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63/62 Percent

Passover is in the rear view mirror. It’s tied with Sukkot as my favorite holiday, with Yom Kippur in 29th place. I don’t love the Pesach kashering and house cleaning, but seriously when would we ever clean cabinets and under frig racks and other such places?

This year Gail and I had a first – a few days in a “Pesach hotel,” in our case the very lovely Lansdowne Resort across the Potomac which was turned over to kosher authorities who did the food and ordered up the entertainment. Some families were there for the duration, meaning they walked out of their houses and locked the door and didn’t return till after the 8th day – they didn’t have to kasher a thing. That is surely the world to come. We can’t afford the world to come, but our two days were very nice. We weren’t sure which hotel to choose, but were reassured when our first night dinner table company told us that they chose the Lansdowne because it doesn’t appear at all on the bed bug registry.

The entertainment included a mentalist, who had us scratching our heads in awe till we checked him out the next morning on the google machine. We had a very perceptive lecture on current events from Norm Ornstein, a well known political scientist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Two of the many important pieces of data that he shared are ones I couldn’t forget:

1) 63% of Americans, if they had an emergency, could not come up with $500. That was pretty shocking. It is assumed that there are many Trump voters in that 63%, not that we liberals would say Trump cares in the least about those people. Which brings me to:

2) Ornstein point #2: Desperate these people may be, but they are not stupid. In exit polls of Trump voters, 62% had an unfavorable opinion of him, and that same percentage said he was not “qualified” to be president. Remember, these are the people who voted for him! How can a candidate win with numbers like these? Because the desire for change was so great that it overrode all of the doubts — or at least many of the doubts — people had about Trump. My personal analysis is that it was like playing the lottery – the chances of Trump succeeding were not high but if your life is so marginal that you don’t have $500 when you really need it, then it’s worth taking the chance that somehow or some way things will change. Very few voters thought Clinton would bring about much change.

We took time off from the serious to pray a lot and eat even more. Mealtime buffets were overrunning with pesadica delicacies. A “tea room” to die for, with huge containers of every kind of chocolate imaginable. Chicken wings and burgers at the pool all afternoon. I personally was able to gain 2.5 pounds in just those two days. You do the math for the full 8. But it was worth it, and we met some very nice people, and we highly recommend your checking out this kind of Pesach experience in coming years. Just check the registry first.

Best to you. Bill Rudolph

Gotcha – A Passover Thought

It’s bedikat chometz time when I write this, and I am procrastinating. So let me share a good thought from Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, the Orthodox rabbi up the road in Baltimore. You might find it useful in coming days. It’s about saying “gotcha.” It’s longer than my usual, but there is a stopping point midway.

Wohlberg is an RK, a rabbi’s kid, a dubious honor, and asks how much worse it must be to be a PK – a President’s kid. Not just Tiffany Trump, whose law school applications somehow merited 2/3 of the front page of the Post Style section. Who cares, and who would want that? But would you want to be Ivanka and Jared Kushner?  At first glance, who would NOT want to be Ivanka and Jared Kushner?  From the day they were born, they had it made.  Then, on their own, they made quite a name for themselves in real estate, publishing, fashion and design.  Who would not want to be Ivanka and Jared?  And then something happened.  Donald Trump became President … and Ivanka and Jared became part of the Washington political scene.   What’s not to like about that?

Here’s what’s not to like.  Ivanka is not just a PK – that’s bad enough!  But she’s a PKJ – Ivanka and Jared Kushner are Jewish … and that is a big problem.  NOT because of the anti-Semites in America, but because of the Jews in America.  For any other people, the Kushner/Trump marriage, or if you want, call it “merger,” is a beautiful, inspiring story.  For any other people, at a time when intermarriage so threatens our future, here is a Jewish boy who insists that his Protestant girlfriend convert; and she agrees!  She not only converts, but converts by an Orthodox rabbi and writes how beautiful she finds the Shabbos for the time it gives her family to be together.  For any other people, what pride they would take when, in the fall of one year, newspapers carried a picture of Jared and Ivanka pushing their baby carriage home from shul, showing their child with what was described as “holding flowers,” not knowing it was their lulav and etrog.  I mean, it doesn’t get better than that!

But we’re Jews, so why see something good when we can see something bad!  Listen to some of the headlines from both the Jewish and general press regarding Ivanka and Jared as Jews:

– “Jewish World Weighs In on Ivanka and Jared’s piety on inauguration day.”

