Monthly Archives: July 2012

Such sadness

Last week saw two events which broke our hearts. First, the horrible, senseless, evil of the suicide bombing in Bulgaria and then the tragic, senseless shooting which took place in Colorado. My thoughts go out to everyone who has been directly touched by these events. The victims, their families and their friends are in our thoughts and prayers.

I do not have much to add to the words which have already been said but I would begin by calling attention once again to the reality of terror which threatens Israelis, Jews throughout the world, and , in fact, everyone everywhere. We need to stand firm in fighting terror wherever it occurs throughout the world. There can be no justification for evil acts of terror against innocent civilians but the leaders of nations must not let acts of terror deter them from seeking peaceful resolutions to conflict. Nations, Israel for example, must protect their citizens and must respond to terror in clear, strong ways. But, we must continue to find ways to work to solving conflicts peacefully to every extent possible.

We must also remember the victims of terror past and present. It is inconceivable that the Olympic Games leadership will not allow a moment of silence for the victims of the Munich attacks of 1972. To take a moment out of the games on the 40th anniversary would seem to be a very easy thing to arrange. While it is true that these Israeli athletes were not the only victims of terror, this was the only act of terror directed against athletes during the games and it would make perfect sense for the organizers of the games to offer a silent moment in memory of them and all victims of terror throughout the world. I hope that the last days before the games will bring a change of heart and I hope that the games proceed peacefully and safely for all.

With regard to the events in Colorado, it is so shockingly sad and our hearts go out to the victims and to those who are dealing with this horrendous tragedy in any way. It is so devastatingly sad.

Once again, an unstable individual has taken so many lives. Once again, we can ask: how long will it be until steps are taken to see that ammunition can’t be stockpiled, guns can’t be obtained without serious investigation and control? How many more tragedies of this kind will take place before we realize that the availability of such weapons puts us all in danger?  We live in a world in which all of us potentially could be in the wrong place at the wrong time and be a victim of an act of violence by an unstable, sick individual. But, how much more secure would our lives be if access to weapons was seriously restricted.

May the memory of the dead in Bulgaria and Colorado inspire us to work for a world free from violence and hatred. May those who were wounded find healing and courage. May we see better times ahead.

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Thoughts on Rosh Hodesh Av

There is a facebook page which I follow called: “Originally from Brighton”. It consists of reminiscences of people who grew up in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston and much of what is written brings back memories from my youth.

The other day I wrote a brief posting remembering the stores that lined the small business block of the major street closest to my home in the early 1960s and asked if anyone had any memories of those stores. The first response was coincidentally from a friend of mine who had grown up around the corner and she noted that in fact the entire block on one side of the street had been destroyed by fire back in February. I searched the internet and found a video news report from one the local TV stations on the fire. It was indeed a tragic event, made worse by freezing temperatures and toxic smoke.

As I watched the report, I thought of the stores that were on that block. The corner drug store where we bought baseball cards, rubber balls to play stickball in the schoolyard and, when I was very young, fountain cokes to drink while sitting on the classic red stools that spun around when you wanted them to. There was the pizza place which was not as good as the pizza that you could buy if you walked an extra 10 minutes but which had its own unique flavor and which benefited from being so close to home. And, there was the memory of the Jewish bakery where my mother used to take me to buy rye bread. And, I thought of the very large warehouse like building which marked the end of the block. They sold auto parts or something like that and it was always somewhat mysterious to see that hulking garage so near to the smaller businesses which we frequented.

But this posting is not about my personal memories. It is about our memories as a people.

Tonight, we begin the Hebrew month of Av, the saddest month of the Jewish year. The Talmud teaches that when Av comes in, our joy decreases. This is because of the observance of Tisha B’av, the day on which our tradition teaches that both Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed and on which several other events took place which mark the tragic aspects of the history of our people.

The evening of Tisha B’av is marked by the reading of the book of Eicha, Lamentations, and the recitation of kinot, dirges in memory of the Temple. The most famous of those kinot is the acrostic called Eli Tziyon, “Weep O Zion” in which the author enumerates specific aspects of the Temple which we mourn: the singers, the priesthood, the sacrifices, the gatherings of the people and more.

