Saturday, December 27, 2008

Let It Burn

Abe Novick
Special to the Jewish Times

For many of us having grown up during the decade when the Rolling Stones’ “Let It Bleed” was all the rage, the phrase “Let it burn” may not be as familiar.

But some 60 years before that December in 1969 when the English rock band released its immortal album, George Bernard Shaw shook and rattled the rafters on another London stage.

At the height of Act II, in Shaw’s “Caesar & Cleopatra,” Caesar is informed the great library of Alexandria is burning. Caesar — Shaw’s doppelganger — replies, “Let it burn.”

Why would Shaw, a writer and bibliophile, have his emperor utter such a literary blaspheme? It was a new age and a fresh millennia, and Shaw wanted to dispense with the past and usher in a new era of, you got it, change.

Just as the 1960s were an era when the times were a changin’, putting an end to the past was the leitmotif during Shaw’s Fin de si’ecle.

And while our own millennium has already come and gone, we now have to confront much of the pain we were anesthetized to since Y2K.

The Bush years have been like living in a false reality. The Iraq war was fought on false premises. The environment was ignored because the truth was inconvenient. The real estate bubble, which led to this economic meltdown, was driven by overly inflated home prices that were helped in large measure by credit that wasn’t backed up with any real collateral.

Whole industries once pillars of strength and stability have or are buckling and could cave in further — from Wall Street to Detroit to newsprint.

Consequently, we’ve been met with the question: Do we let them go down or save them? Do we let them burn?

Like an angry mob with torches, most Americans are against bailing out these industries and saying they got what they deserved, polls show. CNN/Opinion Research revealed that 77 percent thought a government bailout of financial institutions rewarded bad behavior. Likewise, 61 percent oppose government assistance to U.S. automakers.

Contemporaneous to this current state of social combustion comes Chanukah — the Festival of Lights. The story couldn’t be more apt.

We don’t snuff their flame, but sing songs as we stare at the melting candles, which represent a cleansing and rededication of the temple. We think back to when Judah ordered the Temple cleansed and a new altar built in place of the polluted one.

Shaw wasn’t nihilistic enough to let his Caesar advocate nothingness in the library’s wake. Rather, when the emperor is asked, “Will you destroy the past?” Caesar replies, “Ay, and build the future with its ruins.”

Chanukah, which comes at the end of a year that many will be only too glad to dispense with, is a time for celebration. And even though we may look around and wonder what there is to celebrate, perhaps the answer is… what lies ahead.

We have a new and vibrant president-elect in this country and the first African-American to ever hold that mantle. In January he’ll be inaugurated and already it looks as if the crowd that will gather for that occasion will rival Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech that spoke not about the past but the future.

So like King, Caesar, Judah and yes, even like the bad boys of rock ‘n’ roll (who endured more change than any other band of brothers and live on today), let’s continue onward in our quest to build and enlighten.

Let’s gather strength from the past, and while it burns and fades away, look to a brighter future.

Remember, we’re not supposed to blow out the candles, but we’re to behold them and, yes, let them burn.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Arise Dark Knight

Americans have always been pragmatists when it comes to the truth. From John Dewey to John Wayne, we’re a practical people. Our quest for the purity of truth and justice comes into constant conflict with the jagged everyday landscape of compromise.

Now with a newly elected leader, the country seems to be clamoring for the truth. From the economic hardships that lie ahead and the sacrifices we’ll have to make, to what dangers are being cooked up in caves on the Afghani-Pakistani border — we seek straight answers.

But while it’s a cliché to say the truth hurts, the pure truth, while refreshing, not only stings but is dangerous, as so many heroes (super and otherwise) have found out.

So how does one navigate through such terrain — by sticking to principles or adjusting to the temporary topography?

After the financial meltdown, Secretary Henry “Hank” Paulson and the Congress told us their rescue plan was needed to save the economy. However, while implementing it, Hank admitted intervention was against his principles. Nevertheless, he and Congress held their nose and we the people went along.

Closer to home, the electorate voted for slots in Maryland. Just a few years ago many, including Democrats, were against slots. They claimed slots were a tax on the poor, would lead to problems with compulsive gambling and create a slew of slots addicts.

But because we are in the midst of a budget shortfall, slots were served up as a remedy. And even though many voters see slots’ deleterious aspects, the ends justified the means. Again, we close our eyes and pull the lever.

Likewise, as we look at the problems facing the Middle East, we will confront this same dilemma.

This past month I had the fortunate opportunity to hear Matthew Levitt, Senior Fellow and director of The Washington’s Institute Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. He was truly knowledgeable and an expert in his field.

