Saturday, December 30, 2023

Stories from Agatha Christie's Life

Do you remember your Bible, that the patriarch Abraham lived in the ancient Sumerian city of Ur before traveling at God’s direction westward to Canaan, to what is currently Israel and the disputed West Bank? 

One of Abraham’s most famous, some might say infamous, exploits was the near sacrifice of his son Isaac at God’s command, only to be stopped by an angel at the last moment before blade pierced his son’s skin. The Bible recounts Abraham then spotted a ram with horns tangled in a thicket. He immediately substituted the ram on the altar he had built. 

Abraham is believed to have lived around 1600 B.C.E. 

Now, flash forward some 3,500 years. Ninety-five years ago in 1928 archeologists uncovered two identical statues depicting a horned goat standing in a thicket. The discovery occurred in the Royal Cemetery of Ur, some 180 miles southeast of Baghdad. The statues were estimated to have been sculpted between 2600-2400 B.C.E., about a millennia before Abraham’s fateful encounter with a ram. 

Lead British archeologist C. Leonard Woolley surely knew his Bible. He named the two goat statues “Ram in a Thicket” as homage to the Abrahamic story. 

Were the statues—discovered in the Great Death Pit of one of the graves of the Royal Cemetery in Ur—common knowledge to the author(s) of the Bible (assuming, of course, that human(s), not God, wrote Scriptures)?  

Is it not a telling coincidence that Abraham came from Ur? That the animal he sacrificed, like a goat, was horned and in a thicket?  

The pair of statues today reside separately, one in the British Museum in London, its twin in the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia. U of Penn and the British Museum underwrote Woolley’s multi-year expedition. 

I heard about these statues while watching a recording of a PBS series on Agatha Christie by British historian Lucy Worsley. Christie frequently visited Iraq and its archeological sites. She met her second husband, archeologist Max Mallowan, on a dig. 

Admittedly, I am stretching credulity to suggest a link between the statues and Abraham. But it would not be the first time observers forged an association between Bible texts and Mesopotamian histories and lore. The story of a flood engulfing mankind is part of Mideast culture (as well that of other regions). And the Ten Commandments and many laws passed down to Moses parallel those found in the Code of Hammurabi formulated in Babylonia 1755-1750, about 500 years before the Mount Sinai revelation. 

Let’s call my Ram-in-a-Thicket-connection imaginative story-telling to fill in the blanks the Bible chose not to include. It’s what Jewish scholars refer to as midrash. 

More Agatha: While we’re on the subject of what I learned from the Agatha Christie bio-series, I was reminded of a story from World War II. Christie and her husband owned a home, Greenway House, in Devon, along the southwest coast of England. 

In the early years of the war the Christies permitted Greenway House to be used as a refuge for families fleeing the blitz in London. As preparations for D-Day drew closer, Greenway House was requisitioned by the British Admiralty to house U.S. servicemen preparing for the Normandy invasion.

One of those stationed in Greenway House, along with officers of the 10th U.S. Coast Guard flotilla, was Herbert Bilus, an ensign on an LCI (landing craft infantry). Herb was the father of dear friends, his daughters Jane Gould, Pat Lager and Fran Feldman and their respective husbands Ken, Marty and Rick. 

Lucy Worsley’s series showed some of the interior rooms of Greenway House, but not the library. Too bad. It was in the library that the lead officer of Herb’s LCI, Lt. Marshall Lee, painted a frieze across the top of three sides of the library’s upper walls. The frieze depicted daily life of the seamen before D-Day.  

When she regained use of Greenway House Agatha Christie kept the artwork intact. 


Sunday, December 24, 2023

A Conversation Without Resolution

The Jewish conundrum came home Saturday night and left Sunday morning without resolution. 

As it inevitably must, the conversation with our 45-year-old son, his 43-year-old Jewish-by-choice wife, 14-year-old grandson and 11-year-old granddaughter turned to the war and what, if anything, could be done to minimize deaths of Palestinian civilians in Gaza caught in the vortex of Israel’s mission to destroy Hamas.  

