Thursday, December 31, 2009

Do it the French way

Every December observant Jews who function in the larger society face a dilemma. We live among and work with Gentiles, and wish to give gifts to some of them. I feel funny giving them Christmas presents when I do not celebrate the holiday. Generally, I am not very enamored of the French - effete, emasculated characters whose butts we American cowboys saved twice in the last century and who show little gratitude. But they have a wise solution to the December gift-giving quandary. When they had a revolution in 1789, the new regime followed our lead and separated church and state. A good thing too, since countless good Frenchmen and women were slaughtered or driven out of France in wars of religion. As Justice Frankfurter said, keeping religion separate from the state is best for religion and best for the state. The French even experimented with a new calendar to replace the Gregorian church calendar. That experiment failed; the Gregorian calendar whose year begins tomorrow conquered the world because it is the most accurate calendar devised to date, including the Jewish calendar which has Pesah slowly creeping into summer, against the Torah's mandate that it be celebrated in spring. In France only children get Christmas presents; adults exchange gifts at the New Year. The New Year is thoroughly secular; how many Christians know that its origin is their savior's brit milah? All Americans, ourselves included, use the Gregorian calendar in business and even socially (When is Pesah this year? March 30). I gave my Gentile neighbors a New Year gift yesterday and they were gracious, probably realizing how awkward it would be for me to have given it a week earlier. If you look hard enough, you can find secular New Year cards in stores; they feature pretty snowmen instead of the red-and-green glitz. Or use the blank cards we all get from charities to which we contribute anyway.

This will probably be my last post in 2009, so I wish my readers a happy, healthy, safe and prosperous New Year.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Imagine. . . .

Imagine all the people living life in peace. . . . .John Lennon

On December 8, 1980 John Lennon of Beatles fame was shot and killed in front of his apartment building in Manhattan. His widow Yoko Ono endowed Strawberry Fields, a patch of serenity in Central Park named for one of Lennon’s songs. Every year on December 8, people gather in Strawberry Fields for an impromptu “healing circle.” Many bring guitars and play Lennon’s songs. The rest listen, reflect and perhaps light a candle. One year I stumbled upon the gathering, having gone to Central Park for another purpose. This year I had the time and deliberately went there. Most of my generation of Americans remembers Lennon’s song Imagine, where he beautifully expresses our hope that all of humanity would learn to stop fighting one another and simply get along. John F. Kennedy expressed that hope in his campaign speeches. I remember reading an op-ed in the Jewish Press knocking the song and its writer as utopian. Well, utopian it is, but so what? Is it any more utopian than our hope for Mashiach? Where would we be if we couldn’t imagine a world better than the one we have? Would we strive to make a better world, a world free of racism, poverty, disease and other scourges? Indeed, while many scientific discoveries come about by serendipity (looking for one thing and finding something else even better), others came about because scientists imagined something new and better, then set about creating it. They imagined a world without polio and developed vaccines that eradicated the disease, imagined a world without unwanted children and came up with The Pill.

Imagine a world where two strong, healthy men could get together and, without forbidden sexual contact, make strong, healthy boys. Or the analogous situation for women. Most of the technological dots are already in place, but nobody seems to be connecting them. If it ever becomes reality, would there be any rationale for a secular society not to allow same-sex marriage? What about all the halakhic problems such an arrangement would engender? Must we wait until such problems are upon us before we start thinking about them?

Now imagine a world where Jews and Arabs in Israel put aside a century of enmity and live together in peace. Pipe dream? Yes, unless young Jews and Arabs make it a reality. And the place to start is Jerusalem. There is no separation barrier there. That came down in 1967. Anybody can walk from one part of the city to the other. Imagine five Jewish teenagers dribbling a basketball into the Arab part of town, finding a court with a game going, and challenging the winners as kids do the world over. Presto - human contact. You can't hate and play basketball at the same time. In their commingled sweat they will discover their common humanity and how wonderful it is to be young, strong and full of life. Hey, it worked in Crown Heights.