Interestingly, during the Q&A session, one audience member asked why the issue of anti-Israel sentiment in the Arab world typically gets framed in the context of politics and not a religious foundation? The question had the ring of truth. The room paused.

Mr. Levitt’s answer was brilliant in its pragmatic nuance. He replied, and I paraphrase, to inject religion into the equation is dangerous, for it will infuse the Arab world with a higher calling aimed at Israel’s destruction and rally the Arab streets.

Sounds pretty scary. On the other hand, isn’t it true that the Arab world’s sentiments toward Israel have a long history of Jew hatred, going back to the mufti’s support of Nazism? So while potentially volatile it is, and has always been, a very real factor.

For example, when the covenants of terrorist groups such as Hamas commit themselves to the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people, that’s anti-Semitism. When the Muslim world draws on the classical Christian notions of Jewish stereotypes and fills their children’s heads with perverse images of Jews, that’s religious-inspired hatred.

Is not confronting the issue just as dangerous?

President Bush’s desire to remake the Middle East by bringing democracy to it will be replaced with the realist approach of making that region work as best it can, given the circumstances.

With Iran getting closer to nuclear capabilities and the stakes increasing, it will put greater pressure on an Obama administration to be pragmatic. If we’re not at a global tipping point, we can certainly envision one on the horizon.

Put another way, the boundless flamboyant era of Captain America is over and the earthly tactics of Batman, the Dark Knight, begins.

Abe Novick writes monthly for the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES on the intersection of American culture and Judaism.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Depressing Void

Welcome to the New Year. Talk about a cleansing! Anything and everything, whether a 401K, stocks, funds you name it, they all got soaked by the giant wave that swept through and gave a whole new meaning to Tashlikh.

While we cast our sins into the water during Rosh Hashanah, a tsunami hit Wall Street taking with it icons of strength and stability. Meanwhile the ripple effects on Main Street still haven’t fully hit and what’s most disconcerting is wondering, how low is low? Or, as Betty Davis famously quipped, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

No one knows how far down the river our collective sins will have to go until they disappear. But when will we ever see the Dow at 14,000 again?

Of course, we’ve been through burst bubbles before. The difference now is the media sensation gets amplified and because this latest one keeps getting compared to The Great Depression, everywhere you turn, a more profound sense of doom accompanies it.

While the talking heads debated whether we are in a recession, the ticker running underneath was a whole lot less ambiguous. Most everyone was already using the “D” word. What’s worse, every time they’d make the analogy, they’d feed into the cycle of fear. Then they’d follow up, by saying the markets decline is all based on fear. If I said to you, “Don’t think of knives falling from the sky”, what are you going to think of? Exactly.

Granted, none of us under the age of 70 ever thought they’d see such a precipitous dive. That was something that happened back in The Great Depression. These days we have protections against that ever happening again. Right? Well…

As a boy I heard the stories and my generation thought we were immune.

My parents grew up in the Depression (mom’ll be 90 next month) and they always tried to instill in me some sense of its magnitude. They knew something that I never did. They wore the Depression on them like some Jews wear the chai or a mezuzah around their necks. They were scarred by its fearsome force. They lived to tell about it and would tell it to me many times.

Their stories were of saving everything they could and placing a value on whatever they got their hands on; string, candy, a nickel, you name it. To compare their lives with our own is comical. We have so much and if we want more, we charge it.

How this latest episode will turn out, no one knows, but I haven’t heard anyone saying it’s going to be a fast turnaround and recovery.

And when historians look back at this decade it will have, ironically, symbolically, ended where it began.

A few weeks ago I was in lower Manhattan on the site of the World Trade Center and where a gaping hole, from what literally was a meltdown, still rests.

When I lived in Manhattan and would look up at the towers, especially at night, I would see the lights on and get some comfort (sometimes even goosebumps) knowing that the work of capitalism was being conducted around the globe.

Staring into that pit, I had to wonder, why. Not why it happened, but why hardly anything has taken place to fill the void.

Now with that literal crash of the symbols of finance, this past month’s financial meltdown closes the last chapter of Bush’s Presidency.

It is time for a new era. It’s time for us to start building again and on strong, sturdy foundations.

It is time to bury the ephemeral nothingness, the void of the past several years. The void in ideas. The void in competence. The void that’s been like that hole, that abyss where time has stood still.

This desire for change is palpable and that is why Obama will be elected next week.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The God Particle

My eyes and ears could hardly believe what they were taking in.

On my mother’s new giant flat screen television, the Boston Red Sox were playing ball amidst the stark lights illuminating an otherwise dark New England night.

But beyond the game, something was different. Amongst those millions of mega pixels, I could practically see the butter dripping off the popcorn slipping down the hand of the fan in the 9th row, behind home plate.

