Thursday, February 15, 2018


I haven’t been much of a fan of House Minority Leader Pelosi since she first rudely turned her back on Prime Minister Netanyahu when he came to address Congress about the Iran deal in the spring of 2015 and then tetchily exited the chamber before he even left the podium. But I do have to say I was impressed by marathon oration she delivered in the House last week on behalf of the so-called Dreamers, a speech in which she read personal accounts written by young people facing deportation if no way out of our nation’s immigration quagmire is found, quoted the Bible at length, and attempted to cast the issue as a moral issue rather than a political one, let alone a legal matter best assigned to our nation’s criminal justice system for handling. Man, she went on! The speech lasted more than eight hours, possibly the longest speech ever in the House of Representatives and definitely the longest since 1909, when a representative from Missouri spoke for more than five hours about some now-long-forgotten issue related to tariffs and taxes. I was impressed, and not solely by her apparently iron-clad bladder (although by that too): I was also impressed that was able to remain standing in four-inch high heels for the length of her entire speech. And, yes, also by her rhetoric, behind which were lurking the various issues that I’d like to write about this week, and foremost among them the issue itself of the Dreamers, which term has become the almost universally used name for individuals brought to this country illegally as children and now facing deportation as illegal aliens unless Congress can find some sort of solution to what has become one of thorniest and intractable issues facing the nation.

As everybody surely knows by now (even without listening to Minority Leader Pelosi’s speech), President Obama announced in June of 2012 that his administration was going to stop deporting undocumented immigrants who meet the criteria set forth in the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, a legislative proposal first introduced in the Senate by Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in 2001, but which has never been enacted into law. The criteria are few and simple: to qualify under the act, a young person would have to have been under age 16 when arriving here, to have lived here for more than five years before the enactment of the bill into law, to have been between 12 and 35 at the time of the bill’s enactment, to be of good moral character (which the act leaves undefined but which appears mostly to mean that the individual has never been arrested and/or charged with too serious a crime), and to be enrolled in school if not already a high school graduate or in possession of a GED.

So that was then. But now that program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is coming to an end. Last September, President Trump announced that the Obama-era program was going to be wound down and instructed the Department of Homeland Security to stop processing new or renewal applications. The President then challenged Congress to deal with the issue by passing legislation that would incorporate a program for dealing with the Dreamers, which sympathetic name the President himself uses all the time in public discourse. That, as everybody knows, hasn’t happened. And so the first of those who were eligible to stay under the DACA program are facing deportation as early as next month.

The issue is a complicated one for all of us, but particularly for people like myself.

On the one hand, I myself am descended from immigrants who came here not to escape war or to save their lives per se (although it can’t be considered irrelevant that they would almost surely have been murdered with the rest of their Jewish neighbors had they stayed home in Nowy Dwór), but merely (merely!) to seek a better life in a free land characterized by almost unlimited opportunity for all. So to claim that the siren call of everything that truly makes America great—our prosperity, our values, our rigorous dedication to the promotion and preservation of human rights, our justice system, our lack of a national religion that by its nature condemns the faithful of all other religious groups to outsider status, our representative democracy, and the impartiality of our justice system—to declare myself simply unable to seize why anyone would want to leave his or her homeland and settle here instead is to deny the reality of my own family’s story. How could any patriotic citizen not understand why others would want to live here?

On the other hand, however, I am not only descended from immigrants but also married to one. And to bring Joan here—and to procure first a Green Card and then full citizenship for her—that, was no simple undertaking. There were, as most readers probably don’t know from first-hand experience, a gazillion hoops to jump through: countless forms to fill out, affidavits to attest to, oaths to take, interviews to schedule and then successfully to complete, and years upon years of waiting until it was finally Joan’s turn to appear in Citizenship Court to take her oath of allegiance to our nation and then proudly and enthusiastically to register on the spot to vote. We followed all the rules…so at the same time I am influenced by my forebears’ history I am also influenced by my own family’s experience.

Does it matter to me that it cost us a fortune in lawyers’ fees to make this all happen correctly and in as timely a manner as possible? The truth is that that detail works on me in both directions at once, both making me irritated with people who opt to save their money (and we are talking about a lot of money here) by just skipping the whole procedural nightmare and instead choosing to live here illegally, but also making me sympathetic to people who simply cannot afford to hire an immigrant lawyer to smooth their path forward and who therefore have no choice but to attempt to negotiate this truly impenetrable thicket of confusing rules, picayune details, and nearly-incomprehensible forms on their own and, for the vast most part, in a second or third language they may not even speak perfectly fluently.  Yet, you are theoretically allowed just to fill out the forms on your own without a lawyer’s guidance. But saying that is the equivalent of saying that you are allowed to fill out your income tax forms on your own (and with your own soon-to-be-non-deductible pencil) and mail them in without any help or advice from an accountant…or at least an on-line tax-bot programmed to review your work and point out all the errors you made.

The endless harping on the moral character of the Dreamers strikes me as hugely irrelevant: one of the glories of our republic is supposed to be the blindness of a justice system that treats everybody fairly and equally, specifically not allowing extraneous details to influence the decision of a judge or jury with respect to an accused person’s guilt.

Far more relevant, in my opinion, is the fact that the initial illegal act in question here—a non-citizen coming to this country without permission and settling here illegally—was by definition undertaken by DACA-eligible young adults as children in their parents’ care. Some were babies, but even those who were toddlers or older children can hardly be made to suffer forever because of their parents’ bad deeds. Indeed, the real reason the Dreamers’ plight is so popular to talk about is precisely because it is so much easier to imagine their dilemma being resolved than their parents’, not to mention the other 11 million or so undocumented foreign citizens living illegally in this country, none of whom can claim that they were brought here by someone else and all of whom made the conscious decision to see if they could get away with breaking the laws that govern immigration to our country.