– Then there is: “Ivanka and Jared’s ride to church on Shabbos sparks controversy.”

– “Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump should cut the hypocrisy.”

– “Ivanka Trump fails the Queen Esther test.”

– CNN Panel discusses influence of Jared Kushner’s Shabbat observance on father-in-law, President Donald Trump’s, tweeting.

– And then there’s this one: Kushner and Trump arrive in West Palm Beach, Florida – Friday – 5:51 PM EST – candle lighting 5:51 PM – sunset – 6:09 PM.

So now let me ask you once again: Would you want to be Ivanka and Jared?  They are not perfect, but would you want to be judged like this? And let me ask you: Is everything our business?  Do we have to stand in judgement of what everyone else does? That, in itself, is bad enough.  Even worse is the fact that very rarely when we judge do we find something good to say!  We are always looking for the “gotcha,” pulling them down not building them up.

That’s what Reb Levi Yitzchak of Bereditchiv used to do.  Rev Levi Yitzchak is one of the most beloved  rabbis in Jewish folk lore.  What made him so well liked?  Listen to this story.  Once he was walking with one of his Chassidim and they saw another of his followers greasing the axle on his wagon when he suddenly stopped to daven Mincha.  The Chassid said to Reb Levi, “Look at his despicable behavior … while he davens Mincha he fixes his axle.”  Reb Levi said, “No, no … look at what a beautiful Chassid he is.  While fixing his axle he davens Mincha.”  Reb Levi was able to see the best in everyone.  Is it really asking too much to do the same in regard to Ivanka and Jared?  And what about how, before moving to Washington, Ivanka and Jared came down to find a day school for their children and a shul that would be within walking distance of their home?  Do we know that many Jews who do that?  Why look for the bad in others when there is so much good to be found?

Ask yourselves honestly: When you talk with others about others, do you build them up or tear them down?  At a party, restaurant, school parking lot, do you look for something good to say about others, or do you delight in pointing out their flaws?  Tell the truth!

YOU CAN STOP HERE. Or you can read on about a candle that we use tonight. Every year on the night preceding the festival of Pesach, we have the ritual of Bedikat Chometz, the search for the chometz…that last ditch effort to make sure that there is no chometz in the house before Pesach arrives.  Tradition has us go from room to room with a feather to sweep up any chometz we may find, a wooden spoon to sweep the chometz into, and a candle … a candle to provide illumination for the search.

And so now we’re left with this question: We dispose of (usually by burning) the chometz and the spoon and the feather, they are or they touched chometz. But we also dispose of the poor little candle. All it did was help us perform a mitzvah.  Why do we dispose of it as well?

Wohlberg asked this question to his father when he was a child. The answer he has never forgotten:  “That candle served only one purpose in life.  To look for chometz.  Something that was used just to look for faults, to look for imperfections, something whose sole purpose in life is to look for something wrong in every nook and cranny … THAT you have to get rid of before you can celebrate Pesach.”  I like that thought, and I hope you do, too.  That candle is only used for “gotcha!”  That shouldn’t be around when we gather at the Seder table.

So at this season of spring housecleaning, let us clean house inside us as well.  Let us burn out the evil impulse that makes us derive some kind of psychic satisfaction from pulling down people.  Let’s look for other people’s virtues and not their flaws.    Indeed, at the Pesach Seder, we’ll be sitting with family and friends — some we haven’t seen for a while.  Are we going to be positive or negative?  Are we going to use this family experience to “tell it like it is” or “to set the record straight?”  Instead of criticizing “for their own good,” how about praising “for their own good?”  Instead of “gotcha” how about “love to have you.”

Think about it.  This week, let’s work on building ourselves up, not on pulling other people down.  Then, indeed, we will be blessed with a “Chag sameach – a truly beautiful festival” – and maybe a better society as well.

Best to you and yours for a wonderful holiday.  Bill Rudolph

Jumbo the Elephant

Last week it was the Nazis and drugs. Today I want to share some calendrical notices, continuing with the theme of doing anything to avoid the news. I have one of those calendars that has an entry each day, like Bach was born last Tuesday (in 1685), the first telephone call was made on (Friday) the 10th (in 1876), etc. For the week now concluding, we get these entries:

March 26: Robert Frost born, 1874. Think “The Road Not Taken.”
March 27: Release of song Singing in the Rain, 1952.
March 28: Barnum joins Bailey, 1881. See below.
March 29: Cy Young, greatest baseball pitcher ever (?), born 1867
March 30: National Doctor’s Day. Who knew?
March 31: Eiffel Tower opens first time, dignitary tour, 1889

Let me focus on March 28. Lo and behold, the circus was in the news lately, because several factors are putting it slowly but surely out of business. The very Barnum and Bailey, a merger of two smaller circuses, was launched as the Greatest Show on Earth in 1881 and featured Jumbo, maybe the world’s largest elephant. It was then bought up by the Ringling brothers in1907, creating what we know as the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Traveling Circus. The Feld family purchased it in 1956. It is closing down this year, after a mere 136 years! The website says it was a combination of declining interest (especially after the elephants went off the road last winter) and rising costs. May 21st at the Nassua Coliseum is it.