Like never before, I could see things I didn’t know possible.

Wandering into another realm, this time one of sound, I heard Mozart on The Bose Wave music system. To my cynical surprise, their ad is true when it reads, “Just plug it in and hear what you’ve been missing.” Sounds that I didn’t know were there on a recording are clear and crisp to the ear.

If knowledge derives from the senses, then indeed, just imagine all that we’ve been missing.

It made me wonder, with technology, could we one day truly hear or see the image, the voice of God? Ever since The Tower of Babel, we’ve attempted to stride closer, toward heaven, but if God’s all around us, maybe we just need a better tuner.

And so, on one small micro-consumer level, I contemplated the amazing detail with which a now common device can peer into reality, splitting it into details so rich and full of vibrant colors, that it practically unveils the metaphysical.

Meanwhile, on another side of the world and buried deep in the ground, is a hole where physicists are also at work, but on a macro-experiment. There they are in search of something dubbed, The God Particle.

The God Particle is what scientists hope the Large Hadron Collider, buried on the border between France and Switzerland, will discover when they let loose beams of protons and smash them against each other re-creating what they believe is the spark that began, well, everything.

Like the Holy Grail, like the Garden of Eden and like the secret to my mother’s fluffy matzo balls, the mystery behind what is known as the Higgs boson (God Particle) is elusive. Likewise, because it is so hard to capture, the Hadron Collider is so massive. The contraption is a 17 mile collider, some 50 to 175 miles in the ground with a cost of somewhere between $5-10 billion.

If discovered, from one collision out of trillions, The God Particle will show itself for a millisecond. Imagine, this enormous monstrosity of mankind’s ingenious know-how, thousands of scientists from countries all over the globe, all for the chance to capture the tiniest of specs, for less than an instant.

Yet, if revealed, we will come to better understand the nature of the universe and see into the farthest reaches of the past, seconds after the Big Bang.

Striving to better understand this quest, I ventured down to the Maryland Science Center, where the Davis Planetarium is showing, Dark Matters. Dark matter is hypothetical matter whose presence can be inferred from its effects on visible matter. Essentially, it’s all the stuff that occupies the universe, like molasses, but is unseen.

While looking up onto the rounded ceiling, references of the Large Hadron Collider were beamed, linking its sub-atomic mission with finding the mystery behind the dark stuff of space.

Then it all began to gel, linking the massive experiment with the minutest of particles and the infinite darkness that holds the universe together and of course, my mom’s, where I caught my own revelatory glimpse of the beyond.

Having watched the Red Sox for years, I never would have known how much I was missing, until I saw it all on her new, big screen TV.

So while we puny humans, sports fans and wannabe astrophysicists search the far reaches of the universe to find meaning, perhaps we’ve unknowingly been staring right at it, without knowing, all this time.

Zen Of Beijing

Although it’s been 30 years, it’s always stuck with me. Back in the 1978 television miniseries “Holocaust” (our answer to “Roots”), the brother who survived did so because he was stronger. The other, weaker one, played by James Woods, perished.

In some ways, their brotherhood is a microcosm of the ongoing, universal, yin-yang in all Jews — one is Jacob, the other Esau. On the one hand we cherish our bookish, intellectual heritage. On the other, we are exuberant when one of our own excels at strength and endurance.

Watching the Olympics and the amazing athleticism from so many members of our tribe, including Jason Lezak’s triumphant relay finish with fellow Jewish swimmer Garrett Weber-Gale, was inspirational; as are Dara Torres’ medals and kayaker Rami Zur. And along with the aquatically fearsome chevrei, there are fencer Sara Jacobson and distance runner Deena Kastor.
I can’t remember an Olympics with so many Jewish athletes. And while Mark Spitz was a hero for so many of us, he was one guy. Now we practically have a minyan.

But it’s that persistent, sustaining spirit of endurance that fascinates.

In that’ 70s show, Spitz’s 6-pack abs were forever etched in my memory on a poster, not unlike the famous one of Farrah from that same era (you know the one). He and his medals glistened at me, hypnotically tossing me into the pool and the varsity swim team. I would shape myself in his image (OK, I couldn’t grow a mustache), but everyday I’d swim ’ til I couldn’t feel my arms. Like that other ’ 70s bionic icon of strength, Steve Austin, I got better, stronger and faster. And I discovered … swimming is incredibly boring.

What kept me going was more than the strength and endurance, but a Zen-like state, because the repetition is so endless. Back and forth I’d go for two hours, hardly speaking to anyone, aside from an occasional foggy stare through goggles.

