Sunday, December 27, 2009

The TSA, Christmas Day and the state of the Jews (or is it the State of the Jews?)

Many of my friends are commenting on the Homeland Security and TSA's reactive approach to combating terrorism. "Fighting the last war", they say... Shoe bomber yields no shoes. Guy tries to blow up the plane in the hour before landing yields no getting up an hour before landing (actually they have been doing this on flights to DC for a few years now) and one carry-on, laptop or purse etc. And yet, the airlines can still charge for baggage.

I agree. Not a lot to comment on here, but something more comprehensive needs to be done. MacArthur award for the person who finds the solution to this problem without making privacy and civil rights a thing of the past. I still think Tom Friedman had it right about issuing scrubs to everyone. One of my Orthodox friends suggested that they wouldn't be modest enough. Burka anyone? They are the "rage" around the world!

On to nicer thoughts. Christmas was so cool this year. A three day weekend is the way to go... quiet and serene for those of us not suffering from dysfunction and loneliness. I wonder if Brookline is quieter on Christmas or Yom Kippur. It's a pretty close tie.

To some serious things... (Not that terror and no traffic on Beacon Street aren't serious)...

I was speaking with an esteemed colleague who I really respect this week about the dilemma of bringing together the issues of human rights and Israel. We know that Israel has a mixed record here. For whatever the reasons are, Israel is unable at this time to hold itself to a "western" standard of human rights.  The security risks are just too high. But, we also know that it certainly is a rock star in this area when compared to the autocratic, religiously extreme regimes in its neighboorhood. (spelling intentional).

Does it make sense to trumpet Israel's record in the minor leagues when it tries to cast itself as a major league player? Regrettably, probably not. But aspirations count for something. While the other guys benefit from their repression, Israel can still claim the high ground of giving it its best shot in a lousy arena. That said, they have a long way to go -- but I am sitting on my couch in Brookline, so I don't make it a practice to take potshots from here. I'll let the guys at Ha'aretz who are there do their jobs. Israel has enough Diaspora critique, especially from our won people.

This leads me to the question of the state of the Jews, particularly in the State of the Jews. I've been worried about this question for a very long time. It seems to me that we haven't progressed much since the Second Temple period. When we have times of relative quiet, we turn on ourselves, reverting to tribal habits of attacking our own. This has spilled over a bit in recent times to attacking our own even in times of tension. But, to be honest, Israel hasn't faced an existential threat since the Yom Kippur war. Its soldiers (unless I am forgetting something) have fought primarily on foreign soil (depending on how you view Judea/Samaria/West Bank and Gaza). And there wasn't really full scale war in the territories except from the air -- maybe in Jenin, but it's hard to make the case that they were fighting among Jewish communities there. See what I mean?

In any case, missiles from Hezbollah and Hamas fell on Israel proper, but the soldiers fought where our enemies were.

My point here is that while things are quiet, we attack one another. Maybe that is just the way that we are.

A bit of reflection from the trenches. Cut it out! But seriously, reflection is a good thing. A wise person told me (several times, in fact) that it is not only about them. Whoever them is. So what is it about ourselves that invites turning on one another when we are left to our own devices?

Thoughts?  I invite you to reflect with me.  Otherwise I am just in the damn echo chamber again by myself.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Civility for the Uncivil

I’ve just returned from my quarterly meetings in New York where we had some quality discussions on issues of the day. Because there was so much going on, I had to make some choices about what meetings I would attend, but there were a number of combined sessions that brought the whole group (about 75 in all) together.

While the agenda covered the “usual suspects” – Israel, Iran, Church-State issues, Social and Economic Justice and the like, these meetings kicked off a new initiative on “civility” in the public discourse. While tangentially linked to the raucous and often disrespectful summer of “town meetings”, this initiative responds to the deterioration of the Jewish community’s ability to sit in the room and talk amongst ourselves when we disagree. The heat is mostly seen on the Israel agenda. Not that there aren’t deep disagreements about domestic social issues, but those conflicts are handled very differently. (I will defer discussing those).

On the Israel agenda, especially after 9-11 and the end of the Bush presidency the debate has polarized our community like never before. I experience this on a regular basis in Boston where the left has no problem categorizing the right as fascists and the right returns the favor by referring to the left as traitors. (Forgive me for oversimplifying)

Now, one of the speakers at the meetings described this conflict as being so heated because both sides believe that their survival is at stake. For the “pro-Israel” left, the soul of the Jewish people can no longer withstand the guilt of the oppression of the Palestinian people. For the “pro-Israel” right, knuckling under to terrorists spells the end of the Zionist enterprise and threatens the Jewish people with being thrust back to 1938 and the hands of modern anti-Semites, primarily of the radical Islamic persuasion.

By the way, there is merit to the arguments on both sides and therein lies the rub.

