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.”