Saturday, October 13, 2007

Truth and Reconciliation

When apartheid in South Africa finally crumbled and the new democratic government took over, a "Truth and Reconciliation" commission was established. Functionaries of the old regime were encouraged to come clean with the truth, and in return they were not sent to jail and were allowed to get on with their lives. Truth and Reconciliation is credited with enabling a smooth transition to democracy and averting bloody reprisals by black South Africans for the decades of oppression that they suffered under apartheid. A similar process took place in Chile after the brutal Pinochet regime was replaced by a democratic government.

Note that truth comes before reconciliation. The latter is predicated on the guilty parties owning up to their crimes, publicly and (we hope) with contrition. In Turkey they don't understand that. In the last days of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey massacred a million and a half Armenians in what can only be called - and has been called by virtually the entire civilized world except for the United States - genocide. Today the current government of Turkey (the one that overthrew the Ottoman sultanate and established the modern Turkish republic) is all bent out of shape because an American Congressional committee passed a resolution (on which the whole House of Representatives has yet to vote) labeling the massacre a genocide. If not for the vitriolic Turkish reaction, I would say that the resolution was something of a שבועת שוא , akin to swearing that a tree is a tree. That reaction, coupled with virulently anti-American street demonstrations in Turkish cities, proves the need for the resolution. Further proof is provided by Hitler's Mein Kampf, where he correctly predicted that the world would let him slaughter the Jews of Europe, asking rhetorically, "Who remembers the Armenian massacres?" The Armenians remember their genocide about the same time that we remenber ours, in April each year, and it always puzzled me why joint commemmorations are not held.

Now Turkey is threatening dire consequences if Congress passes the resolution and calls a spade a spade. As an American I am incensed that a little country like Turkey thinks it can threaten us. They need us a lot more than we need them. And Europe's democracies have even more leverage. Turkey's fondest desire is to join the European Union, never mind that only a tiny sliver of their country is in Europe. Turkey's record on human rights, while quite progressive in a Middle Eastern context, is dismal by European standards (it is a crime in Turkey to identify the Armenian massacres as genocide), and those are the standards by which Turkey will be judged if it is to join the E.U.

As a Jew I am disappointed that several years ago the Israeli government put heavy pressure on Hebrew University to cancel an international conference of historians on the Armenian genocide. To its discredit, Hebrew University canceled the conference. Israel, like the United States, values its strategic relationship with Turkey. But strategic relationships should never be at the expense of truth, especially for Israel, since the Armenian genocide gave Hitler a green light for the Shoah. After the defeat of the Nazis, the democratic government of Germany (first West Germany, now the reunified country) owned up to the nation's crimes, made amends where possible, and now takes its rightful place as a civilized nation. Turkey needs to do likewise.

Who remembers the Armenian massacres? All civilized people and nations should.

Labels: ,

Hey Elyashiv, talk is cheap

Rabbi Elyashiv just came out against giving away any of Jerusalem to our enemies. Click here. Well ain't that grand? He and his ilk discourage their adherents of military age from serving. Better they should sit on their butts "learning Torah" while other young men put their lives on the line to keep Jerusalem Jewish. He and his clique of doddering old fools also gave the okay for United "Torah" Judaism to join the government, making the current fiasco possible. Anything goes as long as haredim get government money (i.e. money hilonim and people like us worked for and paid to the government as taxes) to support their armies of parasites. Statements like this latest from Elyashiv further alienate hilonim, even as their young men increasingly take a page from Elyashiv's book and invent excuses to dodge military service (why should they be suckers while the haredim are safe in their comfy yeshivot?).
When Harav Zvi Yehuda Hakohen Kook zt"l proclaimed an issur against giving away any part of Israel to our enemies, he had credibility with all sectors of society. Why? Very simple. He instructed his Israeli talmidim to fulfill their obligation to serve in Zahal, and they did. They still do, proudly and with distinction. Now, who has the real authentic Torah and whose Torah is hopelessly corrupted by centuries of galut?
Talk is cheap.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, October 08, 2007