Our community pattern is pretty straightforward. The left looks at the right, turns its collective nose up and either expresses condescension or walks away from the mainstream with its tail between its legs, complaining that they have been silenced or marginalized. The right screams invective, sometimes goes on personal attacks and walks away from the mainstream cursing those who don’t agree with them or, at best, pitying the “useful idiots.”

And so it goes.

What troubles me is that this initiative on civility is being organized by the most “civil” organization in the Jewish Community. For more than 60 years, JCPA (once NJCRAC, once NCRAC) has developed and implement policy positions and a unified action agenda for the broadest spectrum of the organized Jewish community. Sometimes, they are able to achieve that by taking principled stands that not everyone agrees with but doesn’t object to enough to do anything more than “dissent” (abortion rights) and other times by not taking action when the community would be torn apart (like on ‘settlements’).

So the question that I am left with is “Why would the uncivil come to the table?” As a dear friend and colleague said at the meeting, the “public square” is virtual. One need not ever see those with whom they disagree. Snarky, vicious comments posted on websites have replaced face to face confrontation and the uncomfortable need to put a face with the ideas that one so abhors.

So if the “table” is a place where idiots sit or bullies marginalize people, why would they bother?

The speakers at the meeting offered some potential incentives, but nothing rang true to me. One young rabbi quoted Jewish texts. This is a non-starter since anyone who takes Jewish texts on civility and “derech eretz” seriously is not behaving badly. Those who do will not be swayed when the very existence of the Jewish people is at stake. And, of course, there is a text to support that (Et Laasot LaShem hafeiru Toratecha). At the time when you must take action on behalf of God, you can violate the Torah. So much for that.

I think that we can only reestablish civility when it is in everyone’s enlightened self-interest to be civil. Unfortunately, the uncivil seem to get their voices heard. (Insert cliché here about the squeaky wheel or uppity women).

It would be easy to end this with an admonishment that we must redouble our efforts to build the relationships, meet people where they are and invite them to the table to participate. That was once an option. Nowadays, that leads to nasty letters, threats to funding and out of context reporting to those with power about the (fill in the blank) process that either silenced me or threatens to destroy all of us.

Oh well, (insert clich̩ Jewish text here forbidding giving up or that we are not free from starting a task although we may never finish Рor something like that).


Until next time…

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Revisiting Dissent - Why speaking with many voices can be powerful

Now this is really echo chamber stuff, so forgive me.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the rise of J-Street, Z-Street and the growing vocal and public displays of division in the Jewish community over Israel.  It seems to be, to my great chagrin, that Israel has become the most divisive issue in the Jewish community today.

Now, on one hand, that's a bad thing.  If one thing should keep us united, it's the sense that the Jewish people deserve a safe, secure and Jewish homeland should be a no-brainer.

But that's not what the divide is about.

The divide is about how to get there.  And that discussion is a good thing.  What is wrong is that the discussion, like the August congressional town meetings, is not a discussion at all.  It's a series of screaming matches that convince no one of anything except that the gap is widening.  And, that is causing most of our community to tune out, leaving the discussion to those who would seek division.  But that's a matter for another time.

What I would like to posit today is that the division and the discussion is a good thing.  After all, they do it in Israel, why shouldn't we do it here.  What are we afraid of?

That said, I think there is an actual benefit to the division.  Namely, when there is agreement on an issue -- like there is for the most part about Iran, our community is more powerful.  When people who disagree unite on an issue (like Christian conservatives and liberals do on the environment) the message is much stronger.

(J-Street is a bit out of sync on this issue - take a look at this article from JTA at this point, but I think the issue is timing rather than substance)

I won't belabor the point - but as this Rosh Hashana approaches let's find ways to be civil when we disagree and harness our power when we do.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Last Swans Dispatch

I took the plunge today, left the house and finally bought a Swans Island sticker for the car.  Not the silly SI that you see about every place from Dorchester (DOT) to USVA.. but a nice unassuming sticker that has the outline of the island.  Nothing flashy; just like it is up here.

There have been some "echo chamber" moments since arriving; little bits of the outside world interfering with our time away.  I have a work dilemma that i need to work through that I won't be discussing here and some troubling thoughts about the discussion about health care going on among my Facebook friends.  I specify Facebook friends because, as you all know, the Facebook friend is a special kind of person.  They can range from your spouse to this guy.

Most of my liberal friends have been posting the silly status update about "Everyone deserves health care..." blah, blah, blah.  Some of my conservative friends are sniping about Obama the socialist and that the space aliens who believe in the death panels couldn't be more right.

Oh well.

What troubled me more this week was the circulation of a symposium published by Commentary magazine about why Jews are liberal.  It could have been easily titles "Why the hell are these idiots still deluding themselves and disobeying the Torah"?