For the Dreamers, though, I have a solution to propose.

The rule—the entirely sensible rule—is generally that citizens of other countries have to apply to come here as would-be immigrants while still residing in their countries of origin. But what if that specific rule were to be relaxed in this one instance? What if we were to require Dreamers to acquire passports from whatever country they are actual citizens, and then to apply to “emigrate” from their home country but without insisting that they actually set up residence there? That would require bending the rules a bit. But it would lead to two good things: requiring the Dreamers themselves to own up to the fact that they are citizens of the countries that they actually are citizens of (it’s a sign of how strange this whole situation is that that sounds like a radical idea, even to me) and requiring that our government exert itself to solve a problem tearing our nation apart merely by bending a procedural rule slightly. Just for the record, Joan applied for her Green Card both times while resident in the U.S., something permitted to her because on both occasions—when we first married and then when we returned here after sixteen years abroad—she was here fully legally. So it’s not like it doesn’t happen ever. It’s just not supposed to happen to people who aren’t here legally. That’s the detail I am proposing we relax in this one instance.

After that, the process should be the same one that applies whenever anyone applies to come here as an immigrant. For persons deemed worthy, the path should open up to acquire first a Green Card and then, eventually, to become a citizen. Persons not approved for immigration should be helped, financially if necessary, to return home…and that should be the rule even if that person doesn’t think of that country as home at all. What can’t go on forever is this ever-burgeoning numbers of illegals: we need to find a way either to make the undocumented among us into citizens or to help them find their way back to their home countries. Hoping the problem will go away if we ignore it long enough is not a rational plan forward for our country.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Rabbi in a Pick-Up

Although I have never actually watched a Super Bowl game from beginning to end, I have been in a room in which the game was playing on a television many times and have occasionally watched part of it. And this year was no exception—when we got back from spending the afternoon in the city playing with Michal (and her parents, but mostly Michal), we did turn the game on to see who was winning and how much time was left. So it’s not like we didn’t watch the game at all!
Of course, since no New York team was playing and we therefore personally had no pony in the race this year, we were therefore less interested than we might otherwise have been. Nor for some reason were we particularly interested in the halftime show this year—Justin Timberlake is a big star, but we certainly weren’t going to forego bath-time or story-time with Michal just to watch him for a few minutes! And then there’s the third reason people turn watch the Super Bowl….

The commercials this year ran the gamut from the bizarrely tasteless (Danny DeVito as a human M&M who goes around to strangers asking if they’d like to eat him until he is hit by a truck) to the quite moving (the Verizon ad celebrating America’s first responders actually brought tears to my eyes) to the truly shocking (the E*Trade ad suggesting the best way for America’s seniors to supplement their retirement income would be to parlay their meager pensions into the big bucks by taking up online trading). And then there was the rabbi.
Any number of websites, some even not Jewish or Jewish-ish ones, voted the Toyota commercial featuring the rabbi, the priest, the imam, and the Buddhist monk as the best of the lot. And I do have to admit that it’s slightly heartwarming. Maybe even more than slightly. If you’re reading this electronically, you can see the whole thing just by clicking here. If not, let me tell you the story. It won’t take long, since the whole thing is exactly one minute long. (In a setting where a commercial half that long cost more than $5,000,000, a minute is a serious length of time.)

The commercial begins with a rabbi ripping off the tallis he is for some reason wearing in his otherwise empty shul, gathering up his keys (the keen-eyed can already see that they’re for a Toyota, but you have to look very fast), and racing out into the street. The synagogue clearly says Temple Beth Israel in Hebrew and English letters over the door. But where is it? It’s definitely an Orthodox synagogue—you can see the women’s section in the sanctuary as the rabbi races out into the street—but most Orthodox synagogues don’t use the word “Temple” in their name. But there it is, and in easy to read letters. Still, I couldn’t find an Orthodox shul named Temple Beth Israel anywhere at all. This intrigued me.
What other clues are there? The rabbi goes out in the street just in shirtsleeves, but there’s a small notice board visible that clearly says it’s October…so that means the place could basically be anywhere. But that signboard is interesting: the date given is Thursday, October 2.  Last year, October 2 was a Monday. It was a Sunday in 2016 and a Friday in 2015. In fact, the last time October 2 fell on a Thursday was 2014. So this is not a new picture…and that gave me an idea.
The internet really is a remarkable tool and, after about twenty minutes… there it was with its new name (but the same tired façade), still on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles, but now newly morphed into a yeshivah and otherwise known as the Harry L. Rubenfeld Friendly Family Neighborhood Shul. So that explains the name. But who the rabbi is? That I couldn’t find anywhere. Is he just an actor? To me, he looks more like a rabbi than an actor. (Oh wait, or do I mean that I myself do? And, just for the record, I also drive a Toyota. Just saying!) He’s definitely not the rosh yeshivah, however, which you can verify for yourself by clicking here. Whatever…it’s L.A. and the sun is shining. So what if the rabbi is driving a 2018 truck in 2014? That’s just acting!
And now we come to the ad itself. The rabbi jumps into his Toyota pick-up. (Another riddle: what rabbi drives a pick-up?) Still, he is clearly in a great mood as he drives to a church to pick up his friends, a Catholic priest, a Muslim imam (just out of whose range they amusingly keep driving so he can’t quite grab the door handle—hardy-har-har!), and a Buddhist monk while listening to—even I can’t believe I know this—Foreigner, an English-American rock band that formed in 1976, sing their 1984 hit single “I Want to Know What Love Is.” (For the record, October 2 fell on a Tuesday in 1984. So it’s not then either.).
Finally, they arrive at the stadium. All four friends honor their team’s colors by donning something in blue and white, the team’s colors. (The rabbi puts on a blue and white yarmulke, although he seems now to have lost the one he was possibly wearing in the opening scenes.) There are riddles here too. The team is the Pirates, but there hasn’t been an NFL team with that name since 1940. Once I saw that, I went back to look at the shul’s notice board and saw the name of the time and the time of the game clearly announced there—but for no obvious reason. (In my experience, synagogues do not really ever announce random sports events on their message boards.) Whatever! The friends arrive and take their seats. A pair of nuns seated in their section crankily blame the team’s apparently not-yet-too-stellar performance on the tardiness of the four amigos. (A tall black man wearing a clerical collar makes a brief appearance. A football stadium with a clergy section? Another riddle!) The rabbi cheerfully blames the others, even though we ourselves saw that he didn’t actually have to wait for any of them. Whatever again! But now that the cavalry has arrived, the tide turns and the Pirates begin to win. The nuns, cranky no longer, exult. Everybody cheers. The buddies hug and trade high-fives. The moral of the story, such as it is, flashes on the screen: We’re all one team. Exeunt omnes.