Ironically, perhaps that’s part of the Jewish appeal. It’s a lot like prayer. The repetition, persistence and individuality among peers are not unlike a service.

In their book “Swimming in the Sea of Talmud,” Michael Katz and Gershon Schwartz convey that sense of frustration many of us feel when confronted with the vastness that is Judaism, swimming endlessly in search of a better understanding and how it can relate to “me.”
What keeps us going? For many of us with children, they do it. They are our hope, our future scholars and Olympians.

Over the summer, my two children began taking karate. Rather than sitting for an hour waiting for them, I decided to join in. So, at 47, I donned the white belt and began lessons, knowing that to continue onward, like studying Talmud, there was a very long road ahead.

What I’ve learned is that very combination of strength and endurance, combined with a deeper spiritual aspect — that concentrated Zen quality that swimming possesses, but with the cool reward of actually breaking through a hunk of wood and everyone in the room cheering!

I kept asking the black belts if they’d ever had to use karate and they said, “No.” They’ve devoted their lives to a form of self-defense spending countless hours at their craft and never had to whack a hoodlum. What talmudic sea were they swimming toward?

Getting back a little of my old edge, I realized watching the Olympics that the physical endurance of survival allows the spiritual half to blossom — just like in Judaism.

And as with the TV series “Holocaust,” without the strength of the younger Rudi Weiss inside of us, the older bother, Karl Weiss, can’t live on.

Both Jacob and Esau are a necessary and essential part of us.

Abe Novick writes monthly for the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES on the intersection of Judaism and popular culture. More of his work is at abenovick.com

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Wall-E’ World

In recent years, we’ve seen our world destroyed in a wave of dystopian, post-apocalyptic depictions via fiction, documentary and currently computer generated imagery (CGI) with “Wall-E.”

In 2007, the Pulitzer Prize for literature went to “The Road,” Cormac McCarthy’s hauntingly beautiful, but dark as night, novel about a father and son traipsing across a scorched, barren earth.

While readers were raising “The Road” onto the best-seller lists, Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” was packing theaters. With the simplicity of a power-point production, we saw how humanity was sliding into the sea.

Now with “Wall-E,” Mother Earth has been abandoned by humans, leaving a lone robot to clean up.

Each work, in its own way, presents a bleak vision that hasn’t been seen in pop culture since the Cold War, when doomsday scenarios were a constant, from “Fail Safe” and “Dr. Strangelove” to television’s “The Day After.”

But while threats of nuclear-style Armageddon was the cause célèbre back then, a sense of environmental catastrophe is rampant today, transmitting its potential effects everywhere.

Omnipresently, many corporate brands are rethinking their image as they lay claim to Green. Fashion-wise, green is the new black. And with good reason, as businesses are responding, because environmental sustainability is now one of consumer purchasing behavior’s top influences.

Along those same lines, Hollywood has created “Wall-E,” the first Pixar movie that speaks to both adults and children — each on their own level. While “Toy Story” and “Finding Nemo” were great fun, I still pretty much saw the same narrative my kids did. In “Wall-E,” while the kindelach enjoyed the light comedy and special effects, I understood its weightier theme of planetary destruction and came away carrying the burden of the future all the while knowing, when they get a little older, they’ll realize the deeper themes.

For a generation born right smack-dab into the 9/11 era, theirs has much to be concerned about.

Alongside the environment, the essential economic structures of our society seem just as precarious. Unstable financial institutions are propped up by the federal government. Once symbolized as icons of strength and stability, personified by the bull and by owning a piece of the rock, pieces of Wall Street are crumbling. Automobiles, the mark of American ingenuity, are veering off the road. And newsprint, woven into the fabric of the Constitution, is getting shredded.

Semantically, eco-sustainability takes on a dual meaning, as it’s both ecological and economic. The two are intertwined.

And, if there is a group of people who know a little something about sustainability, it’s us — the Jews. After all, look at what we’ve endured. Look how we’ve sustained. As a country, America should look to Israel as it embodies that notion, not only in its being, but in its newly created philosophy of going Green.

While Israel is surrounded by countries that are abundant in oil, Israel is not. Indomitably, Israel has taken on a mission to break the oil addiction with electric car recharge stations all over the country. Solar panels on rooftops are everywhere, and pay phones and streetlights are powered by the sun.

Granted, Israel gets a lot of sunlight, but the determination to find a solution to the ecological challenge came from the business community — the economic engine of Israel.

Early on in “Wall-E,” we see the skyline of what we think is an enormous city, possibly any of many inspiring American cityscapes. Upon closer viewing, we come to a different, far more disheartening realization.

Just as our generation avoided nuclear Armageddon, sustainability signifies a new future challenge.

