Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Whither the Beloved Country

   We have just been through the dirtiest, most acrimonious presidential campaign that I can remember, the acrimony has not stopped on either side, and my mood is down.  Like most American Jews since the Great Depression, my sympathies have been aligned with those of the Democratic Party.  I say “have been” because the party is listing so far to port that it is in danger of capsizing. One of my first political memories was visiting my maternal grandfather ע''ה, who actually lived and raised two daughters through the Great Depression, mentioning or perhaps hearing somebody else mention President Eisenhower, and hearing my grandfather say in substance: A Republican – yuk.  I reached voting age in 1970, with the passage of the 26th Amendment to the Constitution, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 nationwide.  I did not wait, but went to the Brooklyn office of the Board of Elections to register as soon as possible, before the Orthodox establishment got on the bandwagon and instructed all of us to register and vote, because if we did not then our concerns would not count.  I would have registered even if the gedolim had told us not to; it is my sacred obligation as an American and many good Americans died so that we could choose those who would govern us.  Of course, I registered as a Democrat and remain so registered.  Where I live the Democratic nomination is usually tantamount to election, and I wanted my vote to mean something.  The first Presidential election in which I voted was in 1972, Richard Nixon was seeking a second term against Democrat George McGovern with the war in Vietnam still raging.  As a student at Columbia I was safe from the draft with a 2S deferment, in what turned out to be the last age cohort where 2S (undergraduate student) deferments were given, and I dutifully completed the paperwork to renew the deferment each year.  I voted for Nixon, the Republican, feeling that his Democratic challenger would sell small allies like Israel down the river, and that his domestic ideas were too far left to work.  Answering a pollster at Columbia that I voted for Richard Nixon took some political courage, but that was okay.
   The primary season leading up to last summer’s nominating conventions and last November’s general election was a disaster.  The Republican side went pretty much as I expected, the Republicans having been the “party of stupid” for quite a while.  Anybody they nominate could be counted on to be a science denier and/or Christian fundamentalist.  A Republican presidency is inevitably bad news for science (especially biology) teachers, as well as knowledgeable citizens concerned about climate change and members of religious minorities staunchly defending separation of church and state.  This time, however, a businessman with no experience in elective office threw his hat into the ring and proceeded to double down on what has become typical Republican buffoonery.  His name?  Donald Trump. From the beginning he made no secret of his racism and xenophobia.  His utterances about Mexicans and disabled people in particular were what few citizens in this day and age, and certainly no candidate for our highest office, would dare to say in polite company.  This wouldn’t bother me, I being quite politically incorrect myself, if his statements were true, but that was far from the case.  He repeated age-old canards and it was clear that he believed them to be true.  People hearing him were mostly confident that he would have no chance at the nomination, but they failed to reckon with Americans’ (myself included) frustration with a long running war seemingly going nowhere, with terrorist attacks occurring with disturbing frequency, with increasing racial tensions and police violence, and so forth.  Americans, except for those in the liberal bastions in the Northeast and California, were fed up and wanted change.  They got more than they bargained for.
   As for the Democrats, they have quite a few men who would have made good Presidents, but they were all afraid to challenge Hillary Clinton, as if she was already a sitting President from their own party.  The only man to run against her was Bernie Sanders, a Jew who grew up in Brooklyn, but an avowed socialist not to be trusted.  He gave Ms. Clinton a better fight than most of us expected, but in the end he lost the nomination to the former President’s wife.  She was widely regarded in middle America as the ultimate insider, too invested in the status quo to make the changes they deemed necessary.  Her victory would be tantamount to a third term for Obama, of whom we were not enamored.  This image was not helped by a scandal involving emails from her tenure as President Obama’s Secretary of State having been stored on her private server where they were vulnerable to hacking.  I, male chauvinist that I am, was not about to support any woman in time of war short of Golda Meir or Margaret Thatcher.  So now the major parties served up two lousy candidates and we were expected to choose the lesser evil.  Had I lived in a “battleground state” that could go either way, I would have swallowed hard, held my nose and voted for Trump, who at least advocated a tougher posture toward our foreign enemies.  But I live in New York, and it was a foregone conclusion that New York would be carried by Hillary Clinton.  I therefore cast a write-in protest vote for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, peace be upon them.
   Then the impossible happened.  Shades of Dewey vs Truman in 1948.  All the polls predicted a victory for Clinton, who narrowly won the popular vote. However, due to the peculiar method prescribed by the Constitution for electing the President, Trump narrowly won enough states to give him a comfortable majority in the Electoral College.  Therefore, despite some childish political maneuvering aimed at getting enough electors to betray their trust and deny Trump the election, Trump was elected and duly sworn in on January 20.  It has been a frenetic month and, for me, a sad one.  True to his campaign pledges, he appears to be doing an about face in our Middle East policy.  His appointees for secretary of state and ambassador to Israel are friendly to Israel and see it as America’s only strong and reliable ally in a very rough neighborhood.  He is likely to pay lip service to the “two-state solution,” actually a three-state solution since the “Palestinians” already have a state called Jordan that sits on 80% of Mandatory Palestine and has a “Palestinian” majority.  But indications are that he will stand down as Israel’s popular right-wing government creates facts on the ground that will make large land giveaways in Judea and Samaria impossible.  He has a much warmer personal relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu than President Obama ever did.  But that is where the optimism and satisfaction end.
