Friday, September 25, 2009

Netanyahu, Ahmadinejad...and incest

There's the sacred--Israel--and the profane. First the sacred: on the eve of the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, in the midst of the holiest period of the year, the Ten Days of Repentance ("Tshuva"), the United Nations allowed a professed Holocaust denier, Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to spew his completely false and hateful message while (nearly) on American soil.  In response, Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu calmly and insistently thrust copies of the Nazi genocide pact, and plans for concentration camps toward the audience and asked, "Is this a lie?" The truth is indesputable; the existence of Israel established.

Would the UN tolerate any other leader's denial of irrefutable fact?  Thousands of eye witnesses, millions of documents, the disappearance of countless and counted people--dismissed?  If a national leader stood up and said, for example, that the Pearl Harbor attack was fabricated, or that 9-11 never happened (or was perpetrated by Christians); would such anti-historical nonsense fly?  But thousands of times more people were exterminated and displaced in the Holocaust, and we let Ahmadinejad stand at a New York podium.

He didn't mention the Holocaust in his 35 minutes before a very sparse audience at the UN. While several ceremoniously walked out, he used twisted descriptions of Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq to accuse the US and Britain of aggression unchecked by a patsy UN Security Council. Meanwhile, outside, demonstrators dressed in green protested the repression of Iranian public outrage over an election rife with fraud that Ahmadinejad had called a landslide endorsement.

Frightening that Ahmadinejad's speech was framed in religious terms and repeatedly referred to religious themes and God's purpose, but the same language in a presentation by Israel or the US or any other democratic nation would be thought outrageous and unacceptable.  Also frightening that disagreement rooted in logic can be negotiated; conflict rooted in divine directives cannot.

Moving on to a sordid sidelight I happened to notice while perusing USA Today...about "One Day at a Time" actress Mackenzie Phillips, now 49, telling Oprah Winfrey about a 10-year consensual sexual relationship--with her father.  Whether this is fabricated by a new author said to have a 35-year drug addiction hoping to sell books (as John Phillips' second wife claims) or was real, the sickening story got me thinking.

According to Mackenzie, after years of their pairing, her father suggested the two run away to Tahiti and raise her siblings as their own.  Incest is presently abhorrent to all... But should gay marriage become the law of the land, and mutual consent and love become the test of a legitimate relationship, eventually there'd be little to stop such coupling from gaining legal sanction.  Gender or number of partners or something as out of the individuals' control as who happens to be their parents can be shown as arbitrary and restrictive artificial boundaries.  Isn't it a civil right to be able to marry the one(s) you love?

These are days of introspection and evaluation.  And prayer that our nation maintain its democratic and sane perspective, on many fronts.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Today's Jewish Fast-Day--History and a Dilemma

The Fast of Gedalia is one of the most puzzling of requirements observant Jews face. And here I sit, with three and a half more hours without food or drink to endure, trying to grapple with a related moral dilemma.

This fast day is one of six annually, and falls right after the intensity of Rosh Hashana, when we're told an evaluation of last year's deeds determines our fate for the coming year.  This decree by God is "written" but not "sealed," meaning we've got these ten days between now and Yom Kippur to sincerely repent and thus sway the way God executes His plan.

But we're not told to fast as a means of penitence, (as on Yom Kippur itself, when our growling stomachs are to raise our consciousness beyond physicality to encourage the singular focus of angels) but in mourning for a righteous man (Gedalia ben Achikam) appointed governor of the remaining few Jews in Israel after the destruction of the Temple. His leadership had inspired Jews' return from Babylonian exile to the land, and his success allowed the royally-connected Yishmayel ben Nesania to be goaded into jealousy by a neighboring king. Gedalia refused to believe Yishmayel would actually kill him, and considered warnings "lushon ha ra," or negative speech, which Jews are to disregard.

Well, his decision to think the best of Yishmayel cost his life, which caused Jews to flee Israel, fearful that Babylonian king Nebuchudnezzar would retaliate the death of his appointee.  The Talmud says this was a huge tragedy because the loss of a righteous person is equivalent to the loss of the Temple--and the actual destruction of the Temple is the source of most fast days' mourning.

Then we learn that it wasn't just that we lost a good guy--but that such a thing could happen right when we (inluding the jealous murderer Yishmayel) were supposed to be in repentance mode.  It showed how low we really could go. This was the tragedy. 

We take away that especially now, we really need to focus on repentance, and that if we really do become more dedicated, our value increases--and can even soar to where one person's death can have catastrophic impact.