Despite all the riddles and discrepancies (it’s daytime when the rabbi picks up his friends, but nighttime when they arrive at the stadium), it really is a very good ad, created for Toyota by the famous advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi. But I was thinking as I watched it over a few times to prepare to write about it, how interesting it is, not just as a well-done Super Bowl advertisement, but as an expression of a something for which truly America longs without knowing how exactly to attain.
At the heart of the ad is the simple fantasy that all religious leaders should be friends, that (by extension) all people of faith should realize that more binds them together than separates them, and that, if we could just set aside the craziness that seems for some reason to rear its unwanted head whenever the subject of religious identity comes up, we’d realize easily how simple it would be to embrace members of other faith communities, not merely as co-citizens, but as true friends—the kind who truly like each other, who go to football games together and who, when they do, root for exactly the same team!
The four amigos in the ad are well-chosen. None has the good looks of your typical Hollywood actor; each looks like the kind of guy you really might find preaching from the pulpit in your church or temple or shul or mosque. None is intimidating. None uses really big words or seems to have any sort of personal agenda. No one has a foreign accent! Just the contrary, in fact, seems to be the case: here are friends divided by mere details (where they work, how they daven, what they wear) but united by far more profound things than that: their shared love of sports, their clear affection for each other, their common Americanness (represented in the commercial by the way they good-naturedly fool around—making gentle fun, for example, of the monk’s clunky sneakers—without any malice being even remotely hinted at), and their deep mutual respect for each other as individuals and as clergymen.
And that is one of our chief American fantasies, that what we have in common should be more than enough to override the divisions of race, ethnicity, and, yes, religion that so often threaten to divide us. But who really thinks that? Secularists—people who belong to no faith community at all—tend to think of religion as a basically divisive force in American life, as something that drives people into warring camps far more often than it brings people together. People who are religiously affiliated tend to know so little about other religions—partially because religion is so totally omitted from the curriculum of our public schools—that they look at least suspiciously on the adherents of other religions than their own. And, of course, religious people of all stripes and varieties almost invariably assume that secular types will be threatened by any public affirmation of religious identity. 
And so we have one big riddle hiding behind all the littles ones in the commercial: this fantasy of all religious types not merely co-existing, but doing so in the context of friendship, respect, and mutual affection—how can it be that we all harbor the same fantasy at the same time that we are all so fundamentally suspicious regarding both people of other faiths and people of no faith at all? That is to say, how can the ideal be just as in the ad—people of all faiths enjoying each other’s company and feeling devoted to each other’s welfare—and yet the reality be so different on the ground, where—in our American world—people of different faiths have no forum to meet in, clergypeople of different religions can live within a mile of each other for decades without ever actually encountering each other in person, and most religious people suppose naturally that people affiliated differently are more likely than unlikely to support their right to self-assert begrudgingly, if at all, rather than generously and respectfully? It’s a riddle! And the solution? I have no idea, but the commercial is a good start: if people share a fantasy, then that surely is the first step to making it into reality! 

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Queen Gertrude Visits the Sejm

When Queen Gertrude famously tells Hamlet that “the lady doth protest too much, methinks” she thinks (or rather, shethinks) she is innocently commenting on a plot twist in the play-within-a-play that Hamlet has produced to see how his Uncle Claudius—whom Hamlet suspects of having murdered his own brother, Hamlet’s father, before marrying Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother—to see how his uncle responds to seeing a fratricide openly and brutally depicted on stage. Or, at any rate, that’s what we are meant to think that Gertrude thinks she’s doing. But, of course, the audience knows better, seeing easily that her response clearly (if surely also unintentionally) confirms the worst of Hamlet’s fears. And, so, although everybody knows melancholy Jaques’ line in As You Like It to the effect that “all the world’s a stage,” here the tables are effectively turned and it’s the stage that’s the world…and in Gertrude’s remark lies the truth depicted on that stage that Shakespeare wishes to impart to the audience through the medium of his great talent: that our words towards others almost always reveal more about our inner selves than we can perceive. We think we’re taunting someone else…but we are really revealing our inmost insecurities. We think we’re castigating someone else’s poor behavior, but what we are really doing is attempting to deflect the world’s attention away from ourselves and our own poor behavior. We think we are attacking our enemies with clever, biting insults, but what we are really doing is showing the world precisely which part of ourselves is the most vulnerable…and the most in need of defending from other people’s clever, biting insults. And that latter point is made even more acutely when the enemies against who we purport to be defending ourselves so vigorously are nowhere actually to be seen and appear to exist entirely, or at least mostly, within our own heads.
These were the thoughts that came to me as I read the reports of the controversy stirred up both in the Jewish and the non-Jewish world by the vote of both houses of the Polish parliament, the Sejm and the Senate, last week making it a criminal offense to refer to the concentration and extermination camps built and maintained by Germany on Polish soil after conquering Poland in 1939 as “Polish death camps” or to suggest, apparently in any way at all including as part of scholarly research or even en passant orally, that “the Polish nation or the Polish state [was in any way] responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich.” The bill hasn’t become law yet. Having passed the Sejm and the Senate, to become the law of the land it must now be signed into law by the President of Poland, Andrzej Duda.