   The rest of his acts in office betray his utter lack of experience in government.  He promised in his campaign that he would “make America safe again.”  With crime at an all-time low, one can only assume he meant safe from terrorists.  He wasted no time imposing, by executive order, a 90-day moratorium on immigration and acceptance of refugees from Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Yemen.  These are all countries that are known either to be state sponsors of terrorism or to export terrorists abroad, or not to have functioning governments that can provide information on prospective immigrants and refugees.  The moratorium was supposed to give the government time to map out the “extreme vetting” that the new President wants put in place to keep out evildoers while letting in legitimate immigrants and refugees.  There is no question in my mind that the President meant well but, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  The President and his advisors used a meat-axe when a scalpel would have been more appropriate.  His order included holders of “green cards” authorizing permanent residence in the country, as well as holders of valid visas.  It resulted in chaos at always-busy airports like JFK in New York and LAX in Los Angeles.  Volunteer lawyers and others hastily made their way to the airports to assist those people who now found themselves in limbo.  Later on, watchdog groups obtained court orders putting the Presidents order on hold; Trump plans to appeal and to pursue other avenues, like using the proverbial scalpel to carve out another order more likely to pass muster.  We know there will be terrorists embedded with the refugees; ISIS says as much.  We also let in, a century ago, tens of thousands of Italian immigrants knowing that we were also importing the Sicilian Mafia.  The difference is that Mafiosi usually kill one another, one at a time, for motives that are entirely economic.  The Muslim terrorists that we’re fighting go in for mass casualty attacks and their aim is to bring down the American government and impose their own tyrannical brand of Islam on all of us; not even the Muslim immigrants that were here for years pursuing the American dream have any use for them.  We have to vet these people in their home countries before they get here.  If they’re coming with families or if they are single older men they are probably legit.  Single men of fighting age are more likely to be terrorists and should be turned away.  Those likely to face religious persecution up to and including murder (i.e. Christians and Yazidis) are most unlikely to be terrorists.  Some would-be immigrants and refugees might have to be quarantined on Ellis Island or elsewhere pending further investigation, as was done at the turn of the 20th century.  Those that are let in should be let in slowly, so that the communities in which they settle will have time to absorb them and they will have time to adjust to our culture. 
   The media in describing the President’s order and the way it was going to be carried out before the courts intervened were most unhelpful.  They kept writing and speaking about a “Muslim ban,” when it was neither Muslim nor a ban (Remember the Holy Roman Empire which was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire?).  The President wanted a temporary breathing space so he could figure out how to admit legitimate immigrants and refugees while keeping us safe from terrorists; by calling it a ban the media implied that it was permanent.  In reality the President sought an indefinite ban only in the case of Syria.  The media also characterized the affected countries as “Muslim majority countries,” as though that was the President’s reason for imposing a moratorium.  The media weren’t lying, but were not telling us the whole truth either.  There are over 20 Muslim-majority countries on earth; the moratorium covered only seven.  Turkey and Indonesia, for example, are overwhelmingly Muslim but they were not included in the 90-day freeze.  Why?  They do not sponsor terrorism or export terrorists, and they have stable governments with which we can do business.  The media will not allow for the possibility that the President might be telling the truth and should be given a chance, having been chosen by the American people in a democratic election.  Who elected the pundits that are pooh-poohing him at every turn?
   The new President is giving us cause for concern in other areas too.  Like Reagan before him, his approach to filling his cabinet is to have a lot of foxes guarding a lot of henhouses.  His attorney general gives the impression that he intends to ride roughshod over the Constitution, his chief strategist keeps company with white supremacists, his Secretary of Education wants to divert resources from public schools to private, including charter, schools.  His chairman of the Environmental Protection Agency wants to gut the law authorizing that very agency, his Secretary of Energy wants to double down on coal and oil production, environment be damned, and so forth and so on.  To top it all off, President Trump is a raving science denier.  In what has become typical Republican pig-headedness, he insists that climate change is a hoax and to hell with all the evidence.  He cannot be expected to advocate in international circles for policies that might keep the planet capable of supporting billions of human beings, policies that must be global to be effective.
   Last but not least, when the next anti-evolution bill is passed and is challenged in court, we scientists and science educators will not be able to rely on the White House, the Department of Education or the Department of Justice to have our backs.  As a community and as individual teachers we will have to grow “stones” and take risks to be faithful to our obligations as professionals.  I wrote to a Facebook friend at the beginning of the Trump administration that the President’s first 100 days will be a time of watchful waiting.  Developments since then make me change that to “dark foreboding.”  I hope I am wrong, but hope alone will not suffice. 
   Since both parties have gone to the extremes and show no signs of slowing down, let alone going back, we are in desperate need of a third party.  This party will be unabashedly pragmatic and centrist, faithful to the Constitution and to the traditions that have made this country great.  It will provide a home to Rockefeller-Javits Republicans as well as Kennedy-Johnson Democrats, neither of whom are welcome in their own parties.  Since it will pitch a big tent, there will be vigorous debate but that debate will be civil, free from the name-calling and ad hominem attacks that have characterized American political discourse of late. The role of third parties in American politics traditionally was to be a gadfly, putting the major parties back on track when they got derailed, as is the case now.  If it succeeds, well and good.  If not, it should displace one of the major parties, preferably the Republicans.  Otherwise I see little hope for the world my grandchildren will grow up in, and we will have betrayed our obligation to leave our children a world in better shape than it was before we came on the scene.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Shout It Out