So today--gorgeous, sunny, warm and beautiful in the Seattle area--we couldn't eat or drink. Lots of Jews joke that after two days of bounteous holiday meals, a fast is welcome. But as the day wears on...less so.

My fast-day moral dilemma: This morning, I spent some time with a Jewish friend who is becoming more observant. She now largely keeps kosher, and attends Jewish classes. But she nonchalantly sipped from a water bottle.

I was flummoxed.  Should I assume she had a medical reason to drink on a fast day? Or, more likely, that she just didn't know about it?  Was every sip she took another sin accruing to me for not saying anything? Or, does "derech eretz kadma l'Torah"--manners and concern for embarrassing her take precedence over letting her know that it was a fast day?

While with her--watching her occasional sip--I tossed the options around in my mind. She frequently asks me questions about observance, in her growing effort to come closer and do more. Wouldn't she want to know she shouldn't be drinking?  Or would I be simply serving my own misery-loves-company need, or even a desire to feel superior, by telling her?  On the other hand, was she needlessly sinning because I kept quiet?

I'm wondering what was the right thing. Your advice?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Happy New Year 5770!

As the day wears on, bright and sunny and energizing, with Lake Washington in my view patterned with speedboat trails...with Mt. Rainier outlined against the horizon and the sky streaked with com trails and feathery clouds, I feel enormous gratitude for being brought to this moment, on the eve of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana.

I'm not only grateful for the usual gifts--which Rabbi Rafael Lapin taught me years ago are better called tools--such as health and family and comfort and living in our most privileged nation, but for the underlying means of perceiving them, that we take for granted moment-to-moment.

With the help of contact lenses--a recent invention--I can see the outlines of the maple leaves tinged with rust, poised to turn russet and brown. With amazingly sophisticated mechanisms, I can taste the complexities of my Starbucks coffee, and adjust the flavorings of the dishes I prepare--Indian curries, sweet salmon marinades, sharp cheeses, tart plums from our own backyard tree.

The dahlias of every hue that were grown in pots on my patio--pointed purple petals, round pom-poms, sunrise mixes whose psychedelic swirls are more creative than artists conceive--are marvels I snip and bring into every room. Like other pleasures, they last only a few days, their magnificence existing only for the joy of my perceptions.

We Jews believe that tonight is the birthday of the world, the day we recognize the source of that as our King.  Simultaneously, our creator is evaluating our purposes, our choices and our futures. This seems odd to me, because I'm constantly aware that life is fragile and fleeting and can stop in a second; clearly God is assessing our worth and value at every turn.  But given the human tendency to chug along tending to the urgent rather than the important, it's probably a good idea to have a day set aside to recognize the obvious.

I wish all my Jewish friends a shana tova u'metuka, a good and sweet New Year 5770, five thousand, seven hundred, seventy years' anniversary of when the first man spoke.  We should use our language to speak only productive, positively-purposed analysis and praise, of each other, of our nation, and of the unlimited bounty that comprises our amazing world.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Counting on Calories to Fatten Government Coffers

Today's Wall Street Journal tucked away some news that ought to leave every aspiring gastronome aghast. A piece about how Brad Blum, the new CEO of the Macaroni Grill restaurant chain, plans to beef up the eatery's image, discussed the slimming down of its cuisine, in response to ribbing in magazines and on TV talk shows. It tells how he re-formulated recipes to skim the fat, and created less-dense options, dumping its dessert ravioli, dubbed by Men's Health magazine "the worst dessert in America," and re-constituting the chicken-artichoke sandwich The Today Show proclaimed "the calorie equivalent of 16 Fudgsicles."
The shocking news, however, was this:  "A federal bill currently before Congress and similar to a California law that takes effect in 2011, will require restaurants with at least 20 outlets to detail calorie counts on its menus."

 It's one thing to voluntarily pare down the butter so lovingly lauded by Julia Child, and brought as an offering in the hit film "Julie and Julia." Heaven knows that Americans are fodder in the ongoing battle between advertisers' pressures toward the high life, and obesity.  But the way to ruin restaurants' business across this country, and spoil the sensual pleasures of dining out is to place the number of calories in each dish next to its description on the menu.
Here is an entry from the Antipasti section of an actual menu of Macaroni Grill:
Shrimp & Artichoke Dip
Shrimp, artichokes and spinach baked together and bubbling with Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses. Served with Parmesan bread crisps.  $8.49
           Chef's Recommended Wine: Pinot Grigio - Lumina (Italy)

or, under Insalata, how about Parmesan-Crusted Chicken

Parmesan-breaded chicken breast, bacon, feta cheese, Roma tomatoes and mixed greens with Parmesan peppercorn ranch dressing.  $9.99
      Chef's Recommended Wine: Pinot Noir - La Crema (CA)

Sound good? (OK, not if you're kosher...) But imagine reading those offerings, lusting after the flavors, craving the acidity of the wine against their smoothness...and then reading that each dish is 859 calories per serving. (I made that up, but it's not out of the ball park).  Puts a damper on your enthusiasm, doesn't it?

