Star Wars

Happy 2017. I think most people here and around the world are happy to say goodbye to 2016, lots of tsuris, but part of us fears that the new year could be worse. But we can’t think like that.

Gail and I saw a number of movies over the break. Even I have figured out that Hollywood saves its best for year’s end, so the Oscar deciders won’t have forgotten how enthusiastic they may have been for a film if too much time has gone by. So we enjoyed Manchester by the Sea (beautifully done but very sad), La La Land ( terrific but we wished for a different end), Rogue One (see below) and Lion (powerful.)

Rogue One has a lot of deep historical significance for Star Wars fans, I am told. For the average Joe, it is a fun sci fi film with maybe too much violence. What got my attention was an article by Sam Kestenbaum in the Forward that talked about the attention the film is getting from, of all people, white supremacists. I was surprised and read on.

White supremacists, alt-right people we now seem to call them, are actually of two minds on Star Wars, this film and its recent predecessors. You won’t like either of the two. On the one hand, some of these white nationalists want the film boycotted, calling it evidence of a Jewish plot to foist racial diversity on whites. “(((Star Wars))) is anti-white social engineering,” says GenFrancoPepe on one “alt-right” forum. [Did you know that the triple parentheses, known as an “echo,” are a way anti-Semites online call attention to Jewish names or perceived Jewish influence?] Look, says GenFrancoPepe, at the multiracial makeup of the stars, look at the female starring roles of late, look how many Jewish writers and producers are involved. It’s the Jewish cabal promoting multiculturalism at the expense of an embattled “white civilization.” Who knew it wasn’t just a movie?

On the other hand, some on the far right love Star Wars. The evil Empire is appealing, Darth Vader a hero. Star Wars creator George Lucas “confused the good guys with the bad,” wrote a Weekly Standard writer early in the Star Wars releases;“the deep lesson of Star Wars is that the Empire is good.” Then there is Steve Bannon, about whom we have heard much, musing as follows, “Darkness is good…. Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.” One commentator with this view urged people to pirate the film (God forbid they pay to get in) and “fantasize about being a stormtrooper.” When you think about it, the Empire leadership is easily mistaken for Nazis. Silly George Lucas, he thought that would make them unappealing! But the Nazis hated Jews and believed in the pure Aryan (white) race – that makes them appealing to the alt-right. Another “alt-right” member writes: “We know which side we prefer. Always buy the Empire Legos. Always root for Hitler. Always retell the story your own way.”

Isn’t this a fitting commentary on what the year now past brought us? Goodbye and good riddance. We hope that somehow 2017 will see a rebirth of civility and tolerance, but it takes all of our optimism genes and more to see that happening. At the least, we can practice those good qualities in our own lives.

Happier topics to follow I hope. Best, Bill Rudolph

Christmas and Chanukah

Shalom. The two exactly coincide this year, which evidently has happened only 4 times in the last 100 years!  It’s good when they are close because we can fool ourselves into thinking there is no school because it’s Chanukah, and we are singing when Christians are singing and we are giving gifts when they are giving gifts.  But of course there is a flip side, as people think the holidays are similar.

Anyway, it’s not been the happiest of secular years that is soon ending, so how about a little on the lighter side to match the holiday season? First an old joke, then a new feel good story.

A teacher was curious about how each of her students celebrated Christmas.  She called on young Patrick Murphy.  “Tell me, Patrick, what do you do at Christmas time?” she asked.  Patrick addressed the class: “Me and my 12 brothers and sisters go to midnight Mass and sing hymns, then we come home and put mince pies by the back door and hang up our stockings.  Then we go to bed and wait for Father Christmas to come with toys.”

“Very nice, Patrick,” the teacher said.  “Now, Jimmy Brown, what do you do at Christmas?”   “Me and my sister also go to Church with Mom and Dad and we sing carols, and after we get home we put cookies and milk by the chimney and we hang up our stockings. We hardly sleep, waiting for Santa Claus to bring our toys,” Jimmy replied.  “That’s also very nice Jimmy,” she said.

Realizing there was a Jewish boy in the class and not wanting to leave him out of the discussion, she asked Isaac Cohen the same question. “Now Isaac, what do you do at Christmas?”   Isaac said, “Well, we go for a ride and we sing a Christmas carol.”  Surprised, the teacher questioned further. “Tell us what you sing.”   “Well, it’s the same thing every year. Dad comes home from the office.  We all get into the Mercedes, and we drive to his toy factory. When we get inside we look at all the empty shelves and we sing, “What a friend we have in Jesus.”  Then we all go on a cruise to the Bahamas.”