A Good Winter

It is customary among some of us to wish one another "a good winter" on Shmini Atzeret - Simhat Torah. I can't get the words out of my mouth. For me there is no such thing as a good winter. Winter is unmitigatedly bad. As soon as the temperature dips below freezing my mood flies rapidly south. Every time I venture outside I am reminded that I am not where I should be, i.e. somewhere between Beersheva and Eilat where the temperature never gets below freezing. It's like a five-month-long tisha b'Av descends on me every year. I get home from work and I'm too depressed to leave my warm house to go to a shiur or anyplace else. Because my temperature is low and I have little heat-retaining body fat (see my previous post) I must put on an insulated vest even to take out the garbage. I know about seasonal affective disorder (SAD) but that is associated with light, or the lack of it. My problem is temperature. On mild days, and throughout the unusually warm first half of last winter, I'm okay. DSM IV (the mental-disorder guidebook) doesn't recognize a temperature-dependent variant of SAD, so I'm literally left out in the cold. I can't enjoy the flaming colors of autumn because I know what they portend - the leaves will fall and the trees will be covered with snow instead. Snow. It's beautiful when it falls and when it lies on the ground in its pristine state. But within minutes it becomes ugly. Car exhaust turns it grey to match the sky, not to mention what the dogs do. Many frum Jews in my community don't bother shoveling their snow, so it turns to ice and makes walking treacherous. The advent of spring brings little comfort. When temperatures climb into the forties and fifties, I'm hungry for sixty. When they hit the sixties, I'm impatient for 70 and 80. The pall finally lifts when I can break out my summer running outfits and show off my muscles, thanking God for giving me a little bit part in writing "finis" to Jewish weakness, and for making my son a star of the show. Winter wonderland? The Christians can keep it!

But there's hope on the horizon. The knight in shining armor is - global warming! The past decade has seen the warmest winters (and summers) in memory. A lot of ink is being spilled over the horrible future in store for us on a warmer planet. Glaciers will melt. Cold-adapted species will go extinct. Droughts, hurricanes, and so forth and so on. If I didn't know better, I'd think that the doomsayers are from the Elyashiv-Feinstein-Kotler Fantasyland where the earth was created in substantially its present form 5768 years ago and has not changed since. In reality, our planet has always been a changing entity. Continents drift, bump into one another and split apart. Episodes of climate change have always occurred, most of them long before we humans came on the scene. Extinction is also part of earth's story. It is estimated that 90-99% of all species that ever appeared on earth are now extinct. Again, most of them disappeared long before humans became a factor, falling victim to abrupt climate change or meteoritic impact. So call me selfish, but if I don't have to be profoundly depressed all winter long I will not lose sleep over polar bears becoming extinct.

Alas, it's not that simple. The changing climate will have profound and unpredictable effects, both good and bad. We all know the highly touted bad effects: Sea levels are expected to rise, inundating coastal areas (possibly including lower Manhattan) and obliterating some island nations. Severe storms will become more frequent and more severe. Droughts will increase and marginal agricultural land will become unsuitable for cultivation. The earth might become unable to support its current human population, let alone the projected increase. And what good might come of a warmer earth, besides curing my annual struggle with depression? Well, higher concentrations of carbon dioxide (the villain of the piece here, trapping heat and keeping it from escaping into space) might mean more photosynthesis, perhaps even another Carboniferous (the vegetation-rich geological period several hundred million years ago). We should be able to turn all that extra vegetation to our advantage, even if the earth's agricultural areas shift to higher latitudes. Right now, only a very few plant and animal species are domesticated and grown for food or fiber, and those are adapted to temperate climates. We might be able to domesticate more and better adapted species, thus expanding our food supply and discovering new drugs. Melting sea ice would mean year-round ice-free ports for northern countries (Russia's fondest dream and casus belli for centuries!) and a permanently navigable Northwest Passage, making international shipping much less expensive. Less ice on the roads translates into fewer automobile accidents, and warm-weather tourism gets a shot in the arm (ski resorts will have to adapt or perish). I think you get the drift by now. It will not be the end of the world, nor will it wipe out our species, but it will profoundly affect human civilization as we know it. God placed stewardship of the earth into our hands (v'khivshuha). We have to start planning for change before change overtakes us. If we don't, nature will certainly solve the problems, but we might not like its solutions.