One of the most fascinating little events in my time at Beth El comes to mind as I read about the circus. About ten years ago, our preschool silent auction sought bids on four tickets to the very same circus. The morning of the silent auction, the school director got a call from a school parent demanding that the tickets be removed from the auction, because of the way the circus treats the elephants. The auction list had already been published, and the director couldn’t do it that same day, but invited the parent to come in during the week to discuss what might be done in the future. The parent wasn’t satisfied, went on social media to diss the school, saying it valued money more than animals, friends agreed and piled on, and it was a bad scene.

I asked the school director to do me a favor – when she meets with the parent, ask if s/he is a vegetarian. You guessed it, no! So, maybe I am seeing this wrong, but killing an animal and eating its flesh is OK, but whatever is done to circus elephants – well short of what is done to the cow – is not OK and anyone who supports the circus has lousy values and is to be shamed?

Welcome to our world. Maybe it’s not universal, but in a place like Bethesda, in our time, people have their mini issues and causes and go to the barricades over them. Last week I saw a new bumper sticker, Good People Don’t Eat Imported Fish. So there.

There are serious issues in our society that merit going to the barricades, maybe more than in a long time. I want to hear more about those. Maybe the problem is that we don’t all agree about what is “serious.” Or maybe we are taking righteous indignation too far. Something to ponder.

Next time, something about Pesach.         Best, Bill Rudolph

Blitzed

A steady dose of Trump is exhausting, and I commiserate with the writer who said “I am giving up Trump for Lent.” Trump has surely empowered the press, at least what I read, with the Times calling him a liar in a big font, and one commentator describing him as “volatile, irrational and vindictive.” These are unprecedented times. Let me do my Passover version of Lent and choose a different topic – a new book about Hitler and the Nazis that is getting a lot of press and that really captured my attention. Some see scary parallels between the Nazi era and what we have in America today, but I think and hope there is no real comparison.

The book, “Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany,” by Norman Ohler, a Berlin novelist doing his first non fiction, gives shocking new focus to the extent that the Third Reich was fueled by drugs – all sorts of drugs, and in stupefying quantities. Millions of doses of what we call crystal meth, packaged as pills, were gobbled up in battles throughout the war, part of an officially sanctioned factory-to-front campaign against fatigue. Hopped-up soldiers would sprint tirelessly through the Ardennes at the onset of war, an adrenalized performance that left Winston Churchill “dumbfounded,” as he wrote in his memoirs. A German general would later gloat that his men had stayed awake for 17 straight days. Maybe an exaggeration, but surely the early phases of the war saw turbocharged campaigns in much of Europe.

The most vivid portrait of abuse and withdrawal in “Blitzed” is actually that of Hitler, who for years was regularly injected by his personal physician with powerful opiates, like Eukodal, a brand of oxycodone once praised by William S. Burroughs as “truly awful.” For a few undoubtedly euphoric months, Hitler was also getting swabs of high-grade cocaine, in a sedation and stimulation combo that Mr. Ohler likens to a “classic speedball.” Added to this was his ongoing regimen of injected vitamins, hormones and steroids, which included extracts from the hearts and livers of animals; starting in the summer of 1943 came the opiates. “There are all these stories of party leaders coming to complain about their bombed-out cities,” Mr. Ohler said, “and Hitler just says: ‘We’re going to win. These losses make us stronger.’ And the leaders would say: ‘He knows something we don’t know. He probably has a miracle weapon.’ He didn’t have a miracle weapon. He had a miracle drug, to make everyone think he had a miracle weapon.” Mr. Ohler believes that Hitler’s drug consumption prolonged the war, by enabling his delusions.