Reading the initial news reports brought Queen Gertrude right to mind and prompted me to wonder why they were protesting so much over an issue that, at least as far as I can see, doesn’t exist at all. The Shoah is the backdrop to my life in every imaginable way. No one, if I may be permitted a bit of hyperbole, has read more books, including specifically memoirs by survivors and non-survivors, than I have. (In that latter category, I should mention that I’ve just finished Sam Solasz’s book, Angel of the Ghetto, which I liked very much and recommend.) It’s the rare day that I do not have some contact either with a survivor of the Shoah or with someone who self-identifies as a second- or third-generation descendant of such a person. I haven’t attended Shabbat services, maybe ever, in a room in which there were no survivors of the Holocaust, and I include in that thought both the synagogue of my youth, the shul we frequent in Jerusalem, and all three congregations that I have served over my almost forty years in the rabbinate. And yet I don’t believe I have ever heard anyone refer to Treblinka or Auschwitz as “Polish death camps.” For one thing, why would anyone shift the blame from the perpetrator nation to one of its slave states? For another, is there anyone in the world who actually thinks the Poles built and managed the camps on its soil while millions were slaughtered there in the course of the Second World War? So, if no one talks that way and no one thinks that, what are the Poles so exercised about?

There are, of course, people who place at least part of the blame for the slaughter on the heads of the citizens of occupied Europe who collaborated with the Nazis by assisting in the roundups or, in some cases, in the actual hands-on execution of Jewish innocents. But the bottom line has to be that the Polish government itself did not participate in the annihilation of Polish Jewry. In other words, unlike in France or Hungary (or Norway—don’t tell the President), there was no collaborationist government in Poland assisting the Germans in the occupation of their own country. Yes, there were individual Poles who participated in the genocide. Estimates vary as to how many Jews died at the hands of their former neighbors—certainly thousands, including the victims of the infamous Jedwabne pogrom in the course of which the Polish citizens of that little town in eastern Poland locked hundreds of their Jewish neighbors in a barn and set it ablaze, intentionally murdering the town’s entire Jewish population on one single day in July of 1941—but there were also instances of great heroism by Poles who saved Jews (more than 6700 of whom are acknowledged as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, more than any other nation: click here) and it is also true that Poland was one of only two occupied countries (the other was Holland) in which resistance activists set up a special organization dedicated to saving Jews. (Interestingly, the second most well represented on that Yad Vashem list is, in fact, Holland. France is third; Ukraine, fourth. Of course, these are countries of vastly different sizes.)
So what’s the real story with this bill? Introducing this legislation in the Sejm on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army on January 27, 1945, was a nice touch. But to be that sensitive about the mere suggestion of Polish complicity in the Shoah this many years after the fact really is, methinks, an example of protesting way too much and, in so doing, revealing something deep and painful that yet gnaws at the soul of Poland. What Poland needs is not a law forbidding honest dialogue regarding the past (let alone barring artistic expression if it seems inconsonant with Poland’s sense of itself as a victim nation), but just the opposite—one requiring people to come to terms with history, to face the demons in the closet, to accept the burden of the past and, shouldering it in a forthright manner, facing the future honestly and bravely. As my mother would have said, that is how grown-ups behave!

Amazingly, my thoughts on the matter were echoed in a particularly straightforward way just last week in a letter sent by, of all people, the secretary-general of the Muslim World League, Dr. Mohammed Al Issa, to Sara Bloomfeld, the director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.  The whole letter, which you can read by clicking here, is exceptional, but I would like to cite verbatim a few lines in particular because they stand in such remarkably stark contrast to the Polish effort last week not only not to confront the past but to criminalize any honest effort to do so.

Dr. Al Issa, a Saudi national, wrote as follows:
History is indeed impartial no matter how hard forgers tried to tamper with or manipulate it. Hence, we consider any denial of the Holocaust or minimizing of its effect a crime to distort history and an insult to the dignity of those innocent souls who have perished. It is also an affront to us all since we share the same human soul and spiritual bonds.

In the end, what more is there to say? Dr. Al Issa writes as a Muslim and his letter makes no effort to hide that. I imagine Dr. Al Issa and I disagree about many things (in fact, I’m sure we do), but, at least based on what he wrote in his letter to Sara Bloomfeld, I suspect that we are very likely in perfect agreement that the only way to deal honorably with a horror on the magnitude of the Shoah is to face it square on, to accept what it has to say about the depths of depravity to which human beings can sink, to learn both from the larger story and its countless details that neither ethnicity nor religion is a guarantee of virtue (and that certainly nationality also isn’t), and to internalize the truth that there is no limit to the depravity that inevitably ensues when a nation falls under the sway of the demonic and repudiates the scriptural mandate to consider every human being—and with no exceptions at all—to be created in the image of God.

If Poland wants to adopt a law that will lead to reconciliation and conciliation, they should take Dr. Al Issa’s words to heart and invite true, unbiased historians to write a definitive study of the role of Poland and the Poles in the Shoah, then move on to atone for the bad, to celebrate the good…and to use the experience as a powerful platform on which to stand while joining the descendants of the few Polish Jews who  escaped the Nazis’ clutches in saying, simply and without recrimination, “Never Again.”