Don’t expect to read any solutions here. Gilda and I have none. Even our justification for the Israeli response to October 7 rings hollower as each bomb, even those hitting its intended target, brings more collateral casualties. Pictures of dead and injured Palestinian children have erased worldwide sympathy for the Israeli victims of October 7. Israel has lost the public relations front of this righteous war. 

One has to be cold-blooded, heartless, inhuman not to grieve at the loss of innocents. On both sides of the border. 

How does a nation confront an enemy that has no moral boundaries, that hides amidst the very people it claims to represent and seeks to protect, thereby exposing them to become the detritus of war? Palestinians of Gaza are pawns of Hamas as a defensive shield or, tragically, photo fodder to manipulate worldwide public opinion.   

Last Saturday, 10 weeks to the day after Hamas violated any semblance of humane resistance to Israel’s existence, The New York Times devoted two pages of its Opinion section to six short essays from Middle Eastern specialists on the topic “What is the path to peace in Gaza?”

As erudite as these authors were, not one addressed several central points—will Hamas renounce violence against Israel and Jews? Will it recognize Israel’s right to exist? How would any such promises be monitored and enforced?

Remember, the Taliban, brothers in extremism, promised to be more tolerant toward women once it reclaimed governance of Afghanistan. How’s that working out? 

Not as promised. 

Why would anyone expect Hamas to be any more compliant with terms of a cease fire? Why would anyone expect Hamas to be any more democratic, have any more acceptance of democratic values than it has been since ousting Fatah in an election in Gaza in 2006, the only election it has sanctioned? Hamas has been awash in money from Qatar and its own businesses around the world. What makes anyone expect Hamas to use its funds to enhance the lives of Gaza residents when it has failed to do so in the past, diverting its monies into tunnel construction and rocket making?  

To no one’s surprise the destruction of an evil force requires extraordinary action. Eight decades later we still debate the morality and efficacy of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Little negative mention is made of the fire bombing of Tokyo that killed more people than either atomic bombing did. Nor is there widespread criticism of the destruction of Dresden in Germany. 

For decades Gaza has been a launching pad for indiscriminate rocket and mortar attacks inside Israel. But the taking of 240 hostages after the slaughter of 1,200 and the wounding of thousands forced Israel to wage a campaign, a justified action, to destroy Hamas. 

Can Gaza be rebuilt? Look to history for an answer. From the destruction of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan modern economies emerged with democratic values. Their simultaneous renaissances required each population to jettison past beliefs and accept new protocols of governance and responsibility.

Palestinians claim they have been dispossessed from their land inside Israel, a grievance that keeps festering and is fed by Arab countries that never welcomed them into their societies but rather kept them in refugee camps even during the decades that Egypt controlled Gaza and Jordan ruled the West Bank. 

Meanwhile, Jewish communities throughout the Muslim world—including Iraq, Syria, and Egypt, where Jews lived for thousands of years, more than a millennia even before Mohammed was born—were uprooted after Israel’s independence.

Many fled to Israel. Palestinians inside Israel also left their homes, some at the instigation of Arab leaders who promised to defeat Israel and allow their return, some out of fear.

At first both groups of refugees stayed in resettlement camps. But the similarity of experience ended there. Israel turned its refugees into members of a vibrant, 21st century country. Arab countries kept the Palestinians in virtual refugee status. Palestinians who stayed inside Israel have more rights and benefits than those who fled to their “brothers” in Muslim lands. 

Those who chide Israel for defending its obligation as a country to protect its citizens would do well to search for and demand what rights—from voting rights in free elections, to women’s rights, to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech—residents have in Arab lands. 

As our children and grandchildren continued on their journey south, they left with no answers to when and how the war will end, whether Israel will achieve the goals of decapitating Hamas, freeing the remaining hostages and destroying the cache of arms targeted at its populace. 

Our only comfort was a difficult conversation involving three generations was started, not in acrimony or contention, but rather in anguish, of wanting to find a path to resolution. It is hard to ask for more at this time. 

Thursday, December 21, 2023

A Documentary Everyone Should View

Finally got around to watching a two-part Ken Burns documentary “The American Buffalo,” originally broadcast on PBS October 16-17. 

It’s a beautiful, panoramic history of the life cycle of the buffalo as central to the culture of Indigenous People in America, the near total annihilation of the buffalo, the impact on Native Americans, and the struggle to resurrect free roaming buffalo herds on our country’s central plains.   