Let's say you ignore the calorie count. You don't go out to eat all that often, do you?  But as you're about to dig into those fragrant bubbling cheeses, your dinner partner mumbles, "I was thinking of getting that, but it goes straight to my hips."  Suddenly each of those 859 calories tastes like a grain of sand in your mouth.

If you see the calories of your appetizer, entree and drink, you'll be tempted to use that handy calculator in your cell phone to find the total is...a football player's allotment for a week.  So, you'll skip the appetizer and drink, and certainly the dessert, slicing your eat-out experience.  Barely worth the gas to get there.

Indeed, listing dishes' nutritional content does retard restaurant purchases, the article suggests.  Ruby Tuesday printed healthy entries' stats on the menus of its 901 outlets and suffered "a dramatic drop in same-store sales."  The info was soon removed.

But not for long, under the law now before Congress. Talk about federal meddling.  But then again, with Obama's health insurance plan, perhaps there is a taxpayer stake (steak?) in keeping everyone fit.  Once calories are posted, it won't be long until an upper limit-per-serving is imposed on restauranteurs.  And of course a "fat tax" makes sense for those whose meals consist of, say, 1,200 calories or more, since we all pay for obesity's effects.  Another possibility is to weigh each taxpayer, charging a progressive tax that increases with BMI.
After all, government knows best, and due to our individual decadence and incompetence, must step in where consumers only waddle.  Capitalism be damned, lest our arteries be dammed.  As 2011 approaches, we'll soon see the reactions of Californians to the sight of "nutrition facts" cluttering menus.  I daresay even the Nanny State can't get us to eat our brussels sprouts.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Joe Wilson's "You Lie!" and Other Examples of Arrogance

What do these four snapshots have in common?  South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson shouts "You lie!" during Pres. Obama's health care speech last week.  A talk radio legend says on his show today the congressman shouldn't have made his quickly-proffered apology.

Somebody sends me the link to a YouTube video of cable talk host Sonja Schmidt trashing Elizabeth Edwards for publishing a book where she lays out her troubles with cancer and her philandering spouse, grousing that the media extend her undue sympathy.

And today, in the kitchen of my daughter's sorority where I helped out during "recruitment" week, I hear tales of frat hazing abuse that another volunteer's brother recently endured.

The commonality?  Everybody's mean.  Joe Wilson couldn't have enough respect for the office of the president to keep his mouth shut. The talk host couldn't allow that the outburst had been rude.  Schmidt's catty tirade about Mrs. Edwards was snide and merciless.  And the mental abuse that frat boy endured caused anxiety and tears.

I know rudeness and cruelty aren't going away, but I want to stand up for civility.  It's fair to criticize Obama's health care plan--and goodness, I certainly do--but let the man speak and then cut his arguments to ribbons. The radio host could have used his platform far more effectively if he'd have dropped defense of Wilson's shout, and instead used the time to emphasize the substance of the president's lies.  Schmidt may think the press unjustifiably lauded Mrs. Edwards for coping with physical and marital travails, but talk about the press' bias, not the last attempts at "Resilience" of a woman scorned and terminally ill with cancer.

And as far as the hazing--well, let me tell you a little more about that. The college guy's sister and mom were appalled at the emotional toll of the process, officially against pan-Hellenic rules, which lasted six months.  They confronted the freshman with "Now that you see how horrible this is, you'll be the one to stand up to end this kind of abuse." The pledge's response?  "Oh no, I'm going to do it too; it's my chance to get back for what was done to me!"

What kind of sick is that?

With just a few days until the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana, during which time we are charged to do a "heshbon ha nefesh," an accounting of what we've done wrong, I'm looking at my own actions with enhanced sensitivity.  And I'm thinking that all of these nasty behaviors come down to a single cause: arrogance.  Anybody who thinks his stature and importance trumps the president's can interrupt a televised speech with a harsh accusation--and be defended by pundits with the same self-aggrandized view.  Sure a cable-show host wants to snare viewers with a snickering blast at somebody, but here the real culprit was media bias, not the pathetic, ill wife of an ego so large that a video of his primping already reduced him to ridiculous.

