Tuesday, February 28, 2023

First Stop in Morocco: Casablanca

One of my all-time favorite movies is “Casablanca,” considered by many to be the best film ever made. So, when our temple planned a Jewish heritage tour to Casablanca and Morocco, I eagerly jumped aboard. So did Gilda (though she is not as big a fan of the 1942 film). Another 33 intrepid travelers to the casbah and beyond joined our mid to late February adventure. 

Let’s dispose of several myths. First, a casbah or kasbah, is not a romantic hideaway in an Arabian town, a common misperception based on a line of dialogue (“Come with me to the Casbah”) that has become part of folklore but was never said by Charles Boyer to Hedy Lamarr in the 1938 movie “Algiers.”

A casbah is a fortress inside a walled enclosure where a ruler resided, much like a keep in European castles. It is not a warren of dark, crowded alleys where merchants hawk goods of varying quality and families live above the mercantile fray. Those are commonly known as souks; in Morocco they are called Medinas. 

Second, Rick’s Cafe in “Casablanca” was a figment of Hollywood imagination, though an enterprising entrepreneur opened a movie-inspired Rick’s Cafe restaurant and bar in Casablanca in 2004, even featuring a singing pianist named Esam, the closest name to Sam the owner could find. Like moviedom’s Captain Louis Renault, authorities would be “shocked, shocked” to find there was gambling inside the modern Rick’s Cafe, though local Muslims rounded up as usual suspects could escape punishment by claiming to be Jewish Moroccans, Jews being excluded from Islam’s prohibition on gambling. 

In 1950, some 300,000 Jews lived among Morocco’s near 10 million population. But waves of emigration, mostly to Israel after its founding in 1948 and after wars in 1956, 1967, and 1973, left only a remnant of Jews, perhaps a trifle more than 2,000, in Morocco while the general population grew to near 38 million. Casablanca is home to the largest contingent of Moroccan Jews.

The film’s background story of desperate Europeans converging on Casablanca to obtain travel visas to Lisbon and beyond to escape the Nazis was pure fiction, as well.  

The hub of escape intrigue was Tangier, not Casablanca. As our tour guide Mokhtar explained, the background story of Casablanca could not have happened there. Victor Laszlo could not have gotten out as German troops, not the Vichy, controlled the city. 

Life in Tangier, on the other hand, was similar to what was depicted in the movie. Situated at the southern tip of the Straits of Gibraltar, Tangier was declared an international zone because neither the Allies nor Axis adversaries wanted to cut off transit into and out of the Mediterranean Sea. Refugees flocked there to secure passage to freedom. 

To Hollywood, Casablanca became a more salable name for a film. The 1946 Marx Brothers caper “A Night in Casablanca” capitalized on the city’s fame, while Bing Crosby and Bob Hope chimed in with “The Road to Morocco,”  also in 1942. 

Mokhtar, our licensed guide of inestimable knowledge of Moroccan history and culture, fluent in several languages, with a quick wit, darting eyes and expressive smile that tolerated even the most mundane tourist inquiries, explained that Casablanca means “white house,” a reference to the white buildings throughout the city. Cities along Morocco’s long coastline have many white buildings as white keeps facades from being degraded by sunshine. 

Casa, as the city is called by locals, has become the commercial, cultural and financial center of Morocco. It also has the second largest mosque in the Islamic world, exceeded only by that in Mecca. And it is home to seven functioning synagogues, though it is difficult for each of them to muster the required minyan of 10 adult males for congregational services.

The focus of American Jews on their heritage has mainly been to central and eastern Europe, first on the migration of their ancestors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, then, sadly, to the tragic annihilation by Nazi Germany and its henchmen of families members left behind.

Yet Jews have lived in Morocco for more than 2,000 years, arriving some 600 years before Mohammed’s disciples spread the teachings of Islam. Morocco has sheltered numerous prominent Jewish scholars including Maimonides. It hasn’t always been a bed of roses but recent history with the kings of Morocco have been among the most positive of their time in Morocco. 