In the meantime, I have one method of alleviating my frozen blues. Exercise, and running in particular, assuming that the streets are not slick with ice. The first steps out of the house are the most difficult, but once I'm under way I generate enough heat to lift my mood. I have to wear more clothes than most other runners (I get cold just looking at those hardy souls I see in shorts and tank tops on subway platforms traveling to winter races), so my times are not what they are in summer. But then, my race times fell precipitously following two knee surgeries, and my doctors are surprised that I can run at all. And I know that if I maintain my fitness during the winter, then when the holy month of Iyar comes body, mind and spirit will be on the same glorious page and I will be primed for some kickass runs. And that might be the next best thing to a good winter.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Write Us in the Book of Heat

This post devolves from my usual global (or at least Jewishly global) concerns to what might be considered a personal peeve. Our communal buildings literally chase me away, by virtue (vice?) of being overcooled in summer and underheated in winter. I had a particularly miserable Tishrei holiday season where proper tefilla was next to impossible. I had to leave in the middle of services on the first day of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Shmini Atzeret. Why? The air conditioning was set so high that the temperature hardly ever rose above 70F. No problem for those generously endowed with insulating fat. Big problem for macho athletic types like myself. The cold literally sucked away my body heat to the point where kavana became impossible. Since we are not commanded to suffer on these holidays, except for Yom Kippur and even then hypothermia is not part of the mandated suffering, I picked myself up and left, just as I picked myself up and left my nephew's huppa several years ago when the hall was unbearably cold in mid-July. When I stepped outside into the natural unconditioned summer-like air, I felt as if I had died and gone to heaven. On Rosh Hashana I blew the last 40 shofar sounds for myself at home. Was it necessary to overcool the shul? Doesn't somebody in authority know how to set a thermostat? All the guidebooks tell us to set air conditioning no lower than 78F in order to conserve energy. Adding insult to injury, the shul cries poverty and wastes our time with appeals for money, even as it runs the air conditioner as if electricity was free.

On my way out, I said out loud, "Avinu malkeinu, kotveinu b'sefer hom." Our father, our king, write us in the book of heat. Why the book of heat? A little basic human physiology. Nature and nature's God (to borrow a quote from Thomas Jefferson) endowed the human species with a highly efficient sweating mechanism to rid ourselves of excess heat. This mechanism served us very well running down our dinner on the African savanna, and continued to serve us in physically demanding occupations until one or two generations ago, when manual labor was virtually abolished in our society. Nature gave us virtually nothing to deal with cold. We are not polar bears with a thick coat of fur. Nor are we whales with a thick layer of insulating blubber. All we have to handle cold is clothing and artificial heating, another example of cultural evolution outpacing biological in our species. Add the fact that my body temperature hovers at 96.5F, two degrees lower than it should be, and yours truly has very little wiggle room at the low end. When others are merely uncomfortable (and unnecessarily so), I am unbearably cold. If I could simply disinvent one of our technological marvels, after the atom bomb it would be the air conditioner. I was fired from a ba'al koreh job because I could not stay in the over-air-conditioned building. In the winter I have to wear more clothing than most people in order to function in a shul that is kept at about 68F to conserve fuel.

What with the climate changing, we can expect warm weather to last farther into autumn, just as happened this year. That is good news for thermophiles like myself. I will actually be able to eat more of my meals in the sukka, whereas in years past I often had to retreat indoors because of the cold - mitzta'er patur. However, it also means I will be spending less time in shul - unless. . . . I am old enough to remember a time when air conditioning was a luxury only the wealthy could afford, and few of us were wealthy. We made do with open windows and fans. Remember fans? Those gizmos that blow air around and enhance evaporation of (shhh, dirty five-letter word) sweat? We took off our jackets (or came to shul without them) and exposed more skin surface so sweat can evaporate. We drank a lot, and I don't mean alcohol. Today I cannot find a shul in Brooklyn that is not air conditioned. Can you? I would really like to enjoy being in shul again.

Labels: , ,