It is difficult for 21st century Jews to be very sad about the destruction of the Temple. We have moved so far beyond sacrifices. But our tradition encourages us to remember the splendor of what was and to consider what it would have meant to us to have, in a different context, in a different time, to have experienced this place of closeness to God.

Eli Tziyon helps us to do that by giving us a list of experiences, personalities, moments we might have found meaning in at the Temple. If we read the dirge carefully, we can find some which we know we would have found meaning in had we been there.

The destruction of the Temples by the tragic fires of 586 BCE and 70 CE  are part of our collective memory as Jews and each Tisha B’av, we, in essence, view the video in our minds and think about what our ancestors lost and what we, in our memory, can relate to as well.

When I think back to my neighborhood, it is sad to think of what was lost in that fire. I run through the mental list in my mind and, I’m sure, when I go back for my next visit, I’ll stand at the empty lot and think about what used to be. This is what we do at Tisha B’av. We think back to what used to be.

And, just as I have moved beyond the old drug store and pizza place to find other places of meaning, we as Jews have moved on from the Temple to find great places of meaning in our homes, our synagogues, our communities and in Israel and in Jerusalem itself.

It is wonderful to have moved on. But, we must always remember.

 

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Memories of Frustration

A man named Norman Sas died in Florida at the age of 87 the other day. I wish his family condolences on their loss.I’m sure he was a wonderful man.

But, when I read his obituary in the New York Times this morning, I felt my pulse begin to race, my hands shake a bit and it wasn’t until I came across the word “frustrating” in the tribute to him that I began to feel better- at least it wasn’t just me.

I often write about aspects of my youth including long lost television shows, restaurants which closed down long ago and the music that moved me “way back when”. But, I have never dared to write about Norman Sas’ contribution to my childhood because it just brings back too much anxiety and frustration.

I’m sure you’re wondering by now. So, let me tell you what Norman Sas invented. Norman Sas invented a game called Electric Football. I would be willing to bet that upon hearing those two words, almost everyone who remembers the game will begin to sweat profusely and shake like I did when I first saw today’s paper.

For the uninitiated, Electric Football was quite a popular game in the 50’s and early 60’s. The game was a metal board in the shape of a football field. When you plugged it in and hit the switch on the cord, the board would start to shake very gently with the grinding sound of a motor accompanying it. Before turning it on, you were supposed to take your football players and line them up  while your opponent did the same, one team as offense and one team on defense. The offensive coach would then take the provided miniscule piece of felt shaped like a football and place it under the arm of the player who looked like the quarterback. Each piece had small appendages that looked like scotch tape on their feet and when the motor was then turned on, they would all start to move  along the metal vibrating board moving towards the end zone until they were stopped by the other team’s player. Then it would be time for second down.

The only problem was that in all the years I  played the game or watched it being played and I can still myself sitting on the sidelines watching my brother, my cousin and their friends settle in for a big game, I never recall even once seeing the quarterback move down the field in anything resembling a straight line. Haphazard is an understatement. He would move in a circle, go backwards, move right into the other players and just stand there with the others shivering in a pile or simply fall down. It was difficult to run for any significant gain.

Of course, you could pass the ball if you wanted to. You simply stopped the motor took the felt ball and tossed it gently to one of your team’s players. If it hit him on the head (at least this is the way we played), it was a completed pass and he would then move towards the goal line. (I recall, by the way, that they gave you at least a dozen felt footballs with the game because they were so small they would inevitably get lost somewhere.) But, passing wasn’t much more effective, as the obituary clearly pointed out. Every time, when the man who “caught the pass” was completely in the clear, he invariably would inexplicably turn around or just go out of bounds. Sorry.  Part of the game.

I’m sure there were some who found this game fascinating and absorbing and became quite good at it and probably still play it today. But, I never want to see it again.

There is no lesson in this blog posting. Just an expression of nostalgia. But, the frustration that that game brought to me and I’m sure others is a memorable part of our youth.