A note of clarification:  I am not a registered Democrat.  I have voted for Republicans over the years (sometimes as protest votes against entrenched incumbent Congressmen in safe districts who I find to be dismissive and downright hostile at times) and other times because I thought that they had it right on an issue that I cared about.  I am not so concerned about the Christian right taking over the country.  I think they had their peak and the evidence shows that they are now moving away from the divisive issues like abortion/choice and on to stuff where their agenda overlaps with the left -- like the environment.  It's about time.  Not to stereotype, but I find those on the Christian right to be mostly earnest, well meaning people.  Most aren't looking to walk over Jewish heads to achieve salvation or lock women in cages.

However, I have to say that I disagree with most of their domestic agenda.

As an old friend Dave Ross from KIRO Radio in Seattle used to say, "I am a radical moderate."

So what bugged me so much about the Commentary piece?  (FYI, for some reason, the article paginates strangely).

Well, first off with the exception of David Wolpe, they only ask conservatives.  Jonathan Sarna, while a great guy, plays his usual role of historian without tipping his hand.  Knowing Jonathan, I am not really sure where he is politically.

The other issue is that the article has a tone of derision and critique about the "other".  It sounds like the reasons given are that American Jews have forgotten what it means to be Jewish... abandoned the Torah.  Now Michael Medved (when I lived in Seattle, at least) was connected to Rabbi Daniel Lapin and Jeff Jacoby goes to the Young Israel in Brookline, MA.  But, I kind of doubt that Bill Kristol is putting on tefillin every day.

As you know, I have a real problem with Orthodox-Centricity.  (Not a word) or Triumphalism.  Liberal Jews embrace the prophetic tradition of building a society that values the downtrodden and tries to help those in need -- however imperfectly.  Orthodoxy claims to be interested in the same tradition -- but if you read me regularly, you know my feelings about that.

But no matter. The conclusion of Podhoretz' piece (that I have not yet read), is that American Jews are hopeless and will continue to vote for socialists like Obama like lemmings.  Others hope that they will do teshuva and return to a rejection of the role of woman as equals in a modern society and a rugged individualism that leaves most people behind.  Maybe that's unfair.  It probably is.  I think that to write off the majority of their people as irredeemably naive, stupid or apostates is the kind of thinking and writing that makes people want to run the other way.

So they have.

On an island with one laptop in the house there is a great deal of need for other family members to make use of its benefits... the checking of fantasy baseball scores, a visit to Facebook, reading of email and an occasional glance at a "People magazine" article of shopping for bicycle parts or shoes.

So, that's it for me.  More when I return to Boston and leave the Island after a week of relative calm.

Shabbat Shalom (or for my conservative friends -- Good Shabbos or Have a Nice Weekend!).

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

From the deck...

It's getting to be that time on my vacation when things begin to melt away. The boy is still asleep. It's only 11:30 after all; Liz and I are going to take our daily walk to the lighthouse and the weather is beautiful. Lily is having a good time now that she has adjusted to yet another summer home. She spent some time at her "city apartment" and now in her vacation home in Maine. Not bad for a neurotic dog.
This is a great place to get out of the echo chamber. I went to the office only two days over the last couple of weeks. It's just enough to really understand the dysfunction and insanity of the place. At this point, I have this fantasy that I can keep some of this perspective and even have a heart to heart with my boss to try to get us to commit to making the place more livable, particularly since we are going to be smaller.
A man can dream... in fact, dreams are really all we have, aren't they.

So much for the philosophy.

On a lighter note, I was teaching Dave to drive today.  He seems to be picking it up well.  He's not quite ready for Manhattan or highway driving, but the main roads of a remote Maine island seem to suit him just fine.  He asked if he could do some of the driving home on 95 to Boston.  I don't think he's quite ready yet, but I do understand the feeling of freedom that my father must have had when he turned over the responsibilities of driving to Philadelphia to me.  All in good time I guess.  He needs his license first.

Elizabeth is preparing the evening's wine and cheese and a board game is in the offiing.

It's good to be on vacation.

The daily grind can wait.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Nadav and the Bubble

I've deliberately stayed out of the fray on the Nadav Tamir discussion. Nadav is a friend of mine, someone who I have had in my home for Shabbat dinner and his daughter Maya is in my son's class at Brookline High School.

So, now that it's over -- at least for the moment -- some reflections.

I'm not going to comment on the memo, Nadav's conclusions or the motivations for the leak from the Foreign Ministry. I will only say that I am completely convinced that Nadav did not intend the memo to be leaked.

So what does this tell us about our Boston "bubble". This is another echo chamber moment for us.

Did the rest of the world care about this story? Apparently. Jim Smith at the Boston Globe did several front page stories on this. They even wrote an editorial ( Alan Berger no doubt). Reuters even covered it so it wound up in the Boston Metro.

We learn, according to Jonathan Sarna, that the community no longer speaks with one voice. No kidding.