   We just finished the roller coaster ride of joy and sorrow that is the counting of the Omer.  During that time we read Parshat B’hukotai (Lev. 26:3 – 27: 34) with its promises of abundant blessings if we are faithful to the Torah and dire warnings of terrible curses if we are not.  In 1945, as World War II was drawing to a close and German concentration camps were being liberated by the British and Americans (the ones further east were liberated by the Soviets), this section was read wherever possible.  The next year, with all of Europe liberated, many Jewish ex-inmates were housed in Displaced Person (DP) camps, where they were provided with food, medical care and housing fit for human habitation and, we all hoped, enabled to start new lives elsewhere.  It was a time of joy and hope; as Jews we refused to wallow in victimhood.  Men and women met and married; babies were born.  A new edition of the Vilna Talmud was published.  Religious services were held, and about a year after liberation Parshat B’hukotai was read again.  Traditionally, the reader reads the curses sotto voce, in a soft voice, indicating their extreme unpleasantness.  But this time, as I learned in the Zionist youth movement Bnei Akiva, the reader shouted the curses out.  When asked why he departed from the custom, the reader answered that all the curses that he read were fulfilled during the war, and now he shouted them out as a challenge to God.  As You brought about the curses, now fulfill the second part.  Bring on the blessings.  אל תפל דבר מכל אשר דברת.  Let not one word fail from all that You have spoken (cf. Esther 6:10).  And three years later, almost to the day, the State of Israel came into being and fulfilled the blessings beyond our wildest dreams.  Our land and people were restored to their former greatness and then some, agriculturally and militarily.  More Torah is being studied there than ever before in our history:  כי מציון תצא  תורה – out of Zion shall come forth Torah (Is. 2:3).  Israel is the start-up nation where all manner of new hi-tech inventions are innovated, and from there they emanate as blessings to all humanity in medicine, agriculture and almost every other field of human endeavor (cf. Gen. 12: 2-3).  May our state, the work of God from the beginning, grow from strength to strength and culminate in the building of the third Beit Mikdash (Holy Temple in Jerusalem) and the finalization of the ge’ula (Redemption)  speedily and in our time.

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Monday, November 23, 2015

JFK On Terrorism

  In these days when terror carried out by "non-state actors" to advance a perverted political or religious ideology is a global scourge, it is worthwhile to read and listen to remarks delivered by the late President John F. Kennedy before the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, 1961.  Those of us old enough to remember will recall a time when this country had the backbone to stand up to powerful enemies intent on our destruction, and had a charismatic President who forthrightly named the enemy and led the struggle against it on many fronts.  I wish we had a leader with such courage today.

Terror is not a new weapon. Throughout history it has been used by those who could not prevail, either by persuasion or example. But inevitably they fail, either because men are not afraid to die for a life worth living, or because the terrorists themselves came to realize that free men cannot be frightened by threats, and that aggression would meet its own response. And it is in the light of that history that every nation today should know, be he friend or foe, that the United States has both the will and the weapons to join free men in standing up to their responsibilities.

   52 years ago yesterday that President was untimely taken from us.  Modern technology gives us the consolation of being able to hear his voice long after he is gone; to hear JFK's words in his own voice listen here.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Much Ado About Nothing