I was struck by how sad and scary this story is, a whole army and its leader on a steady diet of heavy drugs that overrode normal functioning. What caught my attention and has more general relevance was what I found or didn’t find in the reviews of the Ohler book. It seems that the Nazis were not the only ones whose armies were under the influence. The Post says that methamphetamines were used by various armies during World War II as stimulants to aid fatigued soldiers. In 2014, the outnumbered and outgunned forces of the Islamic State staged their own blitzkrieg attack across Syria and Iraq, with professional armies melting away before them in retreat. It was later discovered that many fighters had been taking a methamphetamine called Captagon. Other reviewers don’t talk at all about this more widespread reality. I suppose it doesn’t fit their narrative.

In the case of the Nazis, I don’t mind a narrative that makes their evil seem unique, because I believe it was. In other cases, and we see it all around us today, narratives are pretty rigid and there is little openness to alternative possibilities. “Alternative truths” we decry, for sure, but not much place is given to real alternative viewpoints or narratives. We read or watch the news outlets that agree with our viewpoint, and they don’t try very hard to be balanced. This polarized reality has many victims, which is a subject for another day.

In the meantime, ponder all this at a time where calling out injustice and keeping an open mind are just a few of the challenges that face good citizens. Best, Bill Rudolph

Anti-Humanism

Purim, now in the rear view mirror, is a fun holiday but “lurking” behind it is the confrontation with anti-Semitism that never seems to end. Lately, here in America, we have seen it revive with the spate of bomb threats at JCC’s and the defacing of Jewish cemeteries. I don’t usually talk about this subject but it’s time to do so, sharing two colleague’s perspectives on this issue, one 40 years old and one written last week. This will be longer than my usual blogpost but it’s important and can’t be stated briefly.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech was an Orthodox shul rabbi in Oceanside and also wrote the famous The Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Judaism. 40 years ago the Jews of Oceanside woke up on Yom Kippur to find vandalization and curses painted at the entrance of all the local synagogues. He wrote at the time that when he heard the news reports saying that “a rash of anti-Semitic incidents struck Oceanside yesterday,” he thought, “wait a moment.” Were Semites the victims of prejudice or was it every member of society who values democratic ideals and the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Wasn’t the collective fabric of a free and ethical society torn by these actions, not just one group? And he said it would have been better stated that “a rash of anti-human incidents struck Oceanside yesterday.”

Fast forward to today in America. Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, up the road in Baltimore, wrote last week that he didn’t understand what Rabbi Blech was teaching then – why universalize the issue? curse words weren’t written on churches – but does now. We Jews are not in danger in America. It’s America that is in danger. Those who are making the bomb threats and defacing the cemeteries likely didn’t recently become anti-Semites and don’t just hate Jews. They have probably been filled with hate most of their lives, but (and here is where it gets serious) they didn’t think they could express it. Only when they heard America talking about things in public that they had only talked about in private: bad hombres and rapists coming in from Mexico … spies coming in amongst Syrian refugees … blacks and carnage … terrorism being perpetrated by illegal immigrants … Muslims imposing Sharia law … the LGBTQ community taking over our bathrooms – when this kind of talk becomes public discourse then “the rats feel comfortable coming out of the sewers.”

It’s not surprising that in this climate Jews would not be left out of the discussion. Do you really think the killer of a man from India in Kansas wouldn’t have been just as content killing a Jew?  Jews are the eternal “other.”  It was Haman who gave the Jews that title when he advocated our annihilation to the king by saying: “There is one people scattered amongst the people in all the provinces of your realm, v’datayhem shonot – and their laws are different.”  And who wants to be around people who are different? Rabbi Blech was right!  What we are experiencing is not anti-Semitic incidents but anti-human incidents.  Hatred of a Jew is irrational.  And hating a person because of the color of his skin is rational?  Or because of the country from which she comes?  Or because of the religion he practices?  Hating someone because he or she is different, is an “other” … does that make any sense?  And what about the Biblical verse: “Have we not all one Father?  Has not one God created us? “

I think we are all in this together.  If it seems that here in America it is we Jews who are most under attack right now, probably because we are the most visible amongst the “others.”  And we are not just visible, we are powerful!  We are all over the newspapers and television and Hollywood.  The other “others” are usually the less educated, the less affluent.  We are the more educated, the more affluent.  And that makes them hate us even more!  But, don’t kid yourselves: They hate us all!