We also learn that there is tremendous anger among conservative leaning Jews that the "mainstream" doesn't listen to them. We learned that the mainstream thinks that it listens to them -- but, in their view (and survey research backs them up) that the vast majority of the community disagrees with them. We have also learned (and not for the first time -- this author can tell you many stories) that folks are not shy about being rude, disrespectful and will attack people personally when they disagree with them. One only need read the comments posted on MSM articles about this story to hear that Nadav is a weak kneed traitor who needs to be imprisoned and a naive fool bent on the destruction of Israel. One blog referred to him as being from Mars -- etc. etc. I stopped reading a lot of this stuff a long time ago.

I do not believe that those who protest are "astro-turf". They are real. And they are smart, cunning and unafraid. (and I mean that as a compliment). For the Russians, they grew up with the belief that authority is to be distrusted (unless it shares their view -- and even then quislings are all around us!) and to be torn down, mocked and even personally denigrated. It's a shame.

As for us in the mainstream, centrist community, I think this was a good example of sticking to our guns, defending our friends and attempting to hear all views. That's a good thing.

But it does pose a real dilemma for us policy wise. In my professional life, I am often called upon to "defend Israel." Now, my personal belief is that the IDF defends Israel. Fighting against "anti-Israel" activists is important. Making Israel's case and building support for Israel among those who influence others is important. But at the end of the day, since I never put on "madim" and carried an "M-sheh esray" (except for a week when I did a Gadna program) I don't consider myself a defender of Israel (and, if anyone reads this, please don't take that out of context -- I think I have been very clear about what I think my role is and how important it is).

But, back to the point. In my professional life I have held to the standard that I advocate and explain the positions of the "democratically elected government of the State of Israel" -- particularly on matters of peace and security. So, if Israel is dissing American Jews by allowing some rabbis to invalidate their conversions or consider their marriages invalid I feel fully empowered to speak up. On matters of identity, they need to extend respect to all. On matters of security, what do I know?

So what do you do when, after 20 years fighting this fight, you come to the conclusion that the current government of Israel is getting it wrong? So, in 2000 when Ehud Barak was talking about redividing Jerusalem, it concerned me greatly. I called a respected colleague and I said to him -- "What the hell are they doing? Do they really want to abandon everything that they fought for in the six-day war?" His response was classic -- he said, "Don't worry -- they will never move this forward -- it's just too complicated.

And now, nearly 10 years later the government is taking the same position and I agree with it. But, 10 years later I also see the nuances of how to approach it that I missed before. That's a topic for another time.

But on the issue of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, I have to admit that I think that this government's heavy handed approach and saying "no" to a very popular American president is not the way to go. Again, there is nuance here. And the nuance is being lost because of the bombast being thrown around by an inexperienced foreign minister who -- like our Russian friends here -- doesn't take any prisoners and eschews nuance.

The week before the Tamir memo was leaked -- the FM was accused of a variety of corruption charges. And his response was admirable. He said something to the effect that if he was indicted, he would resign. No "Ehud Olmert nuance" here. Very straightforward, very black and white. Wonderful for being elected by a constituency that reflects that approach. Not so wonderful for a world that sees the other side as white and Israel's settlement policy as black.

Israel has striven to be in the grey in this area. Even Jimmy Carter, the spiritual leader of anti-Israel activists around the world, visited Gush Etzion a few months back and said that Israel would never have to give that area to the Arabs. Even Jimmy Carter found some nuance in his heart.

So, that's what I try to communicate to people. I usually say something like "there are Settlements and there are Settlements." And then I go on to explain the "consensus" zones and even tell them that the Arabs don't want to return to the 1949 armistice borders (commonly known as the 67 borders). Syria wants access to the Galilee and the Palestinians want a land bridge between Hamas' Gaza and Fatah's West Bank. So there will have to be some give. And most people -- even those who are center left -- get it. I've heard Nadav Tamir say it and I think it's a way to keep some sanity about all of this.

I am sure President Obama knows this and "gets it". But I think he is perceiving Israel's current diplomatic approach as obdurate and counterproductive. And, unlike his predecessors, won't stand for it. And the Congress no longer feels that there is only one Jewish game in town. AIPAC (which to its credit has no policy on settlements as do most of the mainstream Jewish organizations) is now in competition with J-Street among Democrats. The D's control the House, Senate and the White House for a reason. And no amount of screaming and personal attacks is going to turn that around for at least another year. Israel may be willing to stall that long. But I don't think the majority of American Jews will be very happy to be on a collision course with the administration. And I don't think, as some of my more conservative friends do, that they are going to abandon Obama. There is little support for settlements among the mainstream.

So, here's a plea for nuance. Publicly and privately.

What is Jerusalem? What is in Israel's best interest for both it's security and it's Jewish character? Was leaving Gaza a good idea? Is leaving far flung communities in Judea and Samaria a good idea?

It would be easy to say yes or no. And we will never really know some of the answers. But let's at least give ourselves the freedom to step out of the echo chamber (in fact the many little politically homogeneous echo chambers that we have nicely built for ourselves) and explore some non-dogmatic options. We are critical of others for using their dogma to drive their actions. Let's not do the same.