   The title of this Shakespeare play actually sounds better in Hebrew than in English: Rov Mehuma Al Lo Me’uma (רוב מהומה על לא מאומה), and it summarizes the latest rabbinical “scandal” eagerly reported in a New York Times “expose” and just as eagerly picked up by The Jewish Week.  It was reported that Jonathan Rosenblatt, the rabbi of long standing at Riverdale Jewish Center, a prominent Orthodox synagogue in the Bronx, had played squash and racquetball with young male congregants, then showered with them naked (that’s how men usually shower) and sat with them in a sauna or steam room, naked or wrapped in a robe (as men usually are when they use saunas and steam rooms).  This had gone on for decades and reporters at both publications had known about it for decades, but did not report it until now because only now was one person man enough to speak for attribution.  Plenty of others were ready to bad-mouth the rabbi, but only behind a veil of anonymity.
   Among the words used to describe Rabbi Rosenblatt’s conduct are “disturbing,” “inappropriate,” “unusual,” and words of that ilk.  Never “illegal” or “criminal.”  By all accounts there was no sexual touching or other sexual misconduct, as occurred in other well-publicized sex scandals involving rabbis.  The New York Times article itself states that “parsing [the rabbi’s conduct] is an exercise in ambiguity.”  If so, and given Rabbi Rosenblatt’s stature, are we not required to be דן לכף זכות, to give the rabbi the benefit of the doubt?
  Up until the middle of the 19th century it was unusual for any observant Jew to play organized sports.  Then Jewish consciousness began to be raised by the Zionist movement and men such as Max Nordau.  Young Jewish men, first secular and then observant, began seeing their bodies and minds as an integrated whole, each feeding off the other.  Orthodox rabbis, however, remained the black-suited, black-hatted purveyors of scholarship and dared not step out of that realm, except maybe to escort congregants to Soviet Jewry demonstrations or Salute to Israel (now Celebrate Israel) parades.  Rabbi Rosenblatt, it seems, was the first to think and act outside of that box, and more power to him.  Several years ago the chief rabbi of Warsaw was attacked and beaten by anti-Semitic Polish hoodlums.  Just imagine if he had been able to give those goons a proper rabbinical butt whooping.  It would have been a tremendous kiddush Hashem, a veritable earthquake, with aftershocks rippling with his muscles through the length and breadth of Poland.  No more would the few Jews left in Poland be seen as easy marks.
   One of the anonymous complaints concerned the rabbi lingering in a post-workout shower with the boys and young men with whom he was bonding; there was no rush.  Why should there have been a rush?  Were they expecting a trainload of Jews arriving and having to use the shower?  A shower after a hard fulfilling workout may be routine for others who take their physicality for granted, but for us it is a mystical experience of supernal joy.  That’s water coming out of those shower heads, not gas.  We draw water with joy from the wells of salvation (see Is. 12:3).  Take as long as you want.  Sing, whoop and holler if you feel like it.  Savor the experience as you would good wine.  I remember running races in the summer heat and makeshift showers would be set up along the course.  I’d pump my fist in the air, run through and shout “l’chaim” – to life.  Who needs drugs when you can get high on pure Jewish joy?  It is said that at the entrance to the gas chamber at Auschwitz hung a sign reading  זה השער לה' צדיקים יבאו בו  - This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter it (Ps. 118:20).  Perhaps the showers of gyms at yeshivot and Jewish community centers should have signs reading יבואו בו זה השער לגאולה חזקיםThis is the gate of redemption; the strong shall enter it.  I remember taking showers in school after gym or swimming, naked with my classmates in full view of one another, and thinking nothing of it.  I don’t remember if the teachers showered with us, but if they had it would have been no big deal.
   The person who apparently was leading the charge against Rabbi Rosenblatt is female and, not surprisingly, knows nothing about male bonding and male fellowship.   She does not understand why the rabbi “didn’t get”  his alleged judgment error.  Actually, it is she that “doesn’t get it.”  We men need to be with one another where females are absent, to be “out with the boys.”   Time was when construction workers, longshoremen (those brawny fellows who unloaded ships before modern containerization) and such working in Lower Manhattan would, after a hard day’s work, repair to McSorley’s Ale House and enjoy some salty man talk in one another’s company over a pint or two.  No more.  Since 1970 McSorley’s must, per court order, be open to women.  In Russia, Eastern Europe and Turkey the steam bath (and in Scandinavia the sauna) filled the role of McSorley’s.  Jewish men coming here from that part of the world brought the “shvitz” culture with them, and passed it on to their progeny.  So here we have an Orthodox rabbi who worked out with boys and young men, then showered and spent time in the steam room or sauna with them, discussing matters of faith and philosophy in a relaxed atmosphere where they could let their guard down.  Why would any man or boy get uptight over it?  Mothers did, and that is understandable.  Among other functions, these male-only get-togethers removed boys, if only temporarily, from the influence of their overbearing Jewish mothers, taking them out of the world of women and into the world of men.  That can be traumatic for women who can’t let go of their little darlings, but for their sons it is liberating and healthy.
   To be sure, there were minor errors in judgment.  Most of them stem from not adhering to a fundamental part of the masculine mystique in America, dating from the Old West, that exhorts us to never say behind a man’s back what you would not say to his face.  Interestingly, this echoes a saying of one of the European ba’alei mussar of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Don’t talk about people; talk to them.  In Israel men are expected to “talk dugri,” i.e. direct and to the point.  Some of the young men were uncomfortable with the rabbi’s style, or so they told reporters years or decades later.  With the passage of time, memory can play tricks, but it is perfectly reasonable that some people would be uncomfortable.  In modern societies (but it would seem not in the primitive ones that renowned anthropologist  Margaret Mead visited) puberty and adolescence is characterized by a great deal of Sturm und Drang.  Young people are prone to read into situations what is not necessarily there.  What one person experiences as a glance, or even thinks nothing of, can be experienced by someone else as gawking.  When I was in high school, a male biology teacher once remarked to a classmate, “those biceps [mine] are unreal.”  Having been lifting weights for several years,  I took it as a compliment, large biceps still being unusual in American yeshiva boys in the 1960s.  Given the anxieties teenage boys experience about their sexuality, anxieties not addressed by the limudei kodesh teachers (only one specific act is Biblically prohibited), some other boy might have experienced the same remark as “creepy.”  The boys and young men who were uncomfortable with nudity in the shower and/or steam room should have simply told the rabbi.  Alternatively, they could have asked him if this was appropriate behavior for a rabbi, perhaps citing sources if they could.  It could have opened the door to some interesting and healthy conversation.  One student recalled getting sick in yeshiva and being driven home by the rabbi, with pleasant conversation in the car.  When they arrived at the student’s home (the parents were not present), the rabbi suggested the boy might be more comfortable if he changed into a bathrobe.  This was not far-fetched; yeshiva clothes can be distinctly uncomfortable, especially when one is not feeling well to begin with.  The boy did not want to change, and told the rabbi.  According to the boy’s recollection, the rabbi stayed in the student’s house (is there any yihud issue between two males?) and persisted in trying to get the boy to change.  With 20/20 hindsight I understand and sympathize with the boy feeling put in an awkward spot.  Some of the people involved were so put off that they chose another synagogue to attend.  This too is nothing out of the ordinary; in any community where there is a choice of synagogues congregants come and congregants go.  Leaving is the best solution when a personality clash between congregant and rabbi is so deep that remaining together becomes untenable.  Others, however, benefited a good deal from those encounters and are appalled that the rabbi, to their way of thinking, became the object of a malicious smear campaign (lashon ha-ra) years later.  Students in Yeshiva University kept coming, of their own volition, to do rabbinic internships with him even when the university stopped sending students his way due to complaints, some of which were justified.  The power relationships between rabbi and intern could create the appearance that the scantily clad shvitz sessions were necessary for the intern’s career advancement.  Similar situations could occur between professors and undergraduate or graduate students at a secular university; today professors assiduously avoid any interaction that can give any such appearance.
   The entire matter seems to have been resolved to most everybody’s satisfaction.  The rabbi will be staying out the few years remaining on his contract.  This resolution was reached after a frank exchange between rabbi and congregants, accompanied according to press reports by self-flagellation on the part of the rabbi that I think was unnecessary given that few if any people came to any serious harm.  I fail to see any hillul Hashem here, nor any reason for the rabbi to feel broken. We all recall positive and negative interactions with authority figures in our lives, interactions as inevitable as they are universal.  If there is anybody among us who never committed errors in judgment, he or she may cast a stone.  The rest of us mortals live in glass houses.