We would do well to remember the immortal words spoken by the great Protestant minister, Martin Niemoller, who spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps.  You all know the words:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

Yes, all us “others” are in this together.  None of us, as humans, are safe.  This means that in the years ahead we Jews are going to have to work with the other “others” – blacks, gays, refugees and yes, Muslims.  I didn’t always see that so clearly. Now I do. Hopefully you do too.                                                         Best, Bill Rudolph

Flip Flopping

Shalom: Having trouble with my blog mechanics, hope you can read this.

With so much focus on the news from and about this new administration, let me share my relevant dilemma. For the last many years, it has been a constant challenge for me to determine which newspaper, the Post or the Times, gets me more upset. Not so much in general, though their perspective is pretty consistently “left” – as is mine on most issues – so that apart from an occasional op ed to try to show balance, I don’t think we are getting “the news.” Rather my angst, discussed over the years in It’s Wednesday, is specific to their coverage of Israel and related issues. I read the Times online, and receive the Post in home delivery. I can’t really cancel the former, but there have been dozens of times that the Post drove me to exasperation and immediate cancellation plans (which were overridden by my wife.) Both papers are in IMHO so biased in their coverage of Israel, in what they cover and don’t cover and how often they think Israel is wrong no matter what it does or doesn’t do. If I had a dart board, photos of William Booth or Roger Cohen or Tom Friedman would be obliterated by now. I think the lessening of support for Israel that we are seeing, certainly on the left, can be placed much more squarely at the feet of media like these than policies of Israel’s government. That upsets me.
Funny thing, though, lately I have been loving the Times and the Post. That, of course, is because they have taken on our new President in frontal ways that make me want to cheer. Now, all the sudden, I love their perspective which I think is so correct and so needed in the face of (not so much Trump’s conservative approach but) his intolerance and constant lying and narcissism and character assassination and you name it. Without the press, the occasional demonstration or rally notwithstanding, there wouldn’t be much of a voice in opposition to the transformation in the character and core values of this nation that Trump is commanding, purposefully or not, and in the vulgar way he is attempting it.
But I don’t feel good about loving those papers now either. I look in the mirror and I see a flip flopper. What does the flip flop say about me? A fair weather fan of the media and who knows what else? That I like what the media says as long as it agrees with my views, and no further, and that I can turn against or towards it in the bat of an eye? Something about this makes me uncomfortable. Maybe consistency is no longer a possible way to live our lives in this difficult time, but it doesn’t feel at all right.
Help me figure this out if you can. Best regards. Bill Rudolph


Disrupter in Chief

This for me is a stretch of the semi-retirement benefit called getting out of town to warmer places. The blog has been irregular as a result, for which I ask your forgiveness.
Our Middle School President, as I am want to call him because his functioning is about on that level, is also called The Disrupter in Chief. He is causing lots of sleep problems for most people I know. I don’t need to ask which actions have caused each of us the most consternation and/or pain, the list is so long. From his Cabinet appointees, many of whom oppose the mission of their department, to the immigration orders, to his attacks on the judiciary or the CIA or Nordstrom or you name it.

I have one piece of analysis and one recommendation. The analysis is that part of what is going on is too much change. Change comes slowly to us. When we just try another melody for the Adon Olam, don’t think it goes by unnoticed, and the stakes there are not so high. Trump is producing lots of change, some of which we might even appreciate (eg. a reset in the U.S. relationship with Israel) if it wasn’t coming at us at such a rapid fire rate. It is disquieting to say the least. My doctor shared with me the theory that it is a carefully designed plan to bombard us with so much change that we tune it out and it can go forward unnoticed. I am not sure it’s that Machiavellian – I don’t give the WH leadership that much credit – but a slower pace would be a wise idea (in case anybody is listening.) There is no time to process this way, and negative responses are almost guaranteed especially given the content of most of the changes.

My recommendation is about how to make it through these difficult days. It is a three part strategy:

1. We develop an “expect the worst” attitude towards each day. That we assume upsetting announcements will be forthcoming from the WH and not be shocked by them. It’s not a mindset that we have been practicing before, but it seems needed now.

2. With this new mindset we are not, as it might appear, allowed to ignore the news or be inured to injustice, far from it. Activism may be more necessary than in any recent time. The people need to speak. Activism can be attached to a major cause, like the immigration ban or whatever reincarnation follows, through public demonstrations or by personal outreach to Muslims and immigrants that we know. Or it can be as simple an act as going out of our way to shop at Nordstrom and letting the salespeople know why. Doing something, not just agonizing, is good therapy and more.

3. We not watch/read the news after about 9PM, chances of a good night’s sleep will increase.

Share with me your strategies. Best regards and prayers for our country. Bill Rudolph