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Disgusted and Disgusting

This morning I am reflecting on the most recent scandal in the Jewish community. It seems that in the NJ and Brooklyn area the FBI arrested several rabbis and other "Orthodox" Jews for being part of a massive money laundering and corruption ring. Among them was one Levi Yitzchak Rosenbaum -- who is accused of being "the main U.S. broker for an international trafficking network" - Trafficking in organs!

Its been a bad year for the Jews -- in my view, particularly the Orthodox -- Rubashkin, continued evidence of sexual abuse (without recourse, by the way), riots in Jerusalem including the burning of a welfare office to defend a woman accused of attempted murder of her child, "Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria" -- i.e. settlers riding on horseback to burn Palestinian olive tree groves -- and now these guys. Add this to Madoff, and its been a pretty rotten year. With just about 7 weeks before the introspective period of the high holidays, a few thoughts. And a rant.

What galls me about this is, for one, the basic inhumanity of all of these people. Come on, organ trafficking at a huge profit? Extortion? Terrorizing farmers? Give me a break.

However, I think there is a deeper, more disturbing observation here. It has to do with religion and religious fundamentalism.

There used to be a tendency to look at religious fanatics and write them off as "crazy or bad apples." Now, it is fashionable to look at people -- Muslims in particular -- and say -- "Well so much for the religion of peace. Look what the Koran says about such and such... the religion is at fault and anyone who is a religious Muslim must be a fanatic and that the only good Muslims are secular or those who outwardly reject parts of their traditions (the Hadith, etc.)"

We don't say the same thing about Christian fundamentalists -- the Kansas people who protest at soliders' funerals or kill doctors who perform women's health services. We look at them as outlyers -- but I think that somewhere we also look at their theology as being corrupt or at least suspect.

So, what about the Jews? I am tired of people circling the wagons on this issue. I expressed my concern to a couple of prominent rabbis in my community -- people that I respect. One, who shall remain nameless because of my real respect for his scholarship and community involvement said (and I paraphrase): "I hope that people don't use this as a partisan issue in the community" -- in other words, don't blame the Orthodox for the sins of these people.

Another community leader said something similar when I wrote about this on Facebook. She attributed this chillul Hashem - desecration of God's name -- to free will. This implies that is has nothing to do with our teachings and our tradition.

I would propose that our tradition and the way that it is taught -- particularly among those who consider themselves to be the most learned and pious -- is at the core of this problem. Rather that this being deviant behavior, it is the logical conclusion of those who read the texts and surround themselves with those who agree with them.

If you look at our tradition, there is a very disturbing theme that runs throughout the Torah and the Talmud -- exclusivism. It is at the core of being the "chosen people". That in and of itself is not a bad thing. For a people to have a certain "self esteem" is not unusual. And, it's healthy. How else does one perpetuate a way of life in a competitive environment.

However, at the root of our tradition is also a strain that says that other people -- whether its non-Jews (referred to in religious literature as "ACUM" -- the worshippers of stars and constellations -- or Jews who do not observe the stricture of Jewish law (more on that later) are not "friends" and in some cases not considered human beings. This extends in some small measure to women -- who are excluded from rituals and delegated to a second class status for reasons that are explained away.

How is this expressed?

"And you shall love your neighbor as yourself". The Talmud says that this is one of the centerpieces of the tradition -- the proverbial golden rule. However, the accepted interpretation of this verse (quoted by Rashi) is that your neighbor is only one who observes the Jewish commandments.

This has profound implications for Jewish law.

I will provide a few concrete examples:

There are many activities considered to be work that are forbidden on the Sabbath. One of the discussions that arose in Talmudic literature involves doctors saving lives and people going into burning burnings etc. The rabbinic ruling is that one is permitted to enter a burning building or to provide life saving treatment to Jews only. But not to non-Jews. In a later period, it was determined that "in order to keep the peace" (in other words to avoid persecution at the hands of the non-Jewish majority) one can (if they have to) provide medical treatment or rescue non-Jews.

In addition, a Kohen (one of the priestly caste -- children of Aaron) who serve in the Temple and are to remain religiously pure can not attend funerals with the exception of their closest relatives. (Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, Spouse, Son or Daugther)... no grandparents, step-childen, friends etc. However, they are permitted to attend the funeral of non-Jews. Since non-Jews are apparently not people.

I could go on and on. I won't even begin to discuss the second class status of women who are grouped with children, the mentally handicapped and the slave as ineligible to provide testimony at trial, lead religious rituals and the like.

And don't get me started about homosexuals.

So, the deciet and and lawlessness observed in the fundamentalist communities is perfectly explainable. If you treat others with disrespect and disdain why should you worry about child labor in Iowa, burning welfare offices in Jerusalem, physically attacking women in Beit Shemesh, extorting and laundering money in New Jersey and selling kidneys all over the world?