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Monday, June 08, 2015

Don't be fools - vaccinate your children

משוט בארץ ומהתהלך בה. . . .    
From flitting about the earth and traversing it (Job 1:7). . .

The American Council on Science and Health, a watchdog group that ferrets out junk science and overhyped claims in the media and in the utterances and writings of public figures, released a report recently about a speech by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at a public screening of an antivaccine film.  The ACSH report states as follows: 


Well-known vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. attended the Sacramento screening of anti-vaccine “documentary” Trace Amounts on Tuesday and gave a speech to the audience, and as expected, it was filled with dangerous and unscientific misinformation. In light of the upcoming hearing for California Senate Bill 277, which eliminates the personal belief exemption for vaccines, RFK Jr. told the audience that public health officials and policy-makers can’t be trusted.

“They can put anything they want in that vaccine and they have no accountability for it,” he reportedly told the crowd. “[Children] get the shot, that night they have a fever of a hundred and three, they go to sleep, and three months later their brain is gone. This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country.” Kennedy left the stage to a standing ovation.

“Trace Amounts” tells the story of filmmaker Eric Gladen, who believes he suffered mercury poisoning from thimerosal after receiving a tetanus vaccine in 2004. RFK Jr. has long been spewing out misinformation regarding thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative that was used in vaccines up until 2001. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Institute of Medicine have all determined that thimerosal is safe, it was removed from vaccines (with the exception of some flu shots) as a precautionary measure due to backlash by misguided parents and the anti-vaccine hysteria fomented by advocacy groups and dangerous demagogues like RFK Jr.