When our kids were young, they used to play a first or second generation home computer game called Putt Putt Saves the Zoo. You had to help the animated car Putt Putt save all the zoo animals who were trapped on icebergs or in trees and there was a specific way to save each one. Once you learned the way, the game lost a little of its mystique but it continued to be interesting because sometimes you had to be extraordinarily precise in moving the mouse and clicking it at just the right time or else Putt Putt would have to start all over again.

One time while playing the game, I distinctly remember my son Avi getting extraordinarily frustrated and slamming down the mouse. I said to him: “Let me tell you about Electric Football”. He didn’t want to listen. But, then again, why should he have. That was another generation’s frustration.

May the memory of Norman Sas be for a blessing. Thanks for the memories, I think.

 

After writing this piece, I looked up “electric football” on wikipedia.org and saw this quotation from one of my favorite writers Bill Bryson in his book: “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir”.  Great minds think alike. I’ll let his more graphic description of Electric Football be the last word:

 

“The worst toy of the decade [the 1950s], possibly the worst toy ever built…it took forever to set up each play because the men were so fiddly and kept falling over, and because you argued continuously with your opponent about what formations were legal and who got to position the final man…it hardly mattered how they were set up because electric football players never went in the direction intended. In practice what happened was that half the players instantly fell over and lay twitching violently as if suffering from some extreme gastric disorder, while the others streamed off in as many different directions as there were upright players before eventually clumping together in a corner, where they pushed against the unyielding sides like victims of a nightclub fire at a locked exit. The one exception to this was the running back who just trembled in place for five or six minutes, then slowly turned and went on an unopposed glide toward the wrong end zone until knocked over with a finger on the two-yard line by his distressed manager, occasioning more bickering.”

 

Sounds like someone else is mourning today.

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A Threat to the Covenant

The recent ruling by a court in Cologne, Germany that circumcision of infants constitutes inappropriate bodily harm to the child a has sent shockwaves throughout the Jewish world. And well it should. While it is not clear whether the statement of the court would result in a ban on circumcisions, many are assuming that that is what the ruling implies and there has been swift and strong condemnations of the ruling from many Jewish communities throughout the world.

This is a very serious issue indeed and one which must be watched very carefully. The tradition of circumcision is one of the most ancient of our traditions and one of the most widely observed. The Torah refers to circumcision as a sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people and  circumcision, brit milah, has been observed by our people throughout the generations often at times of persecution when to engage in the practice was a dangerous statement of Jewish identity.

I heard a Rabbi speaking on TV about the ban and claiming that contrary to the court’s decision, circumcision is in fact an act which enhances health. He spoke about several studies showing that circumcision led to lower cancer rates among adult males. With all due respect, I think the Rabbi is wrong to bring this issue up at this time.  Whether or not it is an asset to the baby’s health is immaterial. Brit Milah is done not for health reasons but as a sign of the covenant and we shouldn’t argue the point about health concerns.

Presuming the circumcision is done by a mohel who is properly trained, performed in a safe and sanitary environment  and does not include any acts which are potentially harmful (the act of metzitzah, direct sucking of blood from the area of the circumcision is, thankfully, rare today and should be banned), circumcision is safe and is the expression of the decision of parents to raise their child as a Jew.

We make decisions of all kinds for our children. No one would argue that we should get our child’s permission before vaccinating him, sending her to school or taking him to infant swim classes. We make decisions that we feel are right for our children every day.

When I participated in the brit milah of our son almost 20 years ago, I was astounded at how much meaning that ceremony held. He was surrounded by family and friends, held in the arms of his grandfathers, and swiftly and safely returned to his mother’s arms. Did he cry? Yes he did. I did too. But, it was a moment I will never forget.

It is understandable that a secular court may not understand the spiritual feelings of Jews or Moslems for whom this ritual is a natural part of their religious life. But, it is clearly an infringement of the rights of a  parent to tell them that they should not be allowed to observe the tradition which has been a sacred sign of identity for thousands of years.