After all, as long as you eat glatt kosher, wear a big yarlmuke and use some of that filthy money to support religious instituions that promote your values, you are a good Jew.


As we approach Tisha B'av, where we traditionally think of the destroyed Temple from two thousand years ago and some pray for the restoration of a messianic religious theocracy in the Holy Land, let's consider the filth in our own midst and the ugly parts of our tradition that must be rejected and expunged. Otherwise, the exile will go on and on. If not in our bodies, then in our spiritual fabric.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Is this offensive to Jews?

Gentle reader,

I've gotten a request in my official capacity to "speak out" against this mural in Harvard Square? Does this strike you as something that the Jewish community should be doing?

Please let me know your thoughts...


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Random musings...

That's my awesome dog Lily. More on her later.

Fringes annoy me. And I am not talking about Tzitis (They annoy me too in a different way)

The lefty fringe leaves me somewhat speechless. I just can't get my head around what they are thinking on most issues. The right fringe scares me. I always feel that violence is just around the corner with those folks. What's most annoying is when the left and right agree... Buchanan and Finkelstein... weird and annoying.

Today's shanda regards the neturei karta woman who was arrested in Jerusalem for starving her 3 year old son. They arrested her while trying to pull out his feeding tube. Probably Munchhausen's by Proxy. That's a terribly sick woman... the shanda was the group of charedim who rioted and torched a Jerusalem welfare office to protest the arrest. Click here for more on the story... Don't these idiots have anything else to do? Oh yeah... they don't work, serve in the army or play ball... so not much else there. They need a little midnight basketball and to get off welfare and stop being parasites.

So why is the All-Star Game such a let down every year? I remember watching it with my family is some random motel room during family trips... Maybe inter league play has killed the mystique. I still would have liked to have seen Griffey vs. Randy Johnson... not going to happen. Maybe in some far off old timers game. Does any team other than the Yankees still do one of those? I haven't seen such a thing in Cleveland, Seattle or Boston.

I am frustrated learning to use Twitter. I usually master this kind of stuff quickly. Its just a mystery to me. I'd prefer that people follow this rather than 140 characters.

So we had our Iran divestment bill hearing today. We had great support from our friends in the legislature. I have to say that this should not be their number one priority right now. The state is hemorrhaging money and disabled children, seniors and others without a voice are really suffering. (not to mention the poor zoo animals -- the guys that run the zoo are brilliant -- what a PR coup.)

That said, the Iran bill is the right thing to do for so many reasons... I am just glad that it isn't going to take too much time from the important business of the legislature and it certainly is the fiscally responsible thing to do.

What happened to Dice-K this year? Was last year really a fluke?

What the hell is with the new Taliban of Bet Shemesh? What's going on over there? This is a clear out growth of not managing the extremists in our own community. Its nice to see moderates coming together; there is no place for intimidation. I hope that they will see some serious prison time... and then the haredim will have another opportunity to put on their special riot shoes.

Do you wear a gartel to riot? Probably not.

I am told that JCRC's Israel Seminar for Christian ministers was very successful. Apparently they prayed all over the place... I would have been sick to my stomach. All that piety is a dangerous thing...

Lily is devouring a bone. It's nice to watch her enjoy herself and play. She's a special dog. I know, I know. I also want to know how to move those pictures to the bottom of the text of the blog. Another thing I haven't yet figured out.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Looking out at the Boats and the Harbor

Due to the generosity of my wife's ex-husband John (long story, don't ask), I have the opportunity to spend some time each summer in Swans Island, ME at a beautiful house overlooking the lobster co-op and a terrific harbor. Each morning, as the sun rises, the water is electric with color as the lobster men (and women) set off to haul their daily catch, returning in the late afternoon hoping to sell the creatures to the co-op's agent who market the lobster to those on the main land who each such things (I wouldn't know...).

This is one of the most beautiful places in the world. My wife calls it her "happy place."

So what happens to the echo chamber when we are here? It fades, and wonderfully so. Until it returns in surprising and sometimes disturbing ways.

Today Elizabeth and I went to the annual "Swans Island" Independence Day festival that benefits the Swans Island school.

The festival brought the echo chamber back into focus.

Sitting at the table eating our blueberry and apple pie (delicious! -- welcome to Maine!) I spoke with a female relative of John's. Not 35, she has seen it all. Probably no more than 110 pounds wet, she is a lobster woman. She heads out on those cold mornings (I'm not sure how she gets her two young kids to school -- probably with the help of a neighbor since she split with her husband a couple of years ago) , gets in her small boat, rain or shine, and hauls lobster traps to the surface all day long. This woman has seen it all... One year she won the Maine moose license lottery and "took" a moose. Her family ate that moose for at least six months. She told me that two weeks ago she broke her tail bone. But, off to work she went that morning -- ibuprofen in hand.

