bluff 

Politics and poker, politics and poker 
Playing for a pot that's mediocre 
Politics and poker, running neck and neck 
If politics seems more predictable 
That's because usually you can stack the deck! 

Politics and poker, politics and poker 
Makes the average guy a heavy a smoker 
Bless the nominee and give him our regards 
And watch while he learns that in poker and politics 
Brother, you've gotta have that slippery haphazardous commodity 
You've gotta have the cards!

My poker buddies don’t smoke. We didn’t talk politics because, frankly, it’s too depressing. To my knowledge they all share my progressive leanings. 

Not that I am not friends with Trumpsters, few though they may be among my acquaintances and relatives. It’s just becoming a lot less taxing to simply avoid them or set ground rules for discussion topics.

Trump is not unique in dividing allegiances among the populace. Think back to the tenures of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. But with Trump the divide seems to be deeper, more extreme, more personal. 

Perhaps it’s a Forseter gene, but my sister Lee feels the same way. She has permitted me to share an exchange we had the other day after it became known that Trump waged a global war against breast feeding in favor of corporate America’s infant formula empire.

“The worse it gets the angrier I get at people I know that still support him,” wrote Lee.

“Or as they say, ‘we agree to disagree’. I’m about to tell them that their reckless silence or support of his behavior is so disgusting to me that I can no longer value them as friends and until they realize how hurtful he is and what a threat he is to democracy I do not wish to associate with them.

“Endorsing his hateful attacks on minorities and children and weaker nations is bigger than any friendship I feel for his supporters, regardless of how long I have known them. I feel I then become complicit in supporting him by not rejecting my friends.”  

“I informed David (her husband) that there will be no Fox News allowed in our home anymore. Certain radio stations are also banned. Emails are also off limits if they support him. Our home will be purged of all conservative venues.
“As for my friends, I am still confused and struggling with what to do. But the worse it gets the harder it is to remain connected to those who advocate and support him.”

When I first read those words I felt the real pain engulfing Lee, a retired early elementary school teacher in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood in Los Angeles, and still a semi-practicing psychiatric social worker. I identified with it. 

A year ago in late May I wrote about the Trump fatigue factor (“The fatigue factor is setting in. Donald Trump and his gang that couldn’t shoot straight is overwhelming me. There’s too much to write. If I miss a day the accumulated copy weighs me down.”)

I am not as depressed by Trump’s actions as I am by the reaction of too, too many of my fellow Americans. As Maureen Dowd observed in The New York Times the other day, “On the occasion of America’s 242nd birthday, we must ask who we are, if we can see accounts of infants snatched from their parents and returned covered in lice, and not worry about our country’s soul.”

Could be a timing coincidence, but I was intrigued by an article, “The Power of Positive People,” currently among the most popular on The Times Web site. Teased with the question, “Are your friendships giving you a boost or bringing you down?,” the article opines, “Friends can exert a measurable and ongoing influence on your health behaviors in a way that a diet never can,” according to Dan Buettner, a National Geographic fellow and author, later adding, “I argue that the most powerful thing you can do to add healthy years is to curate your immediate social network” (

Sounds like a no-brainer, but keeping the Trump Fatigue Effect from infecting my personal relationships could become a full-time job. Not something I would relish in my retirement.

By the way, in case you’re interested, I won $10 Tuesday night, not enough to cover the expense of hosting the game, but better than losing at poker. For the short term, at least, national politics is a lost cause.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

A Poster Boy for the Supreme Court, But Will He Follow Kennedy's Lead To Protect Rights

If you could judge a judge nominated to be a justice of the Supreme Court merely from his public acceptance speech Brett Kavanaugh would be confirmed in a heartbeat. Unanimously. 

Sure, he spoke in hyperbole when he proclaimed Donald Trump’s “appreciation for the vital role of the American judiciary. No president has ever consulted more widely, or talked with more people from more backgrounds, to seek input about a Supreme Court nomination.” 

Donald Trump sought out the most diverse input before making a selection? Really!?! 