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Minister of Loneliness

I found the announcement the other day by British Prime Minister Theresa May that, starting almost immediately, the U.K. is going to have among its leaders someone invited to serve as the nation’s official Minister of Loneliness more than slightly depressing. But maybe that was the wrong way to respond. The thought, after all, that the loneliness that plagues so many in our society is going to be addressed formally by someone specifically charged with finding ways to alleviate the alienation and sense of disconnectedness that makes people, even in the most densely populated urban areas, feel alone and untethered to society—and that that person is not going to be a solitary gadfly tilting at windmills but an actual government official with a staff, a budget, and (presumably) at least occasionally the ear of the Prime Minister herself—why should that be depressing? Just the opposite seems far more reasonable now that I think it through: here, for once, is a serious problem being addressed in a forthright manner. And, who knows? Maybe the Minister of Loneliness, nothing at all like the Minister for Silly Walks in the Monty Python skit, will end up doing some good in the world. Odder things have happened!
Once, this was—both abroad and here at home—a different kind of problem, one with roots in the individual psyches of specific lonely individuals but not with society at large.

In an earlier age, people lived their whole lives in the same village, or at least in the same community in a larger town or city. People’s lives were intertwined in a way that now seems, depending on where you’re standing, either quaint or vaguely oppressive. Neighbors were often each other’s relatives. But even non-related neighbors felt a sense of responsibility for each other and a deep sense of interconnectedness with each other. That old African saying Mrs. Clinton made such good use of over the years, the one that observes that it takes a village to raise a child, once reflected reality not solely in African villages, but all over the world. Certainly, that’s how life was in the shtetl my grandparents left when they emigrated and came here. And it was what life in these United States was like for most of our nation’s history.
Sociologists use the adjective “thick” to describe this kind of society in which people are not merely neighbors by virtue of physical contiguity, but individuals integrated into each other’s lives in dozens of ways, some obvious to all and others invisible to outside observers, but all palpable and meaningful. In such “thick” societies, people have their own possessions…but there is also a deep sense of obligation towards others that includes the responsibility to share with those others. And this concept of the “thick” community endures even today: the definition of a successful Jewish community (and I’m sure other kinds of communities too, particularly faith-based ones, but I speak whereof I know) is precisely one in which its members’ lives are intertwined, in which you can’t count how many meals you’ve eaten in your friends’ homes or how many naps you’ve had on their couches, in which people take each other’s tragedies personally and seriously, and which no one needs to explain the paradox of feeling more truly who you are by virtue of being tied in countless ways to a whole community of others whose sense of personal identity is also stronger and better because of their communal affiliation and involvement.

Maybe it’s a generational thing. There was a very interesting essay last month in Wired magazine in which the author, Jean M. Twenge, reflected on the unexpected fact that teenagers today report spending less than a third of the time attending out-of-school parties than teenagers reported doing thirty years ago in 1987. (To read the essay, click here.)  For young people, the explanation clearly has to do with the advent of the internet and, particularly, social media websites: why bother leaving home when you can party with a thousand friends at once on Facebook or Instagram? One young man sounded, I thought, particularly pathetic when he explained the decline in socializing from his personal perspective: People party,” Kevin explained, “because they’re bored—they want something to do. Now we have Netflix—you can watch…nonstop.” I sense that Kevin is not alone. The other day I noticed four teenagers, three boys and a girl, on the train going into Manhattan. They were clearly together, but they spent the entire trip on their phones—each of them presumably interacting with someone out there, but clearly not with each other. At all. I was reading, so I didn’t mind the quiet…but there was also something both peculiar and disturbing about the experience of watching young people so completely tuned in and tuned out at the same time.
Loneliness, which Emily Dickinson once described as “the Horror not to be surveyed,” is not to be confused with aloneness. People who like being alone are not morally flawed individuals. I myself like being alone—to read, to snooze, to study, to contemplate the universe. But perhaps I can afford to like time spent by myself precisely because I am part of such a complicated, involving community the rest of the time. And that really is the solution to the problem. (I should write to Mrs. May and tell her!) Loneliness—that wretched sense of being untied to the world, of specifically not feeling connected to the people around you, of turning to the world for support or sympathy and finding no one at all to be listening—that all falls away when people come together to foster a sense of interinvolved responsibility for each other’s welfare…and to form communities in which being woven into the warp and woof of the group is treated as a great good and as a blessing, and not as an oppressive, regrettable side effect of friendship.

In this country, fully half of those older than 85 live on their own, as do a third of people 65 or older. Now living on your own is not necessarily a bad thing—it can be sign of independence, well-earned autonomy, and resourcefulness. But it can also be the first step in losing touch with the world…and that is what happens to all too many of us as we get into our older years. Nor is this just an emotional problem; a University of California study I read about just a few weeks ago reported that individuals who reported suffering from serious feelings of loneliness “had significantly higher rates of declining mobility, difficulty in performing routine daily activities, and death.” And this too, from that same study: “The association of loneliness with mortality remained significant even after adjusting for age, economic status, depression and other common health problems.” (To read that article, click here.) Nor is it helpful to wave loneliness away as a mere mood: in a study published last year in the journal Cell, scientists at M.I.T. wrote to say that they had actually managed successfully to identify the region of the brain that generates feelings of loneliness, and could see that a mere twenty-four hours of isolation was enough to set the hormonal triggers for deep loneliness and its unwanted offspring: alienation, disconnection, and estrangement. Not surprisingly, the loneliness center is the next-door neighbor the “dorsal raphe nucleus,” the section of the brain linked to feelings of depression.
It sounds obvious enough that communal involvement is the antidote to loneliness. But the forces drawing people away from that simple solution are very strong. I myself am a good example. I personally do not feel at all lonely, but, even so…I used to go to stores to buy things, but now I almost exclusively shop online. I used to go to bookstores and record stores to browse around and see what might be of interest, but now I download almost everything I read or listen to. Joan and I do go to the movies…but it’s always an uphill battle when it’s cold outside, Netflix is only a few clicks away, and the selection is a trillion times greater than even the biggest multiplex can offer. And it’s free, or at least free-ish.