She reports that this has been a tough year for the lobster industry. In a normal year, the lobster men and women earn about $6-8 per pound in the winter and $4 in the summer. This winter the lobster went for $2.50 - 3.00 per pound. In the summer about $2. Traps went uncollected and the debt rose.

Also with us at the table was Dorothy, an older woman who cleans this terrific house between renters. Surrounded by her grandchildren, she is joyful and wistful at the same time. Her husband is home, in perpetual recovery from the emphysema that has taken his ability to work and at times to even breathe. When I ask about him, I am told he is doing better - he's lost a bunch of weight, but he is holding his own.

Last winter, Dorothy broke her leg after a nasty fall on the ice near their small home. I don't recall the entire story, but on the island going to the hospital in the middle of night requires a helicopter and a long ride to Bangor. Dorothy elected not to go despite the urging of all around her. Amazingly, she got through a long night and took the ferry the following morning to the mainland.

I have to wonder how the folks who live here do it.

Swans Island has about 400 permanent residents year round. The school has about 30 kids (K-8) with three teachers.

It's a rough life for those people living in paradise.

I wish we had paid extra for our pie today.

Monday, June 8, 2009

A letter from the Echo Chamber

Dear Mr. President,

Much has been written about your trip to the Middle East and to Buchenwald last week. Across the globe the pundits have weighed in about each phrase and word. I want to add my voice to the chorus and share my thoughts.

All in all, I think the speech was a powerful gesture to the Muslim world at a critical moment in our history as a country. There is no more important task than doing what we can to drive a wedge between the extremists and moderates in the Muslim world.

I hope that your speech will achieve that goal.

However, I have great concerns about your statements about the founding of the State of Israel. The world was paying very close attention to what you said about the relationship between the Jewish state and our country. And, your reaffirmation of the unshakable bond between the two countries was a critical message for the Muslim world to hear.

But, your statement that "the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history" is a dangerous mischaracterization that undermines any lasting resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

For the conflict to end, the Arabs of the Middle East, Muslims and Christians alike, must accept that the Jewish people has an historical right to live among them on our ancestral homeland. For over 2000 years, Jews have longed to return to the Land of Israel. A rich archaeological record demonstrates the Jewish connection to the land from time immemorial. Jews have a right to live with self determination in their ancestral land.

Mr. President, I urge you to set the record straight. Please find a way to reaffirm the history and birthright of the Jewish people in our ancient homeland. Our unbreakable relationship between the United States and Israel demands no less.


Alan Ronkin
Brookline, MA

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Netanyahu Comes to Town

One word of clarification before I begin today. I quoted Norman Lamm in the last posting speaking about tolerance and disagreement. Someone brought his recent pronouncement about the Reform and Conservative movements to my attention. A few thoughts. First off, I am no fan of YU. I think it sold its soul to the Orthodox right a long time ago. And, in my experience, most of the guys that I knew in the college were devoid of spirituality and those that did seemed to be the most condescending of the lot.

However, I fear that Rabbi Lamm may be right about the Reform and Conservative movements. At least about the Conservative movement. It seems that they have no centering principle, no real leadership and that the Conservative Jews that are continuing to connect to a traditional Jewish practice are abandoning the synagogues in great numbers and either forming alternative minyanim or winding up in Orthodox shuls where they hold their noses. The movement made a critical error when it transferred the core of the movement from the home to the shul. Enough said about that. I know less about the trajectory of the Reform movement but I have to say that whatever they are doing now to reinvigorate themselves may be "too little, too late." I am not sure what that says about the future of Jewish life in the US. My gut feeling is that its a bad thing. Yitz Greenberg was right when he asked the questions "Will there be two Jewish peoples by 2010?" The answer is yes. Maybe three if you count the "national" Jews of Israel.

That's a good segue to my next point, Bibi's visit with Obama next week. I have serious misgivings about these administrations. Both have to do with "kishkes". I think that Bibi has kishkes -- mostly about himself and staying in power. He is pursuing an unsustainable course in a region where sustainability is measured in centuries, not years. I am concerned that we are moving toward the end of the Zionist century and that we have lost the argument about the viability of Jewish sovereignty. Most of our community -- those out of the echo chamber -- can't answer the question of why we need a "Jewish" state.

Obama, on the other hand, now has the freedom to hold Israel to its word. If Israel is serious about a two-state solution, Obama seems to think, it has to get serious about seizing ostensibly Palestinian land and make some movement. All the talk about moving rockets closer to the airport, empowering Hamas and its acolytes and Palestinian pronouncements about destroying Israel have fallen on deaf ears -- even in Congress where its members pledge support but see a two-state solution as the only hope for peace -- not only in Israel but in the Middle East in general. As naive and ridiculous as it may be, this is now the consensus.