Just how many progressive voices did the divider-in-chief invite to the White House or to one of his golf or resort properties to discuss the qualities he should look for in a justice for life? No doubt he talked to gun lobbyists, and big business lobbyists, and anti-abortion lobbyists, and anti-immigration lobbyists, and anti-environment lobbyists. By lobbyists I am including elected Republican officials for they have, in effect, become part of the partisan network, rather than staying independent in their evaluation of issues and candidates. 

Let’s call it the Trump Effect. It is difficult to cite any action his administration has taken that has not rolled back advances in the quality of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans and peoples of the world. Even as he espoused his dedication to life Trump pursued a measure at the World Health Organization that would undercut the health of newborns by advocating feeding them infant formula rather than breast milk which is universally considered the best food they could consume. 

Judge Kavanaugh outwardly seems like a nice, all-American guy. A little shy and awestruck at the podium, gushing over his parents, daughters and wife. Young enough to coach his daughter’s basketball team. Not ramrod straight like Neil Gorsuch but someone fluid enough to tease his younger daughter about her incessant talking and have her be okay with it in front of a national audience. 

Just irresistible. Who wouldn’t want this dad to parse legal conflict for us all? (

Kavanaugh clerked for his predecessor Justice Anthony Kennedy, as did Gorsuch. It has been said that Kennedy opted for retirement at this moment so a Republican president and GOP-majority Senate could pick and confirm a successor in his image.  

One wonders if Kavanaugh absorbed Kennedy’s compassion for the privacy rights of women and gay communities. Gorsuch apparently didn’t. He seems to be more in line with the originalist doctrines of Antonin Scalia whose seat he now occupies because Republicans blocked the centrist jurist Merrick Garland nominated by Barack Obama.

It will be up to Kavanaugh to sustain rights Kennedy protected. As Gorsuch has shown, clerks do not always agree with their bosses. 

If you didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton, or if you wasted your vote on a symbolic alternative candidate like Jill Stein, you relinquished the right to complain about Trump’s selection of his second Supreme Court justice and the near hundred lower court federal judges who will shape the direction of the country for decades. 

Forget about protesting or expecting Democrats to thwart his nominations. They don’t have the votes, not in the Senate now and, thanks to you and likeminded fools, not in November 2016. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

Supreme Court Aside, Why Do Evangelicals and Republicans Stay Silent on Trump?

Ever the showman Donald Trump is expected to reveal Monday night his next conservative, court-packing nominee for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. It is his constitutional imperative to select a nominee; it is within his rights and privilege to choose a jurist he believes will decide the law based on the values and principles he espouses. Forget for a moment that Trump waffles on principles and displays no values, especially as they relate to family. 

I don’t agree with them, but I can understand why evangelicals support Trump. He promised them a conservative federal court. He is delivering on that promise, thanks in no small measure to Mitch McConnell’s obstructionist strategy to deny a hearing to President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland. 

Support, however, does not mandate blind, unswerving allegiance. It does not prohibit conscientious objection to policies that are aberrant to their Christian faith. They should not have to twist Scripture inside out to justify abhorrent behavior. 

The Catholic church, after all, is just as dedicated to the abolition of abortions, yet its leadership, all the way up to the pope, has been intensely vocal in criticism of Trump’s behavior towards migrant families. 

So I am puzzled by the silence flowing from an evangelical community that is accustomed to hearing fire and brimstone penalties to anyone who acts contrary to god’s and Jesus’ admonitions.  

Let me reiterate: While I do not condone one-issue voters, I recognize their right to follow their narrow public consciousness. I have too many friends who voted Trump because they perceived his support of Israel stronger than the alternative, reinforced by his shift of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. 

They remain friends. We try not to talk politics, as I cannot condone their silence, and that of millions who I do not personally know but who profess to be god-fearing, in the wake of Trump’s flagrant abuses and miscalculations. Those millions include elected Republican officials. 

Where is the outcry, the condemnation, or at least an expressed revulsion at a zero-tolerance policy that ripped children from their parents? Should they not be repulsed by the ineptitude of their government not being able to expeditiously reunite families?