Yet he and his followers are still vehemently against vaccines, even though this preservative that was determined safe was removed from childhood vaccines almost 15 years ago. In response, Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, a pediatrician, and author of SB 277, called Kennedy’s continued activism deceitful. “I think it is dangerous that he is spreading misinformation about something that’s very important for public health,” he said. “Autism rates have continued to rise even though we are not using thimerosal in vaccines for children. We still haven’t figured out exactly what causes autism. We do know it’s not vaccines.”

Despite the facts, “Trace Amounts” and RFK Jr. are unfortunately still making an impact on the vaccine “debate.” Kennedy has credited the documentary with helping to stall Oregon’s mandatory vaccine bill. And although RFK Jr. has no scientific credentials, people continue to listen to him because of his name. 

This is astounding and infuriating, in part because the son of our martyred Senator stated that the alleged damage done to children by vaccines amounted to a holocaust (in fairness to him, the "h" was not capitalized).  The real Holocaust snuffed out the lives of one and a half million Jewish children and their future progeny to the end of time.  Today the Orthodox community seems to be experiencing more than its share of outbreaks of totally preventable childhood diseases like measles and mumps. Rumors fly thick and fast through Jewish media whose editorial staffs are, to put it mildly, not well versed in science, that vaccines are dangerous and cause autism.  Many haredim seldom if ever avail themselves of secular media that might disabuse them of that notion.  Most of the hysteria originates with a report in a medical journal supposedly documenting a link between vaccines and autism.  That report has since been thoroughly discredited and retracted from the journal.  Such retractions rarely happen, but here it turns out that the authors of the discredited report were in cahoots with lawyers who were ready to sue vaccine manufacturers  for millions; the authors presumably were to share in the proceeds (yes, scientists, physicians and lawyers can have a taavah [unwholesome craving] for money).  Of course, many children are vaccinated, some children contract autism (we don’t know why) and the two sets have a small intersection, but that is to be expected.  It does not prove that the two are in any way related.

  We do know that our present situation of most children living to have their own is unprecedented in human history.  The normal human condition was for childhood mortality to be horrendously high.  Some of our siddurim contain selihot l’tahaluei yeladim, penitential prayers to be recited during an epidemic of a children’s disease.  I cannot recall those prayers ever being recited in our community or in any American Jewish community.  But I have visited old Jewish cemeteries in New York and have seen large sections containing little tiny gravestones for little tiny children.  Most of these children doubtless died of childhood diseases that have since, praise God, been conquered by vaccines.  I might add that those vaccines were developed by people, many of them Jewish, who attended college and studied science.  Some of those gravestones are in the process of sinking into the ground; the parents of the deceased were too poor to pay for perpetual care and are long since gone.

Babies’ graves at Union Field Cemetery on the Brooklyn-Queens border

  Before my granddaughter was born, my daughter told me to get a “T-Dap” shot; pertussis (aka whooping cough) was making a comeback and the vaccine we received as children loses its effectiveness as we grow older.  This was not optional; either I got the shot or I would not be allowed anywhere near the baby.  I got the shot – a very minor inconvenience for my granddaughter’s and other babies’ well being.  Since then, I had my blood tested for antibodies for measles, mumps and rubella.  I still have adequate antibodies against all three and will not need boosters.  I do not want to see tragic sights like the one in this picture in newer Jewish cemeteries and there is an easy way to avoid it: EVERY CHILD MUST BE VACCINATED AGAINST CHILDHOOD DISEASES AS PER PROTOCOLS OF PUBLIC HEALTH AUTHORITIES.


