Sunday, May 23, 2010

It's baaaaaaack!

As people familiar with Brooklyn may know, in 1965 a bust of the late President John F. Kennedy, mounted on a marble block, was placed in the Grand Army Plaza section at the northern end of Prospect Park. It was inscribed with the President's name, dates and the famous quote: Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. It became a place of pilgrimage for "people of a certain age," sort of a surrogate grave for those of us who could not get to the real one at Arlington. On May 29, the President's birthday, and November 22, his yahrzeit, people would visit the monument to pray, leave cards and flowers and light candles. I would pass the monument quite often running, and I would always stop to say a few Psalms, standing off to one side so it would not appear as if I was, God forbid, praying to a statue. Over the years the monument was defaced with grafitti, some of it obscene. It was not designed to be vandal-proof (remember, it was put up in 1965 when no one would think of defacing a memorial to a President) and cleaning it would have damaged the inscription. The sight of the monument in its desecrated state was heartbreaking, but I kept saying tehilim when I passed by, and I remember leaving a card shortly after 9/11. Early in this decade the bust and marble block were removed when the entire Grand Army Plaza underwent a major renovation. The renovation was completed, a brand new grafitti-proof pedestal was put in place, but the bust was not returned. Four years ago I wrote a letter to the Prospect Park Alliance (a public-private partnership that manages the Park for the city) inquiring about the monument, and received a response to the effect that a new mounting scheme was necessary and needed approval from the city's art commission among other bureaucratic hurdles. In New York such things can take forever, and I wondered if I would see the bust again before I was old and grey. Then last week I was running through the Park, and lo and behold there was the bust, beautifully mounted on the "new" (by now four years old) pedestal. Incredulous, I ran up, circled the monument, examined the inscriptions (the name, dates and quote were there, but not the name of the Brooklyn Borough President that was on the original), recited a couple of Psalms and shed a tear or two. Several days later I returned with my camera and took the photograph that you see here.

JFK Monument

The President's birthday is on Shabbat this year, so I will not be able to visit. I remember when he was in the White House children, myself included, sent him birthday cards. I hope there will be fresh flowers at the monument, as well as at the grave at Arlington.

May the President's memory be an inspiration for generations to come, as his service to the nation was to mine.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Hodesh Ziv - The Month of Brightness

In Sefer Melakhim (Kings 6:1,37) the second Biblical month, known to us as Iyar (the names of Jewish months are post-exilic and of Babylonian provenance), is characterized as Hodesh Ziv - the month of brightness. The commentators advance several explanations. One that sticks in my mind is that the winter's cold is gone but we do not yet suffer from summer's stifling heat. I handle summer's heat just fine, thank you very much. I acclimatized instantly to last week's 80-degree heat but this week, with temperatures unseasonably cool, I had to break out the space heater. I have to chuckle at the commentators' struggles. Praise God, we do not need a perush (commentary) to tell us why Iyar is a month of brightness. It is obvious to all who have eyes to see - and there are none so blind as those who do not. Iyar is the month when we resumed our sovereignty, reclaimed our manhood and, nineteen years later, regained control over the whole of our eternal capital, Jerusalem.

Tomorrow, 28 Iyar, is Yom Yerushalayim, when we celebrate the reunification of our capital. As with the Berlin Wall 22 years later, the wall through the heart of the Holy City came down in a flash, and Jews and Arabs from either side mingled freely with unbounded joy. Who did not thrill to Mota Gur's voice crackling over the radio: Har Habayit b'yadeinu. The Temple Mount (literally "Mountain of the House") is in our hands. Later on I became aware of a soldier in Sinai who heard it over the radio, and with a poker face asked a comrade, "I heard about some house mountain that is in our hands; do you have any idea where it is?", and the comrade shouted, "What! Jerusalem! Ask who captured it!" Ever since, people of all faiths have been able to worship at their holy places. For nineteen years the Jordanians, in violation of the armistice they signed, did not allow Jews to visit the kotel or any other site in "their" part of the city, and even ripped up gravestones on Har Hazeitim for stables and latrines.

After the liberation of Jerusalem, Golda Meir forthrightly announced to the world that its future was not negotiable. Subsequent Israeli governments, whatever their policies regarding "the territories," hewed to that stand on Jerusalem, that it is the eternal, indivisible capital of Israel, until the disaster known as Oslo 1 in 1993. Jerusalem was on the chopping block along with everything else, and make no mistake, the Arabs will not be satisfied with anything less than the whole enchilada. Now a supposedly right-wing Prime Minister, and let's not forget he is the man who gave away 80% of Hevron, kowtows to President Obama and freezes construction of Jewish homes in the capital of the Jewish state. According to a report on Arutz Sheva, American inspectors are traipsing around Israel's capital and reporting to Obama's envoy George Mitchell on violations of Obama's diktat. Who will have the guts to stand up and tell Obama that Israel is not an American colony, nor is it the 51st state. We will build anywhere in Jerusalem, and indeed throughout Israel, that we wish. And if that puts Israelis in conflict with certain segments of the Orthodox commun ity in America, as it does when Jerusalemites decide to build a sports stadium in their city, so be it. Besides being the ir hakodesh, Jerusalem, praise God, is a living breathing city in a way that few would have even imagined a century ago.