Near the end of the second segment the documentarians focused on the birth several decades ago of a white buffalo with blue eyes. A white buffalo is revered by Native Americans as a sign that prayers have been heard and a better future is coming. 

I didn’t need this documentary to enlighten me that a white buffalo possessed supernatural powers. 

Growing up in the 1950s one of my favorite TV shows was “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.” The half hour show followed the exploits of Rusty, an orphaned youngster adopted by a calvary troop of Fort Apache, Arizona, after his parents and the rest of the members of their wagon train were killed by Indians. Rusty’s German shepherd dog was Rin Tin Tin. During each week’s exploits, Rinty saved Rusty and the troopers from outlaws, Indians or natural disasters (

In a second season episode titled “Rin Tin Tin and The White Buffalo,” aired October 14, 1955, when I was 6-1/2, Rusty was invited to observe a buffalo herd. The adventure turned dangerous when the herd stampeded directly toward Rusty. At seemingly the last second the buffalo stopped running. It was only then that Rusty observed what the herd had seen—a white buffalo atop a hill. Rusty, and I, learned from Native Americans about the spiritual, mystical powers of a white buffalo. 

Bald eagles are the national animal of the United States. They represent American values of freedom and strength. Eagles frequently are chosen as symbols of many countries, but the bald eagle can be found only in North America.

Buffalo, also known as bison, are similarly indigenous solely in North America. Named our national mammal in 2016 under the National Bison Legacy Act, the buffalo was hailed as a model of American freedom, strength and might.

The buffalo nickel was part of our national currency from 1913 to 1938. The nickel featured a relief of a Native American face on the front and a buffalo on the flip side. It also was called an Indian Head nickel. In 1938 it was replaced by a portrait of Thomas Jefferson on the front and a rendering of his home, Monticello, on the other side. 

If you ever have a chance to view the Ken Burns two-part documentary spend the four hours learning about our history with North America’s largest mammal. You won’t regret it, but you will be saddened by our treatment of the buffalo and the Indigenous people who relied on the buffalo for sustenance and their way of life.

TV Alert: At least in the New York region covered by WNET-Channel 13, the two-part documentary will be rebroadcast January 5 and January 12.  

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

A Survey in Context: Troubling but Hardly Projectable

The Jewish world is understandably apoplectic about a survey that suggests half of all Americans ages 18-24 support Hamas over Israel. 

Troubling though it is, the survey should not be seen as definitive because the sample size of those 18-24 probably is too small to make an authoritative, projectable finding. The total survey of all ages had 2,034 respondents, a good number for national projections. But the number of those 18-24 can be extrapolated as 386, and any portion of that figure would be far less than what is needed to be nationally projectable. 

For more than 20 years my magazine, Chain Store Age, published monthly consumer polls, gauging intentions to buy specific products or their preferences for which store to shop in and why. To provide meaningful data our surveys, done through reputable research firms including Gallup, America’s Research Group and Leo J. Shapiro and Associates, polled sufficient consumers to extract projectable information. 

I learned from these surveys that polling is part science, part art. The finer one parses the responses, the smaller the sample size. Consequently, the less projectable the data becomes. 

Bias can also come from the manner in which data is collected. The Harvard CAPS/Harris survey in question was conducted on line December 13-14 by The Harris Poll and HarrisX among registered voters (click on this link for a copy of the questions and results: Multiple attempts to contact Harvard CAPS proved unsuccessful). 

A key question in the survey asked: “Do you think that the long-term answer to the Israel-Palestinian dispute is for Arab states to absorb the Palestinians, for there to be two states, Israel and Palestine, or for Israel to be ended and given to Hamas and the Palestinians?”

The responses: 60% opted for a two-state solution; 21% preferred Arab states absorb the Palestinians; 19% chose the end of Israel and the land be given to Hamas and the Palestinians.

That 19% is of the total survey sample of all ages. In other words, 386 people. Of those 386, I estimated142 were ages 18-24 who favored Israel’s elimination, hardly a figure on which to extrapolate a national trend, especially when one considers other responses that showed a wide approval of Israel. 