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Sunday, February 22, 2015

   I notice that I have not added to my blog since Purim.  Actually, a Jewish publishing house based in Germany (of all places) noticed and asked me to send in samples for possible publication.  I would welcome my work being introduced to a wider audience, and a foot in the door of commercial writing would also be welcome. 
   Probably the most significant event affecting the Jewish world since Purim 5774 was the war in Gaza.  Israel finally had enough with the daily rocket fire from Gaza, which they evacuated in 2005 in return for empty promises quickly repudiated by Hamas once it violently seized power.  In addition, Hamas was busy digging tunnels under the border, with the intention of kidnaping Israeli civilians and committing other acts of terror.  So the Israelis invaded Gaza, destroyed the tunnels and some of Hamas’s military assets and returned.  Israel seems to do this every few years, as Hamas quickly rearms and the world does nothing. This strategy is sometimes referred to as “lawn mower operations” since despite all the rhetoric on both sides everybody knows that the “grass” will regrow and Israel will have to enter Gaza later to re-mow it.  Every time Israel conducts one of these operations it is excoriated by the United Nations, the European Union and the liberal mainstream media in the United States for the heavy collateral damage, particularly the deaths of many children.  This damage is made inevitable by Hamas’s cynical tactic of placing its military assets in hospitals and schools full of children, as well as in private homes whose occupants are not allowed to leave, in order to score propaganda points with the above-named entities.  Israel has always done, and still does more than any other army on earth to prevent civilian casualties.  It even drops flyers and knocks on roofs to warn civilians of the precise buildings to be attacked, so that civilians may leave.  Those civilians must then choose between leaving and being killed by Hamas if they are discovered, and staying and being killed or injured in the military operation.  Imagine the United States and its allies doing that in World War II.  I say that next time Hamas’s shenanigans force Israel to invade, it should leave the lawn mowers behind, enter with overwhelming force, clean out the vipers’ nests once and for all and STAY.  Show the Arabs as much mercy as the allies of World War 2 showed the Germans.  Destroy any buildings used to attack Israelis, no matter who else is inside.  If so much as a cap gun goes off from a mosque, level said mosque.  Let the world rant and rave all it wants to, remind the media that they went in because the enemy deliberately targets Israeli civilians, including children, and that no other country would tolerate such conditions.  The world will condemn us anyway, so who cares?  Rebuild the settlements that were evacuated; no doubt most of the evacuees will be only too happy to return to their homes and make the land flourish as it did before the expulsions.  The war sparked outbursts of anti-Semitism all over western Europe, especially in France.  French Jews are still afraid to walk the streets wearing kippot (skullcaps) and police must be deployed around synagogues so that Jews can enter and leave peacefully.  Many of them decided that they have no future in France and are leaving for Israel.  They can be helped to build homes in Gaza (city and strip) and strengthen the Jewish presence.  Same goes for the haredim with their high birthrates and low levels of education; let them work the soil and justify their existence. 
   Close on the heels of the Gaza war came the Yamim Noraim (high holidays) and my own personal misfortune.  On the Sunday morning of Selihot (penitential prayers recited during the season) I missed a step at home, fell sideways and twisted my knee.  Somehow I made it to the nearest emergency room, where they took x-rays, ascertained that I did not break a bone, gave me a brace and a cane and told me to see an orthopedist.  The orthopedist ordered an MRI and diagnosed a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and meniscus (cartilage).  I already had two arthroscopies on the same knee to repair damaged cartilage.  So another arthroscopy was done to remove the damaged cartilage and replace the ligament with tissue from a cadaver.  The ACL injury is the same one suffered by professional football and basketball players; it inevitably sidelines them for the season and I was promised a similarly long recovery.  I am still assiduously doing physical therapy to rehabilitate the injury. 
   On the evening before my accident I attended the Selihot at Kingsway Jewish Center.  For several reasons I found it difficult to relate to.  Many of the piyutim (liturgical poems) are very difficult to understand because they are written in an abstruse style of medieval Hebrew (unlike the amidot, which anybody who understands Hebrew can comprehend) and the authors assume a broad knowledge of Talmud and Midrashim that we moderns do not possess.  These poems are valuable, but are better studied than recited in prayer.  Sefaradim begin Selihot on Rosh Hodesh Elul; perhaps we should convene starting then to study the more esoteric texts.  Many of the poems that we do understand portray the Jewish people as weak, helpless and hounded, which was true when they were written but not today, when Barukh Hashem we are witnessing and participating in the unfolding geula (redemption).  One in particular describes two nations, Sheba and Dedan, which refer to Arab provinces where Jews were living as dhimmis (second-class citizens), as possessing mighty armies while we are helplessly subjugated to them.  Huh?  In my mind’s eye I see the piles of shoes and burned-out equipment that the Arab armies left for us in June 1967.  Sometimes changing the tense of a verb or two will make the poem consonant with reality on the ground, but sometimes it will not.  In that case I cannot get the words out of my mouth; doing so would show a crass ingratitude to God, Who is turning our fortunes around before our very eyes, just as the Prophets told us He would.  Finally, the hazzan (cantor) pronounces the holam (vav with a dot above it) as if it was followed by the letter yod, i.e. an “oy” sound.  He also, as is customary on the Yamim Noraim, sprinkles “oy vey,” liberally throughout the text.  All of this has an unmanly, and therefore unwelcome, ring.  We are not an “oy vey” people anymore; we have earned the world’s respect and admiration for our ability to kick butt.    Neither the pronunciation nor the textual emendation is wrong per se; I cannot fault a man for following his family minhag (custom), but every “oy” and “oy vey” grates on my macho ears, and the older I get the more it grates.  I would like to hear the Selihot and the services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur from an Israeli hazzan who pronounces a holam the Israeli way and does not add “oy veys” that are not found in the printed text.  I would also like the piyutim that describe our past subjugation as if it were present, and that cannot be fixed, simply passed over.  Perhaps people more creative than I am can compose piyutim expressing our gratitude to God for the unfolding geula; these can be substituted for the traditional piyutim that, praise God, no longer have a basis in reality. 
   On a happier note, I became a grandfather for the first time when my daughter gave birth to a daughter on the first day of Shavu’ot 5774.  My granddaughter was named Lianna Batya or Lilliana Beth, but we call her Lily.  We’re all delighted with our cute little girl, but I want her to grow into a big strong girl, in body, mind and spirit, able to advance the geula.  My son got married in Israel on 27 Tevet 5775 to a Sabra girl from Yemenite stock.  They live in Petah Tikva.  I and my wife traveled to Israel for the wedding and sheva brakhot.  May it be God’s will that I should soon return to Israel for a brit milah and pidyon ha-ben, and that we all merit to see the completion of the geula and, before I get too old and weak to put one brick on top of another,  the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash.