Abe Novick, whose work is at abenovick.com , writes monthly for the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES on the intersection of American and Jewish culture.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Hulk, The Jew

Years ago, whenever I would ask my summer camp bunkmate Chanan Beizer, expert on all things comic books, who would win in a super hero fight, Hulk or ___, the answer would always be Hulk.

“Spiderman’s webs would be torn to shreds”, he’d reply to my query. “Iron Man would look like he came out of a trash compacter”, he’d retort. And, “Captain America would be wearing his shield on his kepele like your mother’s floppy beach hat.”

After taking in The Incredible Hulk again (some 30 summers later), I was again fondly reminded of the sheer brute strength that the green monster possesses. And, how it’s a universal Jewish allegory, for a misunderstood young geek to long for greater power over his life.

It’s no secret that Hulk, like his fellow comic book cronies were all born of Jewish creators and like the Golem, were molded to protect us. Hulk was born years after Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster created Superman and the superhero genre. He came to life in the 60s and at a time of change for Jews. Israel at that time, already nurtured out of the desert, again had to do battle against an army of Arabs, who were bent on destroying it.

Seeing the latest version of Hulk in today’s context, I couldn’t help wonder how germane the tale still is today.

For much of the world, Israel is The Hulk, because that’s the only side of Israel the world sees. It doesn’t get to see the scientist, Dr. Bruce Banner quietly working, creating Nobel Prize winning experiments and amazing technological breakthroughs for humankind. They see this big green monster, throwing tanks and creating havoc on the screen.

They don’t see the cause that turns Banner into Hulk. They don’t notice that Bruce doesn’t like turning into Hulk and does everything humanly possible to suppress his alter ego and the destructive transformation.

Pesky bullets and tiny rocket launchers have a minimal physical effect on Hulk, just as the stones Arab kids throw have little impact on the IDF. It all looks so harmless, until the giant arises and hurls back with a mightier and greater force, that the provocative aggressors become the victims.

In one scene in the movie, the Army General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, (played by William Hurt) corners Dr. Banner in front of his daughter (Liv Tyler) and launches gas canisters at him saying, “Now she’ll see what he’s like”. Hulk is purposefully provoked to change because he’s being attacked. And once the Hulk appears, the cameras roll and he is to most everyone, including her, a monster.

In the Six-Day War, an event that created a perceptual change in the world’s eyes of Israel, it was surrounded and attacked by Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Ever since Israel won that war and became the victor, the world has not seen Israel in the same light.

It was during that same era, and throughout his time on the pages of Marvel Comics, when the Hulk was created that he too went through a number of character changes. (Did you know that in the first issue, Hulk was grey?)

But from the earliest stories, the Hulk has been concerned with finding sanctuary and quiet. It’s only when incited, does he react emotionally and flare up.

While the Hulk is a comic book character the fact that he, and so many others, from Iron Man and Spidey to the Caped Crusader are still relevant today, outlasting plenty of other genres, speaks volumes to both their influence and relevance as iconic symbols of pop culture.

Their everlasting appeal and annual return at this time of year, helps me to remember that summer so well.

For Chanan and me, those hot months seemed to bake and leaven our teeming teen muscles like the radiated ones in Dr. Bruce Banner, emitting forces previously unknown, as we attained the zenith of physical strength.

Alas, it was 30-years ago.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Gummy Jews

Special to the Jewish Times

Just as the Jewish state is smooshed in a vise between sides that want to drown it in the sea, the state of Jews in America is pulled like gummy Passover candy in various directions.

Here in the United States, many Jews who typically lean leftward are wary of an Obama presidency. That’s due less to his actual stance on Israel and more by his association with the radical Rev. Jeremiah Wright and rumors that have circulated on the Internet that Obama is a Muslim. Even if we know it to be bogus, a little voice inside is, hmm … suspicious.

On the other hand, with the last eight years of Bush, who was just in Israel (again) and its champion, it’s evident to see how Jews, liberal on most issues, feel uncomfortably conflicted when it comes to supporting Israel.http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/31/arts/31jews.html?_r=1&emc=eta1&oref=slogin

For them, having lived with President Bush since the millennium, to paraphrase Groucho Marx in “Horse Feathers,” “Whatever Bush is for, we’re against.” So if he’s for Israel, then something’s got to be wrong with supporting Israel. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0PY7N4iRgLQ)

I’ll never forget being at Camp Ramah as a 10-year-old, and I had a counselor named Shiah. He was tall and handsome and when I asked who he wanted to be president, he said, “Nixon. He’s a friend to Israel.” Well, when I told my mother as she picked me up on camp’s last day that I was for Nixon, she almost plotzed. Little did I or the world know then what Nixon really thought of Jews.