So, what to do? I have no idea. But I do know that staying in our own echo chamber -- sticking to our own narrative at all costs -- is not working. Israel can play for time but, each time that it does it loses more people. Time is not our friend despite facts on the ground.

I know that a simple throwaway paragraph is completely inadequate. If Israel shows "weakness" to the Arab world, it will continue to be pounded. If it shows "strength" to the West it will be depicted as the villain -- an obstacle for peace. And for those who think a purist solution is the way -- (especially those in the diaspora) they risk fighting until the very last Israeli.

Well, it appears that I have gone into the echo chamber this morning. Maybe its because I am going to the AIPAC dinner tonight. I love AIPAC -- I love their clarity and single minded pursuit of their goals. I worry about AIPAC because our song is wearing thin -- even among those members of Congress who pledge their undying loyalty. (Don't even ask me about campaign contributions from wealthy AIPAC donors).

Being right may not be enough anymore -- both for Israelis and Palestinians.

Oh well... maybe if the sun was out this morning I would have more clarity.

Until next time, Go Celtics!

Thursday, May 14, 2009


So, another good friend inquires if one must have progressive political views in order to be out of the echo chamber. Perish the thought. In fact, I am equally critical of my liberal friends -- some of whom had trouble even acknowleding the legitimacy of the Bush administration. I recall several years ago during the Bush-Kerry election (talk about bad choices!) a colleague who came to my office in tears after the other members of my staff learned that she had, imagine this, voted for Bush! Intolerance of other views, like Hebrew and English, moves left to right and right to left.

What am I talking about? What am I writing about?

I guess its a general frustration with the quality of community in the United States today. A wise woman told me this week that our current crisis is a result of the "commoditization" of other people. Some of us, myself included at times, treat people like commodities -- their utility to us (and perhaps to our causes) being the only measure of their worth. Our system buys and sells them -- their mortgages, their credit accounts and plays with them in any way that it pleases.

Of course, I am not calling for the end of capitalism. Anyone who knows me knows that I am pretty clear about my fiscally conservative beliefs. That said, I really believe that we need to begin to treat people like people and not potential assets.

I recall a wonderful TV PSA (its all about TV, you know) in which a highway you saw a highway and a group of drivers -- one family car included someone sitting a couch, another having what appeared to be a glass of lemonade. The upshot was the suggestion that we treat others like they were guests in our home -- even on the road.

I vote for graciousness, warmth and openess. Even toward those with whom we disagree.

As Rabbi Norman Lamm said, "Let's agree to disagree agreeably." Its too bad that more of us don't take that to heart.

Shabbat Shalom/Good Shabbos and Happy 36th day of the Omer.


Tuesday, May 5, 2009

An Echo Chamber moment

So, I got a "friend request" on Facebook today. I had no idea who this person was, but I saw that I had one friend in common -- a guy that I went to Yeshivat Hakotel with back in the day. I was reluctant to accept the request. After all, how many more neocons with 5 kids living in (pick one) Cedarhurst, Chashmonaim, Raanana or some other Orthodox enclave do I need to be connected to.

But, to my surprise, this fellow was different. Looking at his profile I saw that, of course, he has a daughter ready to go to college. However, he is also interested in "men"! He is active in gay politics in New York and, as they say, v'chulai, v'chulai.

So I wrote on his wall that I was delighted to see that another YK alum was involved in progressive causes and doing real work for inclusion and civil rights. I said that I wished that more of the Kotel boys would be able to see themselves getting involved in making the world a better place for everyone.

He wrote back -- Don't worry, they will!

And I responded -- only if they get out of the echo chamber.

p.s. I am embarrased to say that I still don't remember this fellow... Too bad. Maybe he will visit from NY and come for Shabbos. (or Shabbat)...

Monday, April 27, 2009

Welcome to "Out of the Echo Chamber"

Insurance experts will tell you that the vast majority of traffic accidents occur within 3 miles of one's home. This is not to say that people are more reckless nearer to their homes. People have more accidents near their homes because that's where they drive the most.

Opinions and our vision of the world, too often, follow the same pattern. We form our opinions based on what we usually read and our closest colleagues and friends -- in other words, the "usual suspects."

This small circle is what I call the "echo chamber." In the echo chamber, perceptions of the world are often distorted -- "groupthink" is not reality. By definition, it cannot be.

Truth is also a victim of this process. Many people claim to tell "the truth" and demand that others do the same. However, what often drives this desire to tell the "truth" is not only to recount facts but also to convince people that our interpretations of those facts should inform their actions. And that's where the "echo chamber" is dangerous.

This blog will explore many of the "echo chamber" assumptions that our "little circle" makes. My goal is to think about ways to get out of the box and enrich our perspectives by hearing others and broadening our take on the world.

I look forward to a healthy and respectful discussion. (If anyone ever reads this!).

Until next time,


About Me

Brookline, MA, United States
Thought provoking discussion or musings of a kid from the other side of the tracks...