With respect to all of the above, I was struck by a passage I read the other day in an essay published in the New York Times by Dhruv Khullar, a physician associated with the Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. (To read the essay, click here.) In it, Dr. Khullar writes that “Loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline in older adults, and isolated individuals are twice as likely to die prematurely as those with more robust social interactions. These effects start early: socially isolated children have significantly poorer health 20 years later, even after controlling for other factors. All told, loneliness is as important a risk factor for early death as obesity and smoking.” So we’re not just talking here about an unpleasant sensation that has no ultimate importance for the trajectory of an individual’s life, but just the opposite: something to be considered in the category of smoking cigarettes or carrying around enough extra weight to qualify as obese as a factor in longevity itself (or the lack of it).

When I was a teenager, I read and was very taken with Admiral Richard Byrd’s 1938 book, Alone, in which he detailed his experiences when things went terribly wrong in the course of his second expedition to Antarctica in 1934 and he ended up living totally on his own for six months in an endless polar night while beings slowly poisoned by carbon monoxide escaping from a faulty steam pipe. For almost all of tenth grade, it was my favorite book! When I think back and wonder what exactly it was about the book that so captivated me, I suppose it must have been the courage Admiral Byrd displayed in handling both the situation and himself as he lived—as he barely lived—through a frigid six-month-long night. (It really is an exceptional book, one I still feel entirely good about recommending to readers all these years later.) But it was more than that, I think: there was something in Admiral Byrd’s account that the adolescent me—an only child with no siblings or grandparents and whose closest cousin was almost twenty years his senior—responded to easily and emotionally. (I was also a big fan back then of Thoreau’s Walden, and for the same reason.) But for all it was satisfying to know that people could live with loneliness, those books—and I should mention Clark Moustakas’ once-semi-famous book, Loneliness in this context as well—these books made it clear to me how important it was going to be for the post-adolescent me to find a real community of friends and like-minded souls.
Was that what propelled me so vigorously into seeking out the kind of Jewish community that JTS provided for me as a young man, and which I have devoted my entire professional life to trying to create for others? It might have been! But the basic principle—that loneliness is a barren, arid landscape to live out life in and that the only cure lies in belonging to a sturdy, well-structured community of neighbors and caring friends—insinuated itself into my consciousness as a young man and has resided there ever since.

Mrs. May is doing the right thing to appoint a minister to seek a solution for the problem of loneliness in society. But she could also just ask any member of a thick and traditional Jewish community and any of us could explain the whole thing to her easily.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Golden Door

When I first heard the President’s qualification of the countries that he would like to see fewer immigrants from, I was—to say the least—nonplussed. I was at first slightly amused to hear him use that word as an adjective, just as we did back in Queens when I was growing up. (President Trump and I are, after all, lantsleit, just not from precisely the same neighborhood.) But that sentiment wore quickly off and I was left, not amused by the public use of a term that once would have gotten someone of my generation suspended from high school for saying aloud in class, but appalled by the sentiment it so colorfully expressed.
It would be way too little to focus unduly on the vulgarity aspect. It was coarse and offensive. (As my late mother would have said, this is not the way nice people talk!)  But the word “vulgar” is not entirely correct in this context, at least not from an etymological vantage point. Derived ultimately from the Latin word for “crowd,” vulgus (pronounced with a w at the front and two long u’s: woolgoos), the word has been used in English since the fourteenth century primarily to sneer at behavior considered typical of the common people, of the “crowd” in the street. Other languages use a similar system for looking down on the masses too—the Greek hoi polloi (“the many”), the modern Hebrew word hamoni (an adjective derived from hamon “crowd”), and the Latin plebeius (derived from the regular word for the lower class, plebes) all mean the same thing. (The English word “plebeian,” now not so much in use, was once used similarly to denote behavior deemed common or commonplace.) But what was wrong with the use of that term was not its extreme colloquiality, but that it suggested an approach to immigration that feels not only contrary to our nation’s finest traditions but also deeply out of sync with what I’ve always considered to be one of the truly great aspects of our national ethos.

If anyone ever did, my great-grandparents came to our great nation from what they themselves—had they been given to expressing themselves foulmouthedly and had they known the English word—what they surely would have referenced using the President’s adjective as a country that was poor and undeveloped, a nation that had failed to provide them with even the most elemental of civil rights, and that—just to the contrary—had made the lives of the Jews unfortunate enough to live there into a kind of living hell. My paternal grandparents were born there too—in a small city called Nowy Dwór, about thirty miles to the northwest of Warsaw—and they came here specifically to re-invent themselves in this place and, if they could manage it (which they did), to flourish here as well.

Of course, they came here when all you needed to be accepted as an immigrant was to be free of disease and able to answer a few simple questions in simple English when the man at Ellis Island asked them of you. (I’m not entirely sure when they arrived, but it was definitely between 1899 and 1904.)  They were not well-educated Norwegians possessed of all the skills necessary effortless to self-integrate into American society. They did not have college degrees or any sort of professional training. They certainly did not have jobs waiting for them or, for that matter, homes pre-arranged and just waiting for them to move in upon arrival and set up shop. They were white people in the sense that they weren’t black people—but they were certainly what the people who would like to see our gates primarily open to white people, they were most certainly not what those people mean by white!  
With these thoughts in mind, I found myself drawn to the archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, accessible to all at, which I often do when I am in need of some historical perspective. And while I was coasting around there I found an article filed on January 1, 1924, entitled “America on Eve of Closing Gates to Jewish Immigration” that really stuck me as something worth sharing with all of you.  You can click here to read it for yourself and I strongly suggest that you do!