Holding on to Judea and Samaria as I believe we must (click here) with its large hostile Arab population that is not about to pack up and leave will require imaginative, outside-the-box thinking. An example of such thinking is the Elon Plan, which posits only one Palestinian state, the one that already exists and that sits on 80% of mandatory Palestine. It is called Jordan. The Arabs of Judea and Samaria would be citizens of Jordan living in Israeli territory. They will carry Jordanian passports and their children will go to Jordanian schools that will fly the Jordanian flag on Israeli territory. The guiding principle is known as extraterritoriality. It was never tried before on such a grand scale. But America's founding fathers knew well that they were setting up a form of government - a republic - that had not been tried since Roman times and that failed then. The rest, as they say, is history. Extraterritoriality can work if both sides are determined to make it work, and one of its pillars must be regular and frequent sporting contact between Israeli and Arab schoolchildren. One thing is certain. If the past 60-plus years is any guide, peace will not come down like manna from heaven. It will not come from governments. But people-to-people contact might just make it grow from the ground up.

As Robert F. Kennedy said, "Some see things as they are and say why; I dream things that never were and say why not."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Meah Shearim in Brooklyn?

You better watch out
If you're liberty's guy
Better raise a shout
I'm telling you why
Tyranny is coming to town. . . .

It seems like the same goons who think they own the streets in Jerusalem think they own Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg too, and the city is playing into their hands in a cynical ploy for a powerful voting bloc. After the usual approval process, the city painted a bicycle lane along Bedford Avenue in the Hasidic area of Williamsburg. It appears that Bedford Avenue is a prime route for bicycle commuters seeking to access the bicycle path across the Williamsburg Bridge. Demarcated bike lanes protect cyclists from onrushing automobile traffic, a major cause of bicycle and pedestrian fatalities. The downside is less space for automobiles. I don't drive or ride a bicycle. I get around on foot (running and walking) and by public transportation (bus and subway), so I am probably the closest thing you will find to an impartial observer. The city has been moving for some years in the direction of more environmentally responsible transportation. Automobiles contribute to air pollution from carbon monoxide and particulates, though much less now than in years past. They use massive quantities of increasingly scarce fossil fuels whose burning contributes to climate change. Simply put, a car occupied by only the driver is the most irresponsible, wasteful and inefficient way of getting from Point A to Point B. Bicycles do not burn fossil fuels at all, hence do not pollute the air. They use human muscle power, and thus contribute to not only a greener New York but a healthier one (see my previous post). Thus, the city is right to encourage bicycles at the expense of automobiles.

When a bike lane is painted on a street, even after a lengthy approval process where everybody has a chance to be heard, people are unhappy and they gripe. I saw that when a bike lane was painted on Bedford Avenue in my own neighborhood of Midwood. In a short while people get accustomed to the bike lane, and even come to like the new reality of more healthy people and fewer cars. But that has not happened in Williamsburg. There the gripes persist, and recently the city, admittedly to curry favor with a large voting bloc (probably the only one left in New York) erased the bike lane. Bicycle activists responded by clandestinely repainting the lane, and two of their number were arrested and charged with criminal mischief.

Urban guerrillas repaint the bike lane - Nonviolent direct action is
a time-honored American method of effecting social change.

The complaints of the Hasidim center around two alleged problems:
1. Cyclists create a safety hazard for children going to and from school. Granted, Hasidim have more children than most New Yorkers, and they go to school earlier and come home later, meaning when it is dark outside in wintertime. However, the safety hazard is mostly from automobiles and not from cyclists. Bicycles are inherently safer since they travel more slowly and can stop on a dime. And the automobiles are driven largely by Hasidim whose reckless, devil-may-care driving is legendary. As in so many other areas of life, these people seem to think that the traffic laws are mere suggestions, to be flouted whenever convenient. Kent Avenue, a block or two west of Bedford, is a case in point. Hasidim claim that a dedicated bike lane exists on Kent Avenue and therefore the one on Bedford is superfluous. Well, this is how the Hasidim treat the lane on Kent Avenue:

That's right; they park right across it. The bike lane exists to provide free parking for their catering halls, and the police don't do a thing about it. Nor is this a matter of Hasidim vs modern New Yorkers. Baruch Herzfeld, a modern Orthodox Jew, set up a "bicycle gemah" to help Hasidim who want to ride bicycles but aren't quite up to buying one yet. He is now in Copenhagen to confront Mayor Bloomberg on the issue at the climate conference.