Something about that story makes me a little uncomfortable, but let’s stay positive. The past five years the Baltimore Jewish community has put up a giant thirty-two foot Menorah in the heart of downtown Baltimore on McKelden Square. In past years, the mayor of Baltimore and the governor of Maryland and many other dignitaries participated in the lighting celebration and the Menorah has become a holiday fixture downtown.

One of the problems they have always struggled with is how to properly illuminate the entire menorah at night. Nothing has really worked, so this year the rabbi/organizer went to his google machine and searched, “outdoor illumination Baltimore.” Sure enough, in just a flash, Google came up with a number of options. He randomly clicked on one of them, a company located in Harford County north of Baltimore called Good News Electric, and dialed the number. He explained the dilemma to the fellow who answered the phone and asked if this was something they could help with. His response was, “This is something you would need to talk to the boss, Mr. Dennis Seufert, about.”

When reached, Mr. Seufert had already been alerted to the request. It turns out that his downtown office is located just a few blocks away from the site so he went right over and took a look, as well as receiving a picture of the menorah. Within a half hour, Mr. Seufert called back and said they could easily do the job and, in fact, had just the right equipment in their warehouse to do it. Then, he was asked the all important question of how much it was going to cost. He paused for a moment and answered, “Rabbi, I am a devout Catholic and I believe in Divine providence. G-d brought you to me and I wouldn’t think of charging you.” He then added, “Where would we Christians be if not for the Jewish people?”

Does that illuminate and warm your heart? It did mine.

Best wishes for a Chag Chanukah Sameach. Bill Rudolph

 

Did He Really Kiss Him?

Last time I wrote about “post truth.” And now I ask you a related question: is it possible to be totally objective? Was it ever? I know the world of Bible pretty well, and I can say without doubt that nobody is totally objective when they read and interpret it. But what about the world of the world today?

This week’s Torah portion has the long awaited reunion of Jacob and Esau, apart 20 years after Jacob acquired the birthright and blessing from Esau in dubious ways and fled to his uncle Lavan’s home in Mesopotamia because Esau swore he would kill him. They do meet finally, the morning after Jacob has his scary wrestling dream, and we read (Genesis 33:4) that” Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” Seems simple enough, except that the word for“kissed him” has dots over it in the Masoretic text, indicating there is something unusual going on here. Some rabbis think it was genuine, others won’t credit Esau with any decent motives and see the dots as a clue that we should read the word (with a not unreasonable vowel change) as “he bit him” and then sucked his blood. How could the rabbis see this reunion so differently? Well, here it gets really interesting.

You see, none of the rabbis know what really happened when Yaakov and Esau met.  That took place more than 1500 years before they lived.  All the rabbis really had to go on were the dots.  All they could do is try to analyze what the dots meant by looking at the whole Torah text and see if there was something one way or the other they could learn from it.  What they learned oftentimes had more to do with their own personal situation than the text.  Some were living in peaceful good times, others saw enemies all around, and their analysis most likely reflects that, flowing from their own background and circumstances.

It is no different today, and I am not just talking Biblical interpretation. We see things the way we do because of our own background and life experiences. Nobody is totally neutral in looking at the world. We all have our “agendas.”

There was a good op-ed piece in Wednesday’s Post by Barton Swaim, titled “An indictment of ‘real’ news.” He talks about the post truth phenomenon, then takes on the legitimate press which we think is giving us “real” news. Here too journalists often produce mostly true statements or key lines that infer far more than the facts allow. He gives examples. The reporters were likely trying, however imperfectly, to report the truth. But their backgrounds or biases, in the examples Swaim uses likely coming from a dislike of Trump, sometimes come into play. In general, “there is no such thing as an uninterpreted fact, and journalists are just as much interpreters as reporters of fact.” And Swaim goes on to say that “I suspect that one of the chief reasons so many Americans prefer harrowing Internet rumors to mainstream news is that they’ve grown impatient with journalists’ pretense that their assertions involve only truth, only facts unmediated by opinion or partiality. These Americans may have their gullible moments, but they know better than that.”

If we look at the ongoing press coverage of Israel, or of two key figures in the post election political discussion – Keith Ellison and Steve Bannon – we can see how much interpretation comes into play. I could do without either of these two men in the positions they will hold or hope to hold, but that is my interpretation of who they are and what they stand for.