The basic idea is simple enough to seize: there were many, many Americans that could not stomach the thought that continued unrestricted immigration to our country might upset the balance between the overwhelmingly white and Christian majority and the various minority groups that, it was widely thought, were dramatically over-represented in the immigration statistics, and the Immigration Act of 1924 was intended to address that issue head-on. The authors of the bill, Congressman Albert Johnson (R-Washington) and Senator David Reed (R-Pennsylvania), focused on the nationality of would-be immigrants. But nationality itself was not quite precise enough for Senator Thomas Sterling (R-South Dakota), who was responsible for adding an amendment to the bill that would guarantee that no “racial” group would be overrepresented in its national quota because no “racial” group could henceforth constitute a larger percentage of the people admitted from that country to the United States as immigrants than they represented in the population back home. And who exactly do you imagine Senator Sterling, later dean of the George Washington University Law School, had in mind as he formulated his amendment? There’s no need to wonder too intensely—I can just quote the JTA article:
Senator Sterling, after introducing his amendment, frankly admitted to the JTA correspondent that it was aimed chiefly at the Jews who, he asserted, have been emigrating to American in disproportionately large numbers. The population of Poland, he said, is only 13% Jewish, but four Jews have been coming to every one Pole, and the same is practically true of Russia and Rumania. This is unfair to the predominating population of those countries, Sterling declared, who should be admitted according to their own proportion. Sterling denied prejudice against the Jews, assenting he was desirous only of giving the other peoples “a square deal.”

And it worked: about 120,000 Jews came to America in 1921; the year after the new quotas went into effect, 1927, the number was 10,000. A square deal…for whom exactly? Certainly not for Jewish people eager to flee oppression and re-invent themselves in the Land of Opportunity, now off-limits until enough ethnic Poles decided for some reason to abandon their homeland and seek their fortune elsewhere.

It would be unreasonable to lay Treblinka at Senator Sterling’s feet—surely no matter how eager he was to see fewer Jews immigrate to the United States, he could not possibly have conceived of the unimaginable hell to which he was inadvertently consigning those in whose face he was shutting the gates.  But those gates occupy a major part of my thinking on the matter as well because it was those exact gates, the ones to Ellis Island, that not thirty years earlier Emma Lazarus had characterized as a golden door when she imagined Lady Liberty herself addressing the immigrants arriving in New York Harbor on their way to a new life: “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she / With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” It was that specific invitation that called my great-grandparents and grandparents to this place.

After all these years I still cannot read those line about the golden door without tears coming to my eyes. And for one specific reason: because—and I know how crazy this must sound—because I have always imagined the Lady actually speaking those words aloud to my grandparents, then newly-weds in search of a new life and, of course, fully unaware of what the future had in store for the Jews of their town back home. In my mind’s eye, I can see my grandparents looking to the west, to the future, to America as the boat enters the harbor. But I can also see the Lady, and she is looking, not to the west, but to the east to greet them…and taking note as she does of the smoke rising in the distance (and in the future) from the ruins of the Nowy Dwór ghetto as the last Jews present were finally deported to their deaths on December 12, 1942, and the ghetto itself was burnt to the ground. My grandparents were safe. Their future children, including my father, were safe. And I myself only exist because they were, because they had someplace to flee to, to settle in, and to be grateful the rest of their lives to God for.
So, in my heart, it is precisely from the countries the President used such a tasteless, coarse term to denigrate that we should be permitting immigration. Why would Norwegians want to come here anyway—wasn’t it just last year that Norway, jumped three spots forward and displaced Denmark as “the world’s happiest country”? (We came in fourteenth. Click here for more details.) And the world’s least happy countries? Occupying the last five spots on the CNN list are Rwanda, Syria, Tanzania, Burundi, and the Central African Republic. Do you see a pattern? I bet the President does too! But those are precisely the tempest-tost souls we should be welcoming to this place…and offering a place in the American mosaic, in the crazy-quilt of ethnicities and national origins that somehow together create the America that, precisely because of our rejection of prejudice and ethnic hatred, was and remains the envy of so many in our sorry world. The whole concept of America requires that our doors be open—yes, within reason, and surely only open to people prepared to embrace American culture and to participate in our American democracy, and who can demonstrate their willingness to become patriotic citizens in the style of the immigrants to these shores of generations past—to people fleeing oppression, misery, poverty, and prejudice back home. That’s what we do here…and I suppose we can make room for a few Norwegians too.  Maybe we can learn a thing or two about being happy from them!

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Farewell to Appelfeld

Contextualization is the tool many, even perhaps most, authors who write about the Shoah use to make their stories believable. The first truly great novel rooted in the Shoah, André Schwarz Bart’s The Last of the Just, sought to set the Shoah into the context of Jewish history itself. Vasily Grossman’s monumental book, Life and Fate, which covers a huge amount of territory including both Stalingrad and the fate of the Jews of German-occupied Russia and Ukraine, sets the horror into the context of the Red Army’s war against the Soviet Union’s German invaders. Even works like Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance sought to explain the Holocaust by attempting to see it as part of the larger context of the Second World War itself. I could mention a dozen other books in this vein as well, all works that sought to make fathomable something by its nature essentially unfathomable by setting it in a larger frame and then by attempting to provide some of the other pieces of the puzzle that fit into that frame, somewhat in the same way that you can take a single piece of a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t look like anything at all and grant it meaning by providing the other puzzle pieces that together with it create an image you actually can recognize easily.

But the work of Aharon Appelfeld, who died last week at the age of eighty-five, took the precise opposite tack and attempted to explain the Shoah through the exquisite contemplation, not of the whole, but of single ones of its pieces…and the tinier the piece the better. Such a minimalist approach risks being treated dismissively by people trained from childhood to seek understanding through the studied contemplation of “the big picture,” by people who want to explain any smaller thing in terms of whatever larger thing it is a part of.  But such people would be wrong: Appelfeld, in his forty-odd novels, was not just successful in laying the foundation for a truly meaningful sense of what the Shoah “meant,” but remarkably so. Of all his books, only one, The Ice Mine, is actually set in a Nazi camp. The rest are set either before, during, or after the Shoah…but none attempts to describe anything like the big picture and all focus instead on the experiences of single families or, in more instances than not, of single children facing a world that they cannot even begin slightly to fathom. And that child, of course, is Appelfeld himself, whose entirely literary oeuvre he himself once characterized as a life-long effort to understand his own story.