He reports that quite a number of Hasidim actually want the bike lane, but they won't appear on camera or give their names. I wonder why.

Some cyclists do ride recklessly and ignore the traffic laws, perhaps out of ignorance of the fact that they are considered traffic and must stop at red lights, go the right way on one-way streets and so forth. Periodic enforcement blitzes would be in order, until cyclists know the law and act accordingly.

2. Women ride their bicycles in "immodest dress," meaning exposed elbows and knees and their own uncovered hair. This is too much for their sexually repressed men to handle. They might actually see females that aren't covered from head to toe, and who knows what will happen to their pure unsullied souls then. But I guess it's okay for those men to molest young boys in yeshiva and at the mikva. Well, guess what - bike lane or not, bicycles have a right to use the streets, and they will use the streets. The only difference will be that without the lane there will be more conflict between automobiles and bicycles, therefore more injuries and deaths. And, newsflash - American streets are public thoroughfares. Anybody of any persuasion may walk, run or ride a bicycle on them, dressed as he or she pleases. And we will walk, run and ride our bicycles dressed as we please. If our dress causes Hasidic men eye strain, ain't that too bad? If we allow these people to impose their will on the rest of us, what's next? Gender-segregated public buses? Men and women forced to walk on opposite sides of the sidewalk?

Enough is enough. These religious obscurantists must be given to understand that they do not have ba'alut (ownership) over any street, and we will not allow them to turn our country or any part of it into Talibanland. Accordingly, a protest ride will start at the foot of Williamsburg Bridge this Sunday, December 13, at 2:00 P.M. to culminate with a rally at Bedford Avenue and Wallabout Street at about 3:00. Cyclists and sympathetic pedestrians are invited. Dress for the weather.

Hasidim - A word of advice. You can't beat us, so you might as well join us. You don't like the sight of attractive women dressed the way American women dress? Well, we don't like the sight of ugly, repulsive men with fat bellies. It makes us want to puke. Get a bike from Mr. Herzfeld's gemah and get on it. Get yourselves a pair of running shoes and use the bodies God gave you to use. You'd be surprised at the goodwill you will generate. I am appalled at the ill will you generate right now; just look at the comments in the articles I linked to and the cross-references there. Get out there and move. You will be happier and healthier.

Let freedom ring.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Remember Pearl Harbor

Today is Pearl Harbor Day. 68 years ago Japan carried out a sneak attack on our Pacific fleet and all but destroyed it while their diplomats were still negotiating with ours in Washington. Our intelligence community and military brass were caught napping. Thousands of servicemen lost their lives. America's isolationists and Nazi sympathizers were finally shut up and the country entered World War II, which had already been raging for over two years. At first, victory was far from certain. The sneak attack was followed by the Bataan Death March. Japan's brutal maltreatment of the conquered Chinese and of Korean women (Japan occupied Korea in 1910 and did not leave until its defeat in 1945) are matters of record. So much for Japan's vaunted code of honorable warfare. Unlike Germany, Japan has yet to own up to its crimes and make amends. At first, victory was far from certain. The tide did not begin to turn until the Battle of Midway a year later.

Victory took a dreadful toll of blood and treasure. If we had to fight the war today, who knows if this hedonistic generation would have persevered. Our president just spoke to the nation, committing thousands of brave men and women to battle and not daring to use words like "win" and "victory" or tell us what victory would consist of.

Let's remember Pearl Harbor and the brave men and women who fought and died there as we face our current foe. Let's never forget that freedom is not free, and never will be until Mashiach comes.

Pearl Harbor during the attack

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