For example, three-quarters of the total sample said Hamas was responsible for starting the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and for putting civilians in harm’s way.  

In addition, 76% of those 18-24 said they “believe that Hamas attackers on October 7th committed rapes and other crimes against women.” 

No doubt, many young people are sympathetic to residents of Gaza because they have incurred thousands of casualties from the intense Israeli bombing in response to the October 7 attack which killed 1,200 Israelis, wounded several thousand and resulted in some 250 hostages being taken to Gaza. But equally doubtless is their lack of knowledge and understanding about the complex history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the true intentions of Hamas, both vis-a-vis Jews/Israelis and how Hamas governs Palestinians in Gaza without free elections, free speech, gender equality, and other democratic values. 

Ron E. Hassner, a Berkeley political science professor, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that a survey he commissioned of 250 students across America found many of those sympathetic to the Palestinian slogan “From the river to the sea” changed their minds after learning some basic facts about the Mideast conflict. 

“There’s no shame in being ignorant,” Hassner opined, “unless one is screaming for the extermination of millions,” ending his article thusly: “Those who hope to encourage extremism depend on the political ignorance of their audiences. It is time for good teachers to join the fray and combat bias with education” 

From Which River to Which Sea?

Informing the public, especially young people, about the historical record is a much desired objective, not just for educators but also for social commentators. Take a few minutes to listen to Bill Maher’s essay  from the New Rules segment of his December 15 HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher:”


Sunday, December 17, 2023

A Cousin's Lament: We Are in Constant Trauma

When there’s too much information to process and absorb, it can be useful to focus on the experience of an individual and their surroundings. 

Gilda’s cousin, Tzvia, emigrated to Israel after high school a little more than half a century ago. She and her husband Yossi raised four children on Kvuzat Yavne, a traditional Orthodox kibbutz about 30 miles (50 kilometers) northeast of Gaza. The kibbutz has a successful diversified economy, incorporating agriculture (pickled cucumbers and olives) and light manufacturing.

Tzvia’s youngest, Eldad and his family, lived on Kibbutz Sa’ad, a few kilometers from Gaza. Their Orthodox, agricultural kibbutz suffered relatively few casualties during the Hamas killing spree October 7 compared to other nearby settlements. 

The family has been relocated but, as Tzvia related to Gilda in a series of emails, Eldad, a trained engineer, now “works in a factory that packages fresh produce near the southernmost part of Gaza. The farmers that still have crops, and volunteers to harvest them, are desperate to get anything out. 

“Eldad is living at home on Sa’ad by permission. The whole area around Gaza is a military zone and only civilians that are working the farms and factories are allowed to stay over night. On Sa’ad, as well as all the other kibbutzim, they are trying to keep whatever they can running including the factories on Be’eri and Kfar Aza that weren’t destroyed.

“Those that can work and keep the lines working and milk the cows and plow the fields are there. It also helps to keep them sane. The families and the kids are evacuated.

“The situation is very hard. Our house (in Kvuzat Yavne) is constantly vibrating from the artillery in Gaza, and we’re about 30 miles away. Of course, we had and have rocket attacks in the area. Thankfully, almost all are around us and not specifically on us, but, of course, we hear the sirens, hear the strikes and see the Iron Dome shooting them out of the sky.

“In the last few days the rocket fire has diminished to one or two long range salvos a day. Unfortunately, the north is getting blasted from Lebanon.”

From another early December email from Tzvia: “Still at war. (Eldad’s family) still evacuated. Had their (son’s) bar mitzvah at the hotel where they are living. 

“Eldad is back working near Egypt. He lives at home on Sa’ad during the week and goes back to his family on the weekends. This shabbat they were here. Everyone’s life is on hold…

“Yossi is basically OK except for his trouble walking. Unfortunately, he is watching much more of the news than I am. He’s out of the house every day working at what he can. 

“As far as our kibbutz is doing, we have taken in as many refugee families as we can. We also had as many as 200 soldiers staying here while their units took a breather from the fighting.We have a lot of men mobilized including CEO’s of our businesses and our high school principal.” 

Then, the dreaded, almost inevitable news of a fatality:   This morning we got the terrible news that the woman I work with and is a close friend, has lost her son. 