The stories he tells are both amazing (because they feature children surviving more or less totally on their own against unimaginable odds) and familiar (because so many pieces of so many of his stories will remind readers of incidents in the lives of survivors they know personally). But even readers unaccustomed to the kind of spare prose that says everything by saying almost nothing will find his books to be moving comments not solely on the Jewish experience during the Second World War, but on life itself, on what it means to be alive at all. 

Appelfeld was born in Czernowitz, today part of Ukraine. When the fascists invaded in 1941, his mother was murdered in front of his eyes, and he and his father were deported to a camp from which he somehow managed to escape almost immediately upon arrival despite the fact that he was all of eight years old in 1941. And he survived that way too, somehow managing to survive in the forest for three long years. (This part of his story is told through a child’s eyes in one of his last works, the children’s book Adam and Thomas which I just finished reading last week.) Eventually, he was “rescued” by some partisans who handed him over to the Red Army, where—because eleven-year-olds could not actually serve as soldiers—he was sent to the kitchen to work as one of his unit’s cooks. And then, when the war finally ended, Appelfeld—still not bar-mitzvah age—was interned on his own in a displaced persons camp in Italy. In 1946, he immigrated to Palestine, where he learned—but only eventually—that his father too had somehow survived. That reunion, between a fifteen-year-old who had basically raised himself and a father whom he assumed had been murdered years earlier, was the defining moment in Appelfeld’s life, albeit one not recounted in any of his books, not even in his 2003 autobiography, The Story of a Life.

As noted, his books are almost all—at least in part—about children. And so, when read as a complete oeuvre—and I believe that I have now read all of Appelfeld’s books either in Hebrew or in English—the experience is like peering through some sort of semi-opaque scrim at a world that looks like our own but in which no one seems to realize that its appurtenances are made of papier-mâché that is destined by its very nature to dissolve once it starts raining in earnest…and that its people are merely tethered to the world rather than truly anchored in it.

We read about parents telling their children—and this scene repeats over and over and over—telling them that they’re going to have to hide in the woods (or in an attic or in a brothel or in a farmer’s barn somewhere) until someone comes to retrieve them, which almost never actually happens, and softening the blow of separation with a slew of hopeful promises. The war will soon be over. The deportations will end. The neighbors will surely protect us. The war just a passing disturbance that has nothing really to do with us at all, a nightmare we will soon barely be able to remember. These same promises reverberate through every book.

I wrote several years ago about Blooms of Darkness, the novel that won him the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, one of the U.K.’s most prestigious literary prizes, and the book that I think almost more than any says the most about the Shoah by saying so little. The story of a little boy stashed by his panicked parents in a local brothel that they clearly do not realize is patronized almost exclusively by German soldiers, the book describes how the givens of the world can alter in a twinkling as an entire civilization vanishes in the mist and a child wakes up suddenly to find himself living in an entirely different universe. The book itself is harrowing, and in a million different ways. But the end of the book really comes as close as anything I’ve read to creating a context for understanding the Shoah, and that’s what I thought I’d write about today as a way of saying farewell to one of the truly great authors of our day.

At the end of the book, the Germans withdraw and the brothel closes. For a moment, we think that the danger has passed, but now a new horror presents itself: Mariana, the prostitute, now risks being condemned by her countrymen as a traitor, as someone who spent the years of the occupation giving comfort to the enemy. They flee into the forest together, but Mariana is quickly found and arrested. Hugo, like his creator, is now all alone in the forest. He sees no way out, no solution. And so he voluntarily leaves the forest and finds his way to the jail in which his protector is being kept. And there he waits…for something. For justice. For Mariana. For his mother. For someone to watch over him. But nothing at all happens. Days come and go. He eats at a local soup kitchen, then returns to his post outside the jail lest he be absent when she exits the prison gates.

Eventually, the scales fall from his eyes and he realizes—to his amazement—that he is in his own city, in the city in which he was raised. It’s just a provincial city, not too big…and he somehow figures out in which direction lies the neighborhood in which his parents house stood and presumably still stands. And so he leaves the jail, leaves Mariana (she has already been executed, but he doesn’t know that), leaves the fragile platform life has offered him to stand on for as long as he can.

He begins to walk home. The city’s residents ignore him. He has no real way to know if he is going in the right direction. Somehow he perseveres, walking slowly and purposefully. But when he gets to his own street…everything is different. The shops are still where he recalled them being, but they all have different names. The synagogue has vanished. The Jewish people have all been replaced by Gentiles. He peers through the window of his own home and sees a different family with different children sitting down to dinner at his parent’s dining room table. He cannot fathom what has happened, cannot explain it, can only wait for his parents to return. And then, when he eventually tires of waiting, he turns his back on the past and walks away.

I haven’t even begun to do the passage justice. But that sense that everything is different, that nothing will ever be the same, that the world is illusory at best and malign and dangerous at worst, that the only safety rests within the confines of the human heart where remembering and forgetting can coalesce into some version of hope in the future—that is the core idea of which the book itself reads like so much extended midrash.

Appelfeld himself ended up in a D.P. camp in Italy, then found a new life in Israel. He ended up reasonably well—his found his father, and he also found the courage to marry, to become a father of three, to thrive in Israel, and to live and work productively into old age. But he remains—to myself and to many—the symbol not of the accomplished author and family man, but of the little boy in the forest attempting to fathom the unfathomable…and somehow to remain safe in the domain of wild beasts. May Aharon Appelfeld rest in peace and may his memory be a blessing for us all.