It has become customary on Yom Yerushalayim to hold a rikudegalim, where throngs of people dance through the streets of the Old City singing and carrying Israeli flags. Unfortunately, rikudegalim has become an occasion for gratuitous offense toward the city's Arab residents, such as noisily pounding on their doors. Leaders in our community have asked dancers to refrain from such behavior tomorrow, and I hope and pray that they will. Yerushalayim is the City of Peace, and we should live in peace with anyone willing to live in peace with us.

We daven Ma'ariv tonight with the Yom Tov niggun, and end hashkivenu with hapores sukkat shalom aleinu. . . v'al Yerushalayim, as on Yom Tov. Tomorrow morning we say the long psukei d'zimra as on Hoshana Rabbah, and the complete Hallel. After the shir shel yom, I always add Monday's psalm, "gadol Hashem umehullal me'od b'ir elokeinu har kodsho." May it be God's will that next year we will dance the flags on to the Har Habayit, right up to the rebuilt Beit Hamikdash.

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Friday, May 07, 2010

High Time for a Joint

No, this is not a plug for NORML.

Last month (somehow it does't seem so long ago), we commemmorated Yom Ha-shoah. About the same time, the Armenians commemmorate their own genocide at the hands of Turkey in 1915, where an estimated two million Armenians were murdered. Unlike Germany, the present government of Turkey never owned up to the crimes of the Ottoman sultanate that it overthrew, and never attempted to make amends. To this day the official Turkish line is that they were merely putting down a rebellion.

Anybody who visits Jerusalem and walks to the kotel through the Armenian Quarter (the long way, not through the shuq) sees maps and posters on Armenian shops detailing the crime against humanity. It was in many ways a dress rehearsal for the Shoah. Hitler ym"sh said as much in Mein Kampf: The world let the Turks get away with killing millions of innocent civilians in an attempt to get rid of a competing culture (Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity while Turks are overwhemingly Muslim and, until Ataturk secularized the country, militantly so) and will likewise allow him to get rid of the Jews. "Who remembers the Armenian massacres?" he asked rhetorically. The Turks gave Hitler a green light to perpetrate the Shoah.

I always wondered why, since we and the Armenians commemmorate our respective tragedies at the same time of year, we do not hold joint commemmorations. Of course, such events would have to be secular. We cannot participate in Christian prayer, nor should Christians be expected to listen to El Malei Rahamim; perhaps a reading of appropriate Psalms in English would be acceptable. Such a gathering could be addressed by Jewish and Armenian scholars (Armenian survivors are all gone and Jewish ones are increasingly hard to find) who would remind us how genocide is an ongoing scourge (cf. Bosnia and Rwanda) and how the Armenian genocide provided a historical backdrop and cover for the Shoah. To the best of my knowledge, such a joint observance never occurred. The government of Israel would not have encouraged such an event, if it did not actually discourage it. It was interested in forging a pragmatic alliance with Turkey, a powerful Muslim-majority but secular state. Several years ago, when Hebrew University in Jerusalem attempted to hold a scholarly gathering on the subject, inviting both Jewish and Armenian scholars of genocide, the government exerted heavy pressure on the university to cancel the event. To the university's eternal discredit, it complied. If something similar had happened here in the United States, with the government pressuring a university to cancel an academic conference for political considerations, the entire American academic community would rise as one - k'ish ehad b'lev ehad - to resist the government.

It now appears that the government of Israel is receiving its just deserts for subordinating truth to politics. The alliance between Israel and Turkey has taken quite a beating. An Islamist government that would have Ataturk turning over in his grave cancelled long-standing security cooperation with Israel and is tilting heavily toward the Arab and Muslim states on Turkey's eastern border - Syria, Iraq and Iran. Perhaps now is the time for truth to out. A joint commemmoration, held in the United States, of the Shoah and the Armenian genocide, would not need (and indeed never needed) the approval of Israel's government, and given the present situation between Israel and Turkey, the government might well look the other way and not voice any objections.
We are the "generation after." We came of age in the 1960s and '70s, amidst great political turmoil and cultural upheaval. When we were convinced that something was right, we cared not at all that we would be antagonizing our own government. We wielded the power of truth and justice against the greatest evil empire of our time - the Soviet Union - and won. It is high time that we took a stand for truth alongside victims of the same inhumanity that murdered a third of our own people.

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