So, what to do if everything we read may be interpretation not fact? Work hard to find the facts. If Esau had bitten his brother, they both wouldn’t have wept. That’s almost easy. But it’s not easy in today’s world, where it is now clear that there are few facts that are not filtered through the perceptions of the persons reporting them. The Post and the Times and the Wall Street Journal are not neutral observers of the American or world scene, nor are the main media news outlets. But we must keep at it, and try to get our news from a variety of sources not just one, and try to talk with a variety of people not just those we know agree with us. The times demand our careful attention more than ever, but we can still pray that facts and objective reporting will regain more of a footing someday soon.

Best to you and Shabbat Shalom. Bill Rudolph

P.S. If you are in the Washington area, don’t miss the 9th annual Latke Hamantash Debate this Sunday at Beth El at 10AM; it’s a nice break from the news.

 

The Comet Ping Pong

I heard a wonderful news story that appeared recently on some Jewish websites and blogs. The CEO of a a company that produces children’s sports outerwear received a phone call from the current South Korean UN Ambassador asking to meet. When they met, the Ambassador told the CEO the following, “I have always heard negative stereotypes about Jews and Israel and I took it at face value. Then, my daughter took an internship working on design in your company. Throughout the year, she has been telling me how wonderful it is to work at your company.”  The Ambassador talked about the daily minchah minyan [the firm has Orthodox management], the early closing on Friday afternoon to prepare for the Sabbath, the respect each charity seeker received, and that his daughter was treated with the utmost respect.  Because of the amazing experience and lessons the company taught his daughter, the Ambassador took out his checkbook and was ready to write a check returning all his daughter’s earnings!  The CEO wouldn’t hear of it.

Then the Ambassador relayed the most amazing thing. “As you know, I have voting privileges at the UN. Because of my renewed appreciation of the Jewish people, I abstained from voting on resolutions against Israel on three occasions. 0n one resolution I was the ninth vote needed to pass the motion and because I abstained it failed.”

Feel good story, right? Except that since its first publication it has been deleted from the websites and it’s looking like it never happened! So, any harm done? Is it a big deal? Only if it’s part of a pattern, and it seems to be. We locals all read about James Alefantis, who owns the D.C. pizza restaurant called The Comet Ping Pong.  Two weeks before the presidential election, Mr. Alefantis, who offered to help the Clinton campaign, started receiving hundreds of death threats.  All of his employees were getting similar abusive messages.  He searched online to try and find out what was happening.  He found that there were dozens of made-up articles about Hillary Clinton, claiming that she was kidnapping, molesting and trafficking children in the restaurant’s back rooms.  None of it was true of course!  But Mr. Alefantis, and all of his employees, were bombarded with abusive social media comments and had to start hiding pictures of their children and home addresses.  And this past week, as we well know, a gunman entered the premises seemingly prepared to shoot up the place!

There are too many such stories these days.  In fact, there’s even a name for this -“post- truth.”  It happened so often during the presidential election that the Oxford Dictionary designated it “the word of the year.”  The word itself dates back to at least 1992, but Oxford saw its usage explode by 2000% this year.  What does “post- truth” mean?  The dictionary defines it as follows: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”  Yes, people go around making up stories, or believing stories, that are not based on facts but are based on what you want to believe.  And this can be very dangerous!  It is said that Hitler’s favorite Latin proverb was: “Mundus vult decipi ergo decapiatur – the world wants to be deceived, therefore, let it be deceived.”  And that is just what the world is attempting to do or have done to it today, here and certainly at the United Nations. If a U.N. body can pass a resolution that denies that there was ever a Temple in Jerusalem, then we know that “post truth” affects us too. Just one more thing to worry about in these worrisome times.

So, this blog isn’t intended to make you miserable. A late 90’s Beth El mission to Israel included a stop at the Conservative shul Moriah in Haifa that launched a relationship that lasted some time. I just saw that the building suffered major damage in the recent devastating brush fires that hit Haifa especially hard. The second floor of the shul, where we davvened, was destroyed and there was much other damage. Then I read that two Israeli Arab timber suppliers have offered to donate wood paneling to the synagogue. Walid Abu-Ahmed and Ziad Yunis decided to supply the wood free of charge and cover the labor costs after the congregation’s rabbi, Dov Hiyon, sought estimates from them for synagogue repair work. “I had tears in my eyes when I heard what was happening,” Hiyon said. “Jews and Arabs live together in Haifa, and there is no discrimination,” said Abu-Ahmed. “We must continue with this co-existence and promote peace.” “We are all people,” he said. “I call on all citizens — Arabs and Jews everywhere — to continue to live in co-existence. We all want to live happy lives.” So, there are also some real truths, encouraging ones, out there. May they quickly displace the other kind.