“We get up every morning to the read the list of names of the soldiers that have fallen that day. Praying it’s not someone we know. So many families destroyed. We are a country in constant trauma.”

Friday, December 8, 2023

A Reason for Everyone to Celebrate Hanukkah

Here’s a reason for the world—not just Jews—to celebrate Hanukkah: Without the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Greek empire of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the mid second century BCE, there would be no Christianity or Islam.

This startling theorem came courtesy of my friend Arthur who forwarded an email from Robert Nicholson, president and founder of The Philos Project, an organization that “seeks to promote positive Christian engagement in the Near East by creating leaders, building community, and taking action in the spirit of the Hebraic Tradition” (

Antiochus “tried to eradicate Judaism and its worship of one God from the world,” Nicholson wrote. “Against all odds, the Maccabees fought back and prevailed. And in so doing, they saved the tradition that would give birth to Christianity and transfer values like equality and justice to the whole world.”

Jesus, after all, was Jewish and celebrated the holiday we now call Hanukkah (John (10:22), Nicholson pointed out. 

Mohammed, on the other hand, was not Jewish, but he structured Islam’s monotheism on many of the precepts of Judaism and Christianity, including their many prophets and disciples, though Mohammad was careful to articulate that God’s revelations to him superseded previous messages to such figures as Moses and Jesus. 

It is an unfortunate truism that through millennia many religions have turned violent against non-believers, those who refused to accept the faith of the powerful. The Maccabees cleansed not only the defiled Temple in Jerusalem but also erased Jews who adopted Hellenistic ways. Catholics and Protestants fought, and did sects within the Russian Orthodox Church. Native cultures in the Americas and Africa were subjugated by Christian armies. Accept Islam or perish, was Mohammad’s choice to the inhabitants of Arabia. Since his death some 1,400 yers ago, Sunni and Shia Muslims have battled over his religion’s legacy.  

The current war between Israel and Hamas is not just a struggle over territory. The conflict runs much deeper than one between a Jewish state and an Islamic terrorist organization bent on its destruction. Central to Hamas, as it is to The Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS, is opposition to Western values. 

In a series of position statements The Philos Project states, We “disagree with those schools of Islamic interpretation that reject pluralism, denigrate non-Muslims, or seek to impose Islamic doctrine through violence. We respect and affirm the right of Muslims to practice their faith freely. But we respect a religion only until it forces itself on those who don’t believe.”

“Under Hamas, there are no personal freedoms, gender equality, or religious freedom. Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood seek to unite all Muslims under a new Caliphate, an imperialist theocracy that dissolved with the fall of the Ottoman Empire post-WWI, where political and civil society is governed under Sharia law.”

A unity not very likely to happen, but instructive as to the intractability of dealing with Hamas. Any peace, any truce, with Hamas will last only as long as Hamas sees it as in its interests to rearm for its next confrontation. As Hillary Rodham Clinton noted on “The View” last month, a cease fire existed on October 6. Hamas brutally and inhumanely violated it on October 7.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Time to Educate the Young About What's at Stake

 The chatter surrounding Joe Biden’s age is intense and interminable. It is mingled with laments that young voters do not identify with the 81-year-old president and may not vote for his re-election, or may just not vote at all. Either scenario would help his expected Republican opponent Donald Trump recapture the White House. 

As Biden appears unlikely to step aside in favor of a younger Democratic candidate, it is now time for Democrats and others who fear a second Trump inauguration to mount a concerted effort to educate through advertisements and one-to-one conversations with disaffected and dispassionate voters all that is at stake next November. 

The ads and talks should, individually or collectively, include the following themes:

*Are you concerned about the future of reproductive rights?

*Should privacy and lifestyle rights be protected? 

*Is the separation of church and state important?

*Do you favor tighter gun control laws? 

*Should we do more to protect the earth’s environment? 

*Is saving democracy, the rule of law and free elections, at home and abroad, worthwhile? 

*Should Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) be protected?

Joe Biden has championed these causes. His likely opponent has not. 

Over and over it must be stressed that a vote for Joe Biden, no matter how unenthusiastic it might be registered, would help sustain a positive future. 

The MAGA alternative would produce a mega disaster.