Should there be safeguards to know that those who perform circumcisions do so properly and under safe and sanitary conditions? Absolutely. But, to speak of a ban on religious circumcision is an assault on religious freedom and expression.

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Back Home for the 4th

A few months ago, I posted a detailed account of discoveries we had made concerning the history of my paternal grandfather’s family in Latvia. As I mentioned in those postings, I wanted to travel to Latvia to hopefully learn more and in some way connect with this family history more directly. I have just returned from a week in Latvia and I am still trying to process everything that I experienced and learned. It was a remarkable trip and while I didn’t come away with any more specific information concerning my family (although I might have establishes some connections which will result in some information in the future), it was an  extraordinary experience on both the emotional and philosophical level. I will write more in the future here and in other places but for now, let me share one feeling that I have upon returning.

The city of Daugavpils is the 2nd largest city in Latvia, about 4 hours by train from the capital Riga. It was known as D’vinsk when my grandfather was born there and was a place of serious Jewish learning and observance and also a place of serious philosophical tension. In addition to those who were traditionally observant Jews, there were secular Jews, Zionists, great literary figures and those engaged in socialist and communist organizations. The community must have been a place of great excitement but it was also a place from which people were exposed to ideas that brought them a different vision and my grandfather and two of his siblings came to America and  each established meaningful and productive lives here.

My father, alav hashalom, used to say that his father left D’vinsk one step ahead of the Russian Army and one step ahead of the Russian Police. I am not sure how accurate that is but it is certainly possible that it was not safe to express   his socialist beliefs and yearnings and he certainly wanted to avoid serving in the army. So, he came to this country and was active in the Arbiter Ring, the Workmens’ Circle, Jewish secularists with similar political leanings.

It was fascinating to be in Daugavpils but it was also important for me to remember that this is where Grandpa Dobrusin left to find the freedom he sought in the USA. The later history of Daugavpils was not one of freedom. In 1980, I traveled to the former Soviet Union to visit Jewish refuseniks and experienced constant surveillance and a lack of privacy or freedom. This was my first time back in that part of the world since that trip. Daugavpils, and Riga as well, have some feelings of the Soviet era remaining in the architecture of certain public buildings which clearly remind one of the Soviet style. So, it was jarring for me to walk around Daugavpils early last Wednesday morning and not experience the slightest amount of fear or feeling of being watched as I had felt in Leningrad and Kishinev in 1980. I saw the buildings and almost instinctively started looking over my shoulder before realizing after a few minutes that no one was watching me. This was a free country, at least relative to what Latvians experienced during Soviet domination.

While pre-Soviet D’vinsk wasn’t quite the same as Soviet era Daugavpils, it clearly wasn’t America and it made me realize that what my grandparents and so many others yearned for was not  “streets paved with gold”, but their own “yearning to be free”. And, this country provided that for them. And it provides it for us.

While I felt secure throughout Latvia (and thanks to the internet brought a lot of the USA with me, watching the Red Sox and “skyping” with my family), I  said a loud shehecheyanu when the plane landed in Chicago. While my family history is fascinating, I do not want to be nostalgic about life in D’vinsk at the turn of the century. Grandpa Julius found a much better life here.

It is July 4, a time to celebrate and honor what we have in this country. No, things are not perfect and we have a long way to go as a nation to secure rights, freedoms and opportunity for all. But it was then and it is now, a place of great hope and freedom and one which we sometimes take for granted.

I was very sad yesterday upon hearing of the death of Andy Griffith. As I wrote on Facebook: “Admit it, you really wished you lived in Mayberry. I know I did. Rest in Peace Sheriff Andy”. His show gave us great characters (who could not love Barney Fife?) and an idealized  portrait of small town America. The real Mayberry (Mt. Airy, NC) was probably not like that and America isn’t as perfect as presented on his show. But, our nation is a place of such greatness: hope, freedom and “the pursuit of happiness” for all. May always strive to live up to those values and may we, each of us, whose ancestors came here from somewhere else seeking something of meaning, embrace the promise this country stands for.

 

Happy July 4th!

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