But in those days, for many Americans Israel was still a David. The amazing success of the Six Day War was fresh and Jerusalem was our shining city on a hill. Kibbutz was a term we still heard and Soviet Jewry was the cause.

Since then, things have gotten a little more complicated. Begin and Sharon invaded Lebanon and suddenly we were no longer the nice guys. College campuses fueled hatred equating the mogen david with the swastika and any sense of moral order and equilibrium came apart. Again, whether it was true or not had little to do with the impression made in the mind. When such symbolism and iconography are branded into the consciousness, it burrows a hole inside and festers.

The logic then follows: I am a liberal. Many liberals are against Israel. Therefore, I should be against Israel.

But I ask those who contemplate such a view, what happens when “Israel” is replaced with the word “Jew”? In a deft maneuver, that’s happening. It’s no longer just a political attack.

In this month’s issue of The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg has a cover story entitled, “Is Israel Finished?” In it, he cogently lays out the many-sided conundrums of Israel and how they’ve evolved. http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200805/israel

What I found most disturbing are some choice quotes. Here’s one.

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has said, “If we searched the entire world for a person more cowardly, despicable, weak and feeble in psyche, mind, ideology and religion, we would not find anyone like the Jew. Notice, I do not say the Israeli.”

It’s been said that you can be anti-Israel without being anti-Semitic. But how far can criticism go before it becomes hate? Forcing the paradox, Israel’s enemies manipulate the earlier syllogism.

For American Jews who think Israel is for Israelis and as they’re not Israeli, they can spout all the anti-Israel talk they want without sounding anti-Semitic, there is all the more reason for Israel to proudly re-emphasize itself as a Jewish state — a Jewish state that is also the only democracy in the region.

Subsequently, as the falafel stands and flags celebrating Eretz Yisrael at 60 are stored away, American Jewish leaders need to re-navigate the dynamic, complicated territory in the minds of American Jews for supporting Israel at 70.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Brand Of The Jews

In a global era when every waking moment is a brand new brand experience, where we are bombarded with words and logos, from products and services to branded peopleæwhat is the Brand of the Jews?

By that, I don’t simply mean the Mogen David either, (like the one Gilda Radner wore on the backside of her Jewess Jeans in the old SNL spoof.)

Rather what I mean is, that if there were a word, one word, that personifies and elicits Judaism, what would it be?

I wonder because it’s important to understand that in our overloaded, overextended, time-crunched, soundbite, info age, where our mental storage capacity has about as much room as a cramped Lower East Side apartment with five sets of extended relatives living inside it, a word is a branding device that serves as a trigger to a wider world. When we refer to “Jewish”, what word do we want people to associate with it?

What imagery? What emotion? What do we want to yield?

Recently in the world of politics, the Obama campaign looked at the country and realized we were looking for “Change”. He grabbed a hold of its gist and made it his.

Hillary on the other hand, ran on experience and when that wasn’t working tried to borrow “change” but it was too late. Obama claimed it and owned it.

So in this age of verbal singularity and of linguistic oneness where a word can hold so much power, what word comes to mind that embraces Judaism?

It should be obvious as it’s the same one we say every day, and we bind as a sign on our hearts, and on our doorposts, between our eyes and it’s in the Shema. Yes, it’s “One”.

After all we’ve gone through, ever since the Diaspora spread us out on every far flung continent and region of the world, still (and to paraphrase the words of Gertrude Stein), “A Jew is a Jew is a Jew.”

While there are branches that have grown out from the tree, we all stem from the same trunk and we all hold one thing in common, dating back to Abraham—one God.

It’s what unites us.

But because those branches have grown so far and have intertwined with other religions and cultures, sprouting unique offshoots, rather than cut them off, we need to enrich them by realizing and communicating what we all have in common.

Recently, I attended an evening of music and coffee and met some Ugandan Jews who keep the Sabbath, sing Hebrew songs and obey the laws of kashrut. I didn’t even know there were Jews in Uganda. Did you?
But while they were so different culturally, they were still Jews. They even donned embroidered kipot (how’s that for symbolism), woven with vibrant colors of their culture incorporating universal Jewish iconography.

That we were one, under the same tent (ok, it was the roof of a synagogue in Roland Park) was a pretty incredible experience. It also got me thinking about our commonality and what that was and how important it is, if Jews are to remain a relevant force, on a global scale. (Not to harp too much on the Obama phenomenon), but we better find what unites us and makes us, hm…well, one, rather than what divides us as Jews.