Even Democrats acknowledge industry is weighted down by too many regulations. But where is the sense of outrage from Republicans over the revocation of laws that protect our water, land and air quality? 
Do rank and file Republicans, along with Independents and Democrats who voted for Trump, not see that the tax bill provides meager relief to the vast majority of Americans while rewarding the wealthy and corporations with riches beyond their expectations? 

As other countries respond to Trump’s tariffs by targeting products from states he won, why are they silent when their livelihood is at stake? It’s not “America right or wrong” time when it is painfully obvious to all but Trump that winning a tariffs war is not easy.
Do they not see Trump was snookered by the North Koreans, that his boast that we could sleep more easily now because Kim Jong-un agreed to denuclearize was as empty as his claim to educate the gullible and desperate at Trump University? 

And what about our stature in the world? Do they not understand that “America First” runs counter to the principles and leadership embodied by the United States after World War II? That it was that global, communal ethos embodied by NATO and the Marshall Plan that enabled Western European civilization to reconstruct itself after the war’s devastation, that it forged successful economic and political recoveries in Japan and South Korea after two devastating conflicts? 

How do they square Trump’s campaign rhetoric that he is a big builder who will draw up a huge infrastructure investment list with the reality he not only has not initiated a building program but he also has stymied perhaps the most important project, construction of a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River critically needed to support the Northeast which represents more than 10% of the nation’s economy?

Despite Trump’s repeated efforts to hamper it, the Affordable Care Act remains popular. How can they justify a disregard for the health needs of millions? Isn’t caring and concern for the sick part of their religious creed? How can they remain silent when the Trump administration, in support of infant formula manufacturers, disregards scientific data that breast milk is better than baby formula, and compounds the heresy by blackmailing other countries to follow its dictates at the United Nations-affiliated World Health Assembly? How humiliating that Russia—Russia!—had to save the day for truth and science! (

And speaking of Russia, how can evangelicals and ordinary Republicans acquiesce to the bromance Trump has with Vladimir Putin? Democrats are not demanding an invalidation of the 2016 presidential election. They are demanding admission that Russia interfered with it. They are demanding Trump instruct appropriate federal agencies insure it doesn’t happen again. To date Trump has not. 

With all that Trump has accomplished in undermining the values and doctrines of America, Republicans have steadfastly stood behind him. It is foolish to presume they will abandon him in the 2020 election. 

The only way to unseat him will be if enough citizens who failed to vote in 2016 realize their voices can and must be counted to avoid a decades-long descent into despair. 

In 2016, roughly 100 million eligible voters stayed home. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Forget the Deep State Conspiracy, Donald. Investigate Why My Teeth Are Cracking!

I agree with Donald Trump. There is a deep state conspiracy in this country, but it is not the one he believes is undermining his administration. 

No, the conspiracy I see is so nefarious that only someone with my uncanny talent of perception has uncovered it. You have to be of a certain age, someone whose parents let them feast on cakes, cookies, candies and sugared soft drinks while young, the better to produce cavities in teeth that have now matured and are susceptible to cracking and needing crowns or implants. 

From personal experience I am convinced the American Dental Association and its members, having forged a bond in the 1950s and 1960s with the sugar industry to sabotage young mouths, is now locked in a comparable conspiracy with nut growers and their related products to chip away at older, more vulnerable, molars. 

Let me explain. My breakfast most mornings is cheese and fruit, along with almonds, walnuts and macadamia nuts. Sounds healthy and is healthy. But crunching down on nuts can be injurious to my filling-laden teeth. 

It is not only breakfast that is dangerous. The nut industry long has been advocating almonds and trail mix-type snacks as healthy alternatives to pastries and candy. 

It is a recipe for disaster encouraged, I am convinced, by a dental profession that fills fewer cavities because of fluoride protection, technically improved toothpastes, flossing, water-piking and electric toothbrushes. 

To maintain luxury lifestyles for its members the ADA has secretly funded the nut campaign. 

I haven’t had a cavity in decades, but I have cracked at least three molars. The crazy thing about each incident—I was not chewing a nut when my tooth made its break known to me. I was eating, respectively, scrambled eggs, bread and couscous. The most recent incident transpired last Saturday evening.

