Friday, July 28, 2006

Neighborhood Bully-By Bob Dylan

Well, the neighborhood bully, he's just one man,
His enemies say he's on their land.
They got him outnumbered about a million to one,
He got no place to escape to, no place to run.
He's the neighborhood bully.

The neighborhood bully just lives to survive,
He's criticized and condemned for being alive.
He's not supposed to fight back, he's supposed to have thick skin,
He's supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in.
He's the neighborhood bully.

The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land,
He's wandered the earth an exiled man.
Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn,
He's always on trial for just being born.
He's the neighborhood bully.

Well, he knocked out a lynch mob, he was criticized,
Old women condemned him, said he should apologize.
Then he destroyed a bomb factory, nobody was glad.
The bombs were meant for him. He was supposed to feel bad.
He's the neighborhood bully.

Well, the chances are against it and the odds are slim
That he'll live by the rules that the world makes for him,
'Cause there's a noose at his neck and a gun at his back
And a license to kill him is given out to every maniac.
He's the neighborhood bully.

He got no allies to really speak of.
What he gets he must pay for, he don't get it out of love.
He buys obsolete weapons and he won't be denied
But no one sends flesh and blood to fight by his side.
He's the neighborhood bully.

Well, he's surrounded by pacifists who all want peace,
They pray for it nightly that the bloodshed must cease.
Now, they wouldn't hurt a fly. To hurt one they would weep.
They lay and they wait for this bully to fall asleep.
He's the neighborhood bully.

Every empire that's enslaved him is gone,
Egypt and Rome, even the great Babylon.
He's made a garden of paradise in the desert sand,
In bed with nobody, under no one's command.
He's the neighborhood bully.

Now his holiest books have been trampled upon,
No contract he signed was worth what it was written on.
He took the crumbs of the world and he turned it into wealth,
Took sickness and disease and he turned it into health.
He's the neighborhood bully.

What's anybody indebted to him for?
Nothin', they say.
He just likes to cause war.
Pride and prejudice and superstition indeed,
They wait for this bully like a dog waits to feed.
He's the neighborhood bully.

What has he done to wear so many scars?
Does he change the course of rivers?
Does he pollute the moon and stars?
Neighborhood bully, standing on the hill,
Running out the clock, time standing still,
Neighborhood bully.

Thursday, July 27, 2006


I just finished watching Steven Spielberg's "Munich" last night. I felt rather compelled to write a few comments about it. As with most of the controversial films that have been tried and found guilty in the media, watching the movie almost a year after the initial release allows for much more "objective" analysis (Can one ever be really "Objective"?).

First off, I had absolutely no problem with the films politics whatsoever. I am a staunchly pro-Israel supporter on every level and kept looking for the imbalance, the equivocation of the films protagonist. Frankly I was unable to find it. While the main character struggles with his actions, I found them to be a human struggle that anyone would go through, the act of the taking of a life. When I spoke to a friend shortly after the film was released last year, he mentioned that he was most offended by the ambivalence that the main character experienced in carrying out Hamurabis code: an eye for an eye. Further, he claims that in "vengeance", the original source that the movie was based on (unable to remember the author at the moment), that the actual men who carried out these extra-judicial killings were not moved by conscience. That they were deeply stalwart and unmoving in their resolve. These were righteous acts supported by God and carried out with complete repudiation.

Perhaps. But the rendering of our protagonist (cannot remember his name at the moment, which is one of my criticisms of the film, it's agitpropness) as a man of moral quandaries struck me as quite moving. Tony Kushner, who along with Joe Roth wrote the screenplay, allowed me to experience this pretty fully. I really felt virtually no polemic here, which is rather a nice surprise from a man who creates polemicals as readily as Shakespeare created Mechanicals.

The films most remarkable achievement far and away is its terrifying depiction of violence. I remember about twenty years ago when the Louis Malle film "Atlantic City" came out. There is a scene of a murder on a Ferris wheel. Robert Joy, the Canadian actor, is stabbed to death in his little Ferris car by a street hoodlum. The act is so disturbing because it is so incredibly quiet. We hear street noises in the distance, cars driving by, children playing in the streets...Virtually everything in life continues on in its normalcy. The only thing that gives away that a murder is being committed is the look of shock and fear on the face of Joy. This image still haunts me today. The acts of violence in Munich startled me for its mundanity. The lack of control of the acts, their messiness (not in blood but in execution) and halted intimacy are jolting and abrupt. The first killing is clearly an homage to Coppola with Avner and the toy/bomb maker killing the first Arab in Italy as he is about to go up an elevator to his apartment. They ask him if he is who he says he is, produce a picture, and are completely unsure how to proceed. When they do finally, Avner drops his gun by accident then picks it up again. The shooting is horrifying for its unsureness, not necessarily its ineptness. This isn't the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight this is something else.

Other images sear: the couple in the hotel room next to the Palestinian that is blown to bits, his bloody arm hanging from the ceiling as the only remainder of his corpse. The woman screaming that she can't see, naked and covered in dust and blood. The murders in Beirut, killing a family but Avner pleading they do not kill the son, he is left to witness the carnage. The creepiest of all being the strange James Bond like killing of the Dutch woman in her home with a bizarre silencer type of gun. They actually help her from falling down initially, she pets her cat in a death spiral, and then hemorrhages to death out of the mortal wound to her trachea. Incomprehensible!

The most disappointing aspect of the film, unfortunately, is its depiction of sensuality. Spielberg attempting to be Rembrandt through his Cinematographer Janusz Kamenski is awkward. He is simply not deep enough to capture the essence of this filmic painting with real soul. The shots of Avner and the food, of the French Patriarch and his food, food and sensuality, strikes me as pretentious. Of course, after Stanley Tucci did Big