Why now? Two reasons. One is simply the need to encapsulate our message to an immediately understood, intuitive level that speaks across continents. Given the inordinate amount of information out there, human beings don’t have the capacity to absorb the complexities of 600+ commandments. We don’t lose ‘em, but we need to create that unique position, that niche that identifies us globally in the mind first.

The second is, the world is flat and we can now communicate with each other on a plain we never could before.

One world. One God. One people.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Real Fiction

Abe Novick
Special to the Jewish Times

By now many of you know the story of Monique De Wael. She’s a Roman Catholic who concocted a false identity “Misha” and made up a phony life where, as a Jewish 6-year-old child in Europe in 1941, she was raised by a pack of wolves.

In her fabricated memoir, “Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years,” currently translated into 18 languages with a film already released in Europe, she also kills a German soldier, wanders into and escapes out of the Warsaw Ghetto and across Europe.

Misha’s story is a lie. She is not Jewish and spent the war safely in Brussels. It took years for the truth to be revealed — after she shared her story with so many (including numerous Jewish organizations) willing to believe it. Even Elie Wiesel lent his name to the book.

When confronted this month with the overwhelming evidence, Ms. De Wael announced, “The story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving.” Surviving what?

What’s sad about this episode, but also important to recognize, is that this latest revelation comes when truth and lie are possibly beyond blurring — they’re one. The line, ever so gossamer, has inched so close that, like an Al Gore shoreline, it will be lost.

While we replicate the Holocaust experience in museums and in movies, books and documentaries, remembering history has turned into re-creating history. Projecting our own lens against it, cutting and inserting our own self-identity onto the screen, Zelig-like, we’ve artfully retouched and replaced the older images.

Plato talked about a cave where what we see as prisoners are nothing but shadows on the wall. We take those to be reality, whereas the ultimate truth was only to be reached by reason and dialogue.

But the cave allegory is obsolete; we’re the ones making the shadows and so are in on the illusion. We’re the creators and the consumers. The stories and shadows are fakes because they’re as fraudulent as we are. Everywhere, pop culture is rife with the promotion and creation of new and multiple identities.

It began in the early days of the Internet when everyone could now create multiple screen names. Back when AOL was the main gateway, no one was who they said they were. So anyone (perhaps most everyone) was lying.

But with everyone doing it, it became accepted. In fact, if you actually used your own name or told who you really were, you were embarking on a dangerous path.

Then came blogs, where truth and opinion co-exist without an editor to weed out the bunk. Today, one can even have an avatar, a completely made-up, lifelike figure who can be your alter ego and you can create an entirely false reality in Second Life.

Ostensibly, along with the ease of this form of identity fabrication, where it’s commonplace to steal, hide, falsify and disguise, we’ve manipulated ourselves to the point where our collective history is fraudulent and our memory in jeopardy.

Sadly, the Holocaust, the ultimate line to defend against this encroachment of blur, has fallen into this vat, this Babel of mixed media where everyone who wants to tell a story can and is given the same tools to stir and mix it up.

News journalists, ones who are trained in getting just the facts, are calling on publishers, especially of memoirs, to do a better job of fact checking. But with more and more hard-core investigative reporters being trimmed from the ranks of respected news organizations, I wonder who’s going to be there to protect the truth.

Misha’s story falls into a larger jumble, a hodgepodge and mishmash of quicksand that we’ve gotten ourselves into. Getting out won’t be easy.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Diaspora 2.0

One of the great things about Judaism, is the direct connection. No middleman. No priest. No son. Just you and God.

And in a wireless world, a world with more and more ways for individuals to post their own self-identities, their inner souls and to create their own programming, having the means to broadcast one’s private id anytime and anyplace, has created another potentially transformative epoch for Judaism.

In the flat world, the Diaspora world, while Web 1.0 widened the sea, Web 2.0 has deepened it. More of us are constantly linked onto the Internet but we’re also now its producers, as well as its consumers. So while the experience has become richer and more far reaching, it’s also more complex.

Question: Is your synagogue wireless? Well, if everyone carries around the Internet in their pocket, does it really matter?

Recently, I was sitting around the Sunday morning kibitz table in the social hall, when I noticed a group of us were all pounding away on our laptops. We were helping each other through the tech jungle, connecting onto one wavelength, while altering the course of typical conversation on another. Amongst ourselves, in a wireless world, do Jews communicate more directly or less?

On another level, while wireless devices are verboten in the sanctuary, it occurred to me that the idea of wireless connectivity inside the sacred hall is implicit. The public, social/tribal aspect and the private/meditative dichotomy makes for the ultimate mirror of a social networking environment. After all, everyone’s in one room, but no one’s talking to each other. We’re all in our own little worlds. And supposedly we’re sending out some kind of frequency. Whether it’s being received by a transponder and reciprocal is another question. But as far as a collective human current, I’m wondering if it’s not that much different than the world technology is creating for our lives outside of shul.