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Dodgers to Return to Brooklyn

Shushan News Service – 14 Adar II 5774


    It’s been 57 years since the Brooklyn Dodgers broke our hearts by moving to California.  They will remain there for the time being, but Brooklyn is getting a new bunch of Dodgers from Israel.  A groundswell of disgust at the thousands of young Israeli men who evade army service apparently came to a head yesterday when large groups of secular youth raided synagogues and yeshivot in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and elsewhere.  Wearing masks and colorful costumes and gregging up a cacophonous din, they rounded up all the draft dodgers they could find, most of whom were in a state of intoxication from the Purim festivities.  When this reporter asked several yeshiva rabbis how they could allow such drunkenness in the name of a Jewish celebration, they replied that the young men are forbidden all year to have fun: no movies, no hip-hop, no meeting girls without the permission of a matchmaker, no secular books, no short pants and short-sleeve shirts in the hot summer. . .they need some outlet for all that pent-up energy.  Before the Dodgers could get their wits about them, they were loaded onto waiting lorries and brought to the port of Ashdod, which was undergoing a rocket barrage from terrorists in Gaza.  When the more sober yeshiva students wept and wailed that they were all going to die, their captors replied, “We have everything well in hand, no thanks to you and your draft dodging ilk.  We have Giants here.  Our soldiers are shooting the rockets out of the sky with the Iron Dome, and our flyboys are over Gaza bringing justice to Haman, oops, Hamas.  We have the best flyboys on earth, you know.  They don’t even have to look at girls when they’re on a mission, since there are no lady pilots.” 

“So where are you taking us?”

“To Brooklyn, in America.  It’s the best place for Dodgers.  There’s no draft in America, and the streets are paved with. . ., well, the streets aren’t paved with gold but you’ll be able to learn in yeshiva and nobody will force you to learn a little English, math and science so you’ll be able to get a job and earn some dough.” 

“Science?  Feh!  Apikorsus!  And dough?  Goyishe dough?  We can only smoke Pot Yisrael, and what do we know about growing the stuff?” 

“Feh you say?  You schmoes have no problem using refrigerators, cars, medicines and all the other goodies science gave us to make our lives easier, do you?”

“Oy, oy, what are we going to do?  Soon we’ll all be strangers in a strange new place.”

“Don’t worry.  You won’t have trouble finding a Jewish face.  They look like dumb Polacks from the 17th century.  Come to think of it, they look a lot like you.  Oh, I almost forgot to tell you.  Brooklyn is crawling with black dragons three times your size and built like Greek gods chiseled out of granite.”

“Voos iss Greek gods?  Every chayder boy knows there’s only one God.”

“You’ll find out soon enough.  They knock nebbishes like you out with one punch and eat them for breakfast.  Over there you won’t have the protection of the state you don’t recognize and the army you refuse to serve in.  Well, here’s the ship.  We have a passable navy too, you know.  Our sailors will get you to Brooklyn and serve you great glatt kosher food on the way.”


   While the Dodgers were boarding the ship this reporter sought out Lazer Gantzashvantz, self-styled chairman of the Bring the Dodgers Back to Brooklyn Committee.  “So Mr. Gantzashvantz, shalom Aleichem.  How are things going on your end?”

“Oy vey is mir.  We found an empty lot and we’re building the Ebbets Yeshiva with all the modern conveniences, even a baseball diamond for your Sandy Koufaxes to use in their ten-minute recess, but where are all these boys going to live?  Housing isn’t the easiest thing to come by in Brooklyn, and what with our women popping out a baby every year starting at age 18 our neighborhoods are already packed like sardines.  And the cost?  These people are poor.  They have nothing.  Absolutely nothing.”

“They’re our very best Torah scholars.  They have more under their big toe than American yeshiva bochurim will ever get in a lifetime of learning.”

“Very good, but that won’t pay the rent and it won’t put food on the table.”

“So there’s no room Lazer?  That’s your headache.  And as for poverty I say to you, Lazer, that’s your headache too.  It won’t be as hard as settling tens of thousands of refugees from backward Arab stink holes coming to us with nothing but the clothes on their backs.”

“Well, we’ll have to manage.  We always have.  And at least when our bochurim secretly watch baseball, they won’t have to watch the Goyishe Dodgers in California.  They’ll have real Jewish Brooklyn Dodgers.”

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