And fraternity hazing is merely a dangerous and sadistic means of bonding boys in a degrading testosterone-fueled alliance so they feel validated and accepted.  Collective arrogance, ego-boosting by association.

This week the NY Times Magazine featured a cover story that repeated a maxim every sociology major encounters:  Groups exert a powerful influence on their members.  Just as one's cohort can elevate, it can debase.  That's why it's essential to evaluate the calibur of friends, associates and your chosen milieu to decide whether they provide civilizing, uplifting input or, the opposite. It's too easy to just let things slide by.

Friday, September 11, 2009

September 11--Never the Same

The date September 11 carries a unique undercurrent of sadness.  The day that forever eliminated Americans' sense of comfort and confidence taught us something we had never considered: that we as a nation could be despised and attacked merely for our philosophy, what we represent, rather than for something we've done.

That day in 2001 remains etched in each person's mind.  Living on the west coast, we were not awake yet when the attack began. We received a phone call prior to dawn from a relative in Israel who alerted us; we turned on the radio. I recall the adrenelin, following with the country the collapse of the first tower and then the second. The planes down, into the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. Each of us felt personally threatened; we shared a collective fear, the impenetrable became vulnerable.

I was one of millions of mothers who woke up their children for school that day heavy with the task of conveying the news.  My daughters were silent; my second-grade son hugged me, cried and wanted to do something to help the situation. He decided to begin diligently wearing his "tsit-tsit," the square-cornered undershirt with "strings" observant Jewish men wear, something he heretofore resisted--a major commitment, since he attended public school at the time, where his strings brought taunts.

The national unity was inspiring, and American flags were everywhere. Slowly, however, in the intervening years, they've disappeared.  About six months ago, the "God Bless America" flag magnet on the back of my car finally disintegrated too much to remain. I was one of the last to display one; why are there no such decorations available in stores now?

Because time fades the feelings, dividing us once again.  But it is only because of the success of intelligence, security and military efforts that we have not been attacked again.  Now we know better: we are a target, and those who would destroy our civilization are even now planning ever more inventive and unexpected means to obliterate as many Americans as possible.  Theirs is not a politically motivated effort--the World Trade Center had been attacked before, but we failed to take it seriously.  The attack on 9-11 was at least a decade in the making, a time period in which both Democrats and Republicans were at our nation's helm.

We need to remember--not just today--that the instigators of 9-11 continue to plot our demise with the goal of a theocracy that is repressive and universal.  Questions of gay marriage, abortion, immigration, government health insurance and just about any other issue on the public agenda today, are laughable irrelevancies to the thousands of religious zealots who are willing to sacrifice their lives and their children's lives to force allegiance to the system (sharia) they fervently believe is not an option but a necessity because God wills it.

They tout a culture in which women are accessories to men, subject to barbaric surgeries so that they never experience sexual pleasure.  Where education for females is suppressed, and their options in life limited to a tiny shrouded corner of the world.  The radical Islamists who are at this moment training to attack again remain a threat; we cannot get cocky about the security we have enjoyed under President Bush.

If there's any frustration among Obama-ites, it's with the President's continued commitment to anti-terrorist efforts in Afghanistan.  But I recall reading, at the time of Pres. Bush's exit from the White House, his belief that Pres. Obama will have to maintain this stand: "He'll be receiving the same briefings I did," Pres. Bush noted, and so any president would understand that the real choices are few.

Our weekly local newspaper features a "man on the street" interview, and this week respondents were asked what they thought of Pres. Obama's Day of Remembrance and Service.  Some said there were too many holidays; others thought it wouldn't mean much; some agreed it was just fine.  I'm actually glad that Pres. Obama is elevating this date to a special day, and that it answers the need my second-grade son had on the real 9-11 to make a difference.  The president could have made some inspirational remark and let it slide, but he challenged each of us to do two things:  remember (grieve and understand the threat remains), and act, because we do hold responsibility for the state of the world.

Beyond that, we need to see that not all religions are equal.  Our Judaism inspired my son to wear his tsit-tsit; the religion of terrorists inspires children to hate others in the world.  But beyond the intellectual analysis of dominant religions, we need to get personal and use means of our own religions--prayer, charity, and for us, more fully embracing Jewish law and study--to combat the spiritual intensity of those on the other side.  This is a physical war, clearly, but it is just as much a war of intangibles, and we must not neglect that battle front.

Rosh Hashana starts in one week. I need to get busy.