During World War II, Morocco came under French Vichy control. When the Nazi-aligned government sought to identify Jewish Moroccans for eventual transport to death camps in Europe, King Mohammed V refused. His successors have maintained unofficial but extensive relations with Israel. 

Israelis from Arab countries, for example, cannot go back to their homelands, but Moroccan Jews in Israel can return to walk in the neighborhoods of their youth or visit cemeteries where their ancestors are buried, gravesites maintained with the assistance of the Moroccan government.

(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of blogs on Morocco and its Jewish heritage.) 

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Today's Public Service Announcement

Do you know what the pressure is for the municipal water that flows into your home? 

It should be between 40 and 60 PSI (pounds per square inch) but if your attention to this important detail is anything like mine was, you are facing potential disaster. Unchecked water pressure is like unchecked blood pressure. No outward symptoms. High blood pressure can cause heart attacks or strokes. High water pressure can burst pipes and flood your home. 

A recent routine maintenance visit for our hot water heater revealed water pressure of 100 PSI. The water pressure reducing valve was quickly replaced before any calamity could occur. 

We acted expeditiously because of what happened six or so years ago in our niece’s remodeled kitchen. When Julie came home from work one afternoon she found water cascading down from a second floor bathroom. A pipe had burst. Her recently remodeled kitchen required a complete redo, as did her adjacent dining room. 

Now, to be completely honest with you, Julie’s flood was traced to the absence of any water pressure reducing valve. Years of unchecked water pressure exacted its toll that fateful day. 

There’s no telling how long my pipes would have lasted at 100 psi. For sure, however, they’ll last longer at 50 psi. 

In case you’re wondering, our shower has lost some of its force. It’s a small price to pay for greater peace of mind.  

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Karlovy Vary Now and Then

 An offshoot of the war in Ukraine has been the antipathy bordering on anathema Czech citizens have for Russians since the invasion a year ago. It is particularly apparent in Karlovy Vary, a spa town that for centuries catered to the wealthy, particularly Russian aristocracy and well placed commissars (https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/03/world/europe/czech-russia-karlovy-vary-tourists.html?smid=em-share). 

Gilda and I visited Karlovy Vary, perhaps more commonly known to Americans as Carlsbad, in January 1998. We were driven there by our host, Václav Kašpar,  the vice dean of the University of Economics, Prague, who had invited me to Prague to deliver a presentation on American retailing. 

The Czech Republic was emerging from the sphere of Soviet Union-Russian influence. Capitalism, spearheaded by retailing, was a vital area of interest. 

As we drove the approximate 80 miles west to Karlovy Vary, the greyness of winter could not obscure the reality that life under the Soviet Union’s thumb had sapped the countryside of much of its splendor, a truth that became more apparent as we entered Karlovy Vary and toured one of their spas. Perhaps Russians would accept dilapidated treatment rooms and baths, but by Western standards the spa left much to be desired.

No doubt in the decades since our visit Karlovy Vary has upgraded many of its facilities. 

Most prominent in my memory of our stay in Prague was the experience of my presentation, a speech I had given several times in other European cities and in America. Back then I used a carousel of some 140 slides to illustrate American retailing. 

The half-circle auditorium was filled. It was set up like a theater, with seats banked upward to just below the ceiling. Above the top row there was a booth for the audio-visual staff who had taken my slide carousel for projection to a screen behind where I stood on the stage. I was given a remote clicker to advance or return to a slide.

Shortly after beginning I glanced at the screen to make sure the slides were in sync with my script. They were not. They were two ahead. I pushed the return button. Nothing happened. I pushed again. Nothing happened.

Seeing my distress, the A/V staff assumed my clicker had frozen. So every time they saw me press the clicker they manually advanced the slide carousel. As I was continually trying to go backwards, they were moving the carousel forward. While I would be talking about Walmart, they would be displaying a slide about Macy’s, for example. 