Are we all just little wireless devices sending out a signal?

Ever so conformingly, I never thought I’d become one of themæ one of those guys with the Bluetooth in their ears.

Sure, I’d wear an ear phone with a wire while driving, but hardly anyone ever saw me (aside from my kids in the backseat.) Also, the wire would get all snarled and though I wore it with the best and safest of intentions, it was probably more dangerous trying to keep it untangled and straight.

So I went wireless and now my Blackberry talks to my Bluetooth. I’m a black & blue Jew, but better for it. I’m a convert now--true blue believer, and a much safer one too.

But like a lot of technology, it creeps in and stays attached and has become more like an added appendage. The little doodad is becoming more and more permanent. While wireless in theory, the connection to ones physical being may as well be soldered.

While many of us resist technology on one level, we can’t help but join the ranks of sci-fi Trekkies on another. With more and more people donning the earpieces, it’s like the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Each day, another’s wearing one and then another. Soon we’ll all have ‘em.

Here in my town, while all of Baltimore is tuned into a show called The Wire, how many of us are wirelessly watching it on our iPods, Nanos and Apples of various colors, shapes and sizes?

Likewise and on one level, for Jews, we’re all sharing in the same experience. On another, we’re blending the received content with our own unique mix of media.

Profoundly, in many ways that’s what the Talmud is all about; the word of God but with a blend of voices.

Technologically, it’s a long way from where we were just a few years ago. We’re wired on coffee while wireless at the Starbucks watching The Wire.

Now that’s something to kibitz about.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Twisting TV Jews

January 25, 2008

Twisting TV Jews

Abe Novick
Special to the Jewish Times

You don’t have to be a writer these days to appreciate their value when it comes to good, honest television. And you don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate this month’s series on PBS, “Jewish Americans.”

Amidst a writers’ strike that made the Golden Globes spin to a near halt and brought a dearth of new programming, MPT’s reported ratings for “Jewish Americans” are as populous as a boat from the old country pulling into Ellis Island.

But while many Americans have sat around their TVs, watching the story of Jews arriving, struggling and succeeding in this country, many of us may be unaware of what Iran’s state television recently produced.

Countering PBS’ meticulous attention to history, in typical Bizarro World fashion, a show called “Zero Degree Turn,” about the fate of European Jewry, aired in Iran in 2007 and is now threatening to be marketed beyond. It was one of that country’s most expensive and elaborately produced programs ever.

Apparently it was a ratings hit. It told the story of a young Iranian who goes to Paris to study at university before World War II. He becomes involved with a young Jewish woman who fears the growing strength of the Nazis in Germany.

In a sympathetic twist, from a country with a knack for twisting truth, scenes actually showed men, women and children with yellow stars on their clothes forcibly taken out of their homes and loaded into trucks by Nazi soldiers. That’s a little strange coming from a country whose president has denied the Holocaust.

But while the series of 22 installments has already aired, its radioactive effect is still being picked up on blogs and in print, including in The Jerusalem Post just this month.

Not surprisingly, while it actually got some positive reviews for at least admitting the Holocaust took place, it was full of factual errors including propagating the lie that Zionists and Nazis collaborated to provoke Jewish emigration. This theme and an emphasis on the struggle between Zionism and Judaism is worked into the story line. While both are misrepresented, Zionism is positioned (as is often the case in the Arab world) on an equal plane with Nazism.

The director of the series, Hassan Fathi, said about it, “I decided to produce this series in 2002, and in those days the Holocaust was not an issue. Even if one single Jew is killed in German camps, the world should be ashamed. By the same token, if a single Palestinian dies, the world should be ashamed. I sympathize with the Jewish victims of World War II, to the same extent with women and children victims of the war in Palestine.”

Another erroneous problem, lest we forget, is that Zionism was around long before WWII and the Holocaust. To promote the canard that Israel was conceived due to the Holocaust, is to position the Arab world and in particular the Palestinians as the victim. It’s as if Arabs are being punished by having to live with Israel in the midst of their territory, even though they had nothing to do with what happened in Europe.

So as Jews in this country tune in and see their history retold with the effort of dedicated writers, teams of researchers armed with facts and with the aid of historic photos and footage, another side of the world dramatizes their warped story.

And by producing a show with some shades of truth, perhaps just enough to gain some class, some legitimacy, it will be taken seriously by ignorant viewers who’ll watch it as if it’s “Schindler’s List.” Because Ahmadinejad is such a clown, because his claims are so preposterous, perhaps they think a softer, glossy version is what’s needed to spur on a debate.