My dentist advised I probably cracked it on harder foods but the sliver of enamel had not separated from the mother lode. Each incident was a crack waiting to be exposed and repaired with a crown or more expensive implant. 

So, Donald, stop fulminating on the deep state conspiracy. Start an immediate investigation into the deep throat, er, deep tooth conspiracy that threatens all Americans, not just those who abuse the office and power of the presidency. 

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Under the Roberts Court, Precedent Be Damned, Even Without Kennedy's Successor

In conversation the other day my sister Lee and I shared a problem afflicting both of us—we haven’t been able to sleep well since Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, leaving to Donald Trump a choice that could well tilt the court to the right for a generation. 

Not that it wasn’t already a mostly conservative ensemble, though Kennedy provided that occasional libertarian vote that sided with the four progressive judges to validate gay rights, same sex marriage and the security of the Roe v. Wade abortion decision.

Kennedy was not flaming in his support of those bedrock Democratic principles. Now that he’s retiring it is open season on his legacy. Here’s just one example of a critique of his record on gay rights: Similar dissections of his opinions on access to abortions, Citizens United, the Second Amendment, and other conservative court decisions are easy enough to find.

In the upcoming confirmation battle, Republican senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska are said to be crucial because of their past support of a woman’s right to choose. They have been quoted as saying Roe v. Wade is “settled law,” precedent that should not be voided.

Yet, no nominee will acknowledge how he or she would vote on a case to invalidate Roe v. Wade. As for it being “settled law,” we have seen already how the Roberts court has rejected precedent to chart a more regressive course. Just ask civil service union members how they feel about the protection of precedent. 

It’s important to remember that even if Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion would be permitted in states where it is legal, such as New York. But each state could pass its own restrictions. In New York, an abortion could occur for any reason up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. Other states could have tighter deadlines, or outright ban the procedure even if a mother’s life is at risk.

Kennedy framed his more libertarian votes on the concept of personal privacy. His conservative detractors point out that the Founding Fathers and Framers of the Constitution never identified privacy as a freedom or right. A new, more conservative majority could reject Kennedy’s foundational argument, setting aside the rights and freedoms he found ensconced in the Constitution. 

The challenges might come from a direction not previously expected. Stripping civil service unions of their ability to collect dues from all workers served by their collective bargaining unit came about, for example, through a First Amendment challenge, a tactic heretofore rarely used by conservatives. 

I’m not a lawyer, so this analysis could be off-base. But I’m fairly certain it has merit. The upfront fear of a more conservative justice than Kennedy being appointed is naturally focused on the issues that have been most explosive over the last several decades, gay rights, gun rights and legalized abortion. 

There are, however, two government programs that conservatives have long sought to disembowel: Social Security and the Internal Revenue Service. (They’d also like to ax Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare.) Again, I’m no lawyer but I am distressingly confident that conservative think tanks are poring over legal strategies to upend these programs. Don’t argue with me that the first two are near-century- and century-old programs, that the population at large would not stand for dismantling Social Security and even the IRS, if push came to shove. It’s also hard to imagine a majority of Americans favoring elimination of the healthcare programs.

But I’m not talking about the population at large. All it takes is one citizen to battle all the way to the Supreme Court where he or she could find a receptive, conservative ear, or should I say, 10 ears. 

The frustration my sister and I feel (by the way, I am not excluding my brother—just haven’t talked to him about it) is in no small measure a result of our living in California and New York, two states that lean liberal, though we are both old enough to remember legal abortion in New York passed the legislature by just one vote five decades ago. 

Rights presumed to be fundamental and guaranteed as “settled law” are susceptible. The landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been gutted by the Roberts court. Restrictions on the influence of corporations on the political process have been lifted by the Robert court. 

Assume nothing is permanent. Assume no election is safe. Don’t leave it to someone else—VOTE! Not just for president, but for senate and congressional candidates, for governor and attorney general, for state senate and state representative, for mayor and city council, and especially for school board candidates.