I soldiered through my hour-long presentation, relieved that the consecutive translation at least let my audience hear my words. I had stopped trying to sync the slides after realizing it would never happen. 

Václav apologized for the technical mishap, presented me with a commemorative medal from the university and arranged to take Gilda and me to Karlovy Vary the next day. 

Upon our return to Prague, an added bonus was a visit to his mother’s residence. A widow, she had an apartment in the central city that reflected the grandeur that once was Prague’s. 

It had parquet floors throughout the three bedroom apartment, with high ceilings and large windows. It was furnished with dark brown bureaus and tables. 

It was an apartment certainly too large for just one occupant. Indeed, Václav, his wife and son lived with her until they opted for a more suburban home of their own. 

Saturday, February 4, 2023

For Republicans, It's Miller Time, All the Time

 Seems “It’s Miller Time,” all the time, for the GOP. 

A New York Times profile of one of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s BFFs had this to say about primo lobbyist Jeff Miller: “Miller’s place at the intersection of power, money, influence and access has made him one of the most important behind-the-scenes figures in Washington” (https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/03/us/politics/jeff-miller-lobbyist-kevin-mccarthy.html?smid=em-share).

Now, there’s nothing improper about Miller’s derring-do, if you accept the validity of our lobbyist culture. And there can be little doubt Miller has clout, as he numbers among his clients “Apple, Anheuser-Busch, Dow Chemical, General Electric, the Wall Street giant Blackstone, Occidental Petroleum, the drugmaker trade group PhRMA and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.” 

What struck me about his access, his closeness to power in Washington, is his last name. Miller seems to be a repetitive surname among Republican consigliere. 

Take, for example, one of the more strident advisors to Donald Trump during his presidency—Stephen Miller. He was a senior advisor and director of speechwriting, as well as being a bulldog defending Trump immigration and repressive policies on newscasts and talk shows. 

Then there was Jason Miller, another Trump ex-senior advisor, this time focusing on his failed re-election campaign.

No doubt I am missing other Millers with Republican bonafides, but the one that immediately jumped to mind, considering my age, is William E. Miller, a former congressman from upstate western New York, whose conservatism so impressed Barry Goldwater that the Arizona senator chose him to be his vice presidential running mate in 1964 against President Lyndon Johnson and Hubert H. Humphrey. 

The Goldwater-Miller ticket lost badly, but it did succeed in pushing the “Southern Strategy” that has been Republican dogma since Democrats pushed through liberal voting rights and social welfare programs in the early 1960s. Seeds of the eventual success of the conservative strategy focused on white voters could be seen in the fact that in 1964 Goldwater-Miller won the following states: Arizona, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_E._Miller).

Also for geezers like me, William Miller stood out as one of the first real people to be highlighted in American Express’ wildly successful “Do you know me?” advertising campaign. Stores and restaurants might not have recognized the retired politician, but they would gladly accept his AmEx card. 

In other words, money talks. 


As long as we’re on the subject of politics, Republican style, heres’ a letter to the editor of The Times submitted by Tim Shaw of Cambridge, Mass. Tim’s commentary is a response to a Times article on Trump’s chances to secure the GOP presidential nomination in 2024 (https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/26/us/politics/rnc-trump-2024-election.html?smid=em-share):

Lately there have been many reports of Donald Trump’s imminent political demise, but despite the predictions he remains a dangerous opponent and a formidable campaigner.

“His power has always come not from politicians but from ordinary people who see him as a bigger, more successful version of themselves. However inarticulate he sounds to the rest of us, the message his base hears is always clear.

“Many of his handpicked candidates lost in 2022 because of their own failings; his appeal to the MAGA base appears undimmed.

“He is a fighter, with the constitution and mentality of an alligator, striking back ferociously when attacked. He has no regard for the truth, but he has realized that millions of voters don’t either.

“Certainly none of the sorry bunch of Republicans mentioned in your article have anything like his power on the campaign trail.”

I couldn’t agree more or said it better.