Ponder that and have a good Shabbat. Bill Rudolph

My Brother Z”L

I have had writer’s block of late, pretty sure I didn’t want to delve into the obvious topic, the election, even if I can’t resist reading the multitudinous attempts to understand it. Thanksgiving was a challenge, but we kept things civil by focusing the kids on the workings of the electoral college and the impeachment process. Anyway, I think this is one of those rare cases where everything has been said already AND everyone has said it. So, let’s try something different.

My brother died mid September, already 2 1/2 months ago. Your support during this time has been most welcome, especially as the loss has been heavier than I anticipated.
Being the only survivor, I took on the tasks relating to clearing out Steve’s apartment and going through his papers. It’s not that much fun, as some of you know who have done this. I feel like a voyeur much of the time and everything I touch that he touched makes me a little sad.

You learn a lot about somebody from doing this. People collect the oddest things, and Steve was no different. Others retain every piece of paper; Steve was one of those too. He kept elaborate records also. The most interesting of the latter is the record of the approximate mileage he put on each of the cars that he owned, from the 1959 Ford with a mere 30,000 miles to the 1969 Pontiac with 77,000 to the 1984 Chevy with 92,000. The last cars were the 1994 Ford with 65,000 and his first (and last) foreign car, a 2002 Nissan with 89,000 miles when he traded it in a few months before he died. Grand total: 560,000 miles. Can anyone tell me their totals? I also noticed that he got a new car every few years early in his life, then it was ten years or more between cars as I guess the novelty of having the latest model wore off.

Steve also seems to have kept every financial document and statement he ever received – carton after carton of cancelled checks (remember those?), medical bills, lab reports, bank statements, social security notices, you name it. I guess he didn’t know about the six year rule for saving things. Anyway, it turns out that it was not in vain. An annuity that he had taken out is being transferred to me. The insurer says its basis is about 6% of the current value of the policy which was taken out in the late 80’s. There is no way a conservative annuity could grow that much in that period of time, but the insurer (biggest in America) insists that is all they can verify and the total of the increase will be taxable. But there in all the boxes were originals from the late 80’s, some handwritten by the broker, indicating much larger initial contributions. Uncle Sam will get less, but don’t feel too sorry for him.

Being the last left of our family still is weighing me down. As Congregant D wrote to me, “People experiencing sibling loss have compared it to losing a deep part of their childhood. The ones with whom you share the same heritage, upbringing and values during an entire lifetime are no longer present in your life. “ D remembers me talking about growing up in Philadelphia and the sense of joy I had about those years. Give us a ball and we could play all day. Life was simpler. And there was only one person who experienced it all with me. And he, all the sudden, is gone.

You know what to do this weekend. Call your siblings. Shabbat Shalom and best regards. Bill Rudolph

President Elect Donald Trump

Everyone, on both sides of the aisle, is in a state of shock over the results of the presidential election. Young people who supported Clinton are especially affected, feeling that they lost both an ideal and an expectation. Living inside the Beltway, or on the Upper West Side, it is now totally clear, is living in a bubble; it distorts the vision of what the country is really thinking and feeling. Seeing that reflected at the ballot box is eye-opening; for some that is good and for some that is chilling.

Like most Jews, I voted for Hillary. Between 70-80% did. I thought she would be a good President. With Trump I had/have mostly fears and doubts. But he was elected, so now what? A lot has been written already about what happened, about which I know as much as you do, or what to think going forward. I share some thoughts now on the latter, brief of course.

Every Shabbat morning in synagogues around the world we recite a prayer for the welfare of our government.  It is recited not because it’s the nice thing to do, or the patriotic thing to do … it is recited because it is the Jewish thing to do!  Our tradition tells us to do it. I can give you the texts if you wish. When I was in Zimbabwe last fall, we recited the prayer, even with a brutal incompetent government. Here too we have to show respect and support for the leader of our country whether we like him or not, whether we like it or not! But we worry about what will be. Will President Donald Trump build a wall along the Mexican border and get Mexico to pay for it?  Will he ban Muslim immigration?  Will he tear up the Iran Nuclear Agreement?  Will he move the American embassy to Jerusalem?  Will he deport illegal immigrants?  Will he negate the ACA?  Will he bomb ISIS?  Tear up international trade deals?  No one can know for sure.

A colleague reminded me of two figures in history who may provide some hopeful perspective on what may be. Remember what happened when Ariel Sharon became Prime Minister?  He had been considered the ultimate Hawk … the father of the settlements.  And then when he became Prime Minister, he was the one who uprooted 8000 settlers and disengaged Israel from all of Gaza.  Critics on the right condemned him, but he explained, “The view from here is different than the view from there.”  When you are the head of a country things look very different than when you are just a political candidate.  What you say on the campaign trail may be very different from what you can do from a place like the Oval Office.

There is also the legend that when Alexander the Great was first serving in the Greek army, one of his superiors insulted him and Alexander promised revenge someday.  Later on in life, when he became the ruler of the Greek empire, one of his aides remarked to him that he had never taken vengeance on his old time adversary.  And Alexander replied, “I am not going to allow Alexander the Small to dictate policy to Alexander the Great.”  Yes, for Alexander the Great – like Ariel Sharon – the view had changed from “there” to “here.”

So, as President, will he be “Donald the Great” or “Donald the Small?”  We can hope that he will rise to the occasion. In the meantime, I like what Mark Cuban tweeted the day after, “We all need to give President-elect Trump a chance, support the good, lobby against what we disagree on.” Feel free to write back. Best, Bill Rudolph

 

Anxiety

NY Times columnist David Brooks is my favorite of those people. I thought his piece early this week on the anxiety many Americans are feeling in this election season was right on target, and worth sharing. Mostly this is Brooks, assume that quotes go around most of it. I have just finished many holidays and don’t have so many original thoughts.

This election campaign isn’t now and maybe never was about policy proposals, issue solutions or even hope. It has taken the form of two candidates who arouse gargantuan anxieties, fear and hatred in their opponents. As a result, some mental health therapists are reporting that three-quarters of their patients are mentioning significant election-related anxiety. An American Psychological Association study found that more than half of all Americans are very or somewhat stressed by this race.

Now there are good and bad forms of anxiety — the kind that warns you about legitimate dangers and the kind that spirals into dark and self-destructive thoughts. In his book “Worrying,” Francis O’Gorman notes how quickly the good kind of anxiety can slide into the dark kind. “Worry is circular,” he writes. “It may start with a concrete anxiety: Did I lock the back door? Is this headache a stroke? And it has a nasty habit of taking off on its own, of getting out of hand, of spawning thoughts that are related to the original worry and which make it worse.” That’s what’s happening this year. Anxiety is coursing through American society. It has become its own destructive character on the national stage.

Worry alters the atmosphere of the mind. It cycles possible bad futures around in your head and forces you to live in dreadful future scenarios, 90 percent of which will never come true. Pretty soon you are seeing the world through a dirty windshield. A mounting tide of anxiety makes people angrier about society and more darkly pessimistic about the possibility of changing it.

This being modern polarized America, worry seems to come in two flavors. The first fits many (some?) people we know. Educated-class anxiety can often be characterized as a feeling of overabundant options without a core of convicting purpose. It’s worth noting that rich countries are more anxious than poorer ones. According to the World Health Organization, 18.2 percent of Americans report chronic anxiety while only 3.3 percent of Nigerians do.  Today, when you hear affluent people express worry, it’s usually related to the fear of missing out, and the dizziness of freedom. The affluent often feel besieged by busyness and plagued by a daily excess of choices. At the same time, there is a pervasive cosmic unease, the anxiety that they don’t quite understand the meaning of life, or have not surrendered to some all-encompassing commitment that would bring coherence and peace. I see that.

This election has also presented members of the educated class with an awful possibility: that their pleasant social strata may rest on unstable molten layers of anger, bigotry and instability. How could this guy Trump get even 40 percent of the votes? America may be not quite the country we thought it was. I definitely have felt this.

Now, among the less educated, anxiety flows from and inflames a growing sense that the structures of society are built for the exploitation of people like themselves. Everything is rigged; the rulers are malevolent and corrupt. It is a well-established fact that people who experience social exclusion have a tendency to slide toward superstitious and conspiratorial thinking. People who feel exploited by, and invisible to, those at the commanding heights of society are not going to worry if their candidate can’t pass a fact-check test. They just want someone who can share their exclusion and give them a better story.

Anxiety changes people. We’ve seen a level of thuggery this election cycle that is without precedent in recent American history. Some of the anti-Trump demonstrators seem more interested in violence than politics. Some of the Trumpians are savage.

Now, some of the things that have made us vulnerable to this wave of anxiety are not going away — the narratives of fear, conspiracy and the immobilizing stress. America’s culture may be permanently changed for the worse.

But the answer to worry is the same as the answer to fear: direct action. If the next president starts enacting a slew of actual policies, then at least we can argue about concrete plans, rather than vague apocalyptic moods. Furthermore, action takes us out of ourselves. If we’re worrying, we’re spiraling into our own narcissistic pool. But concrete plans and actions thrust us into the daily fact of other people’s lives. This campaign will soon be over, and governing, thank God, will soon return.

Ponder this and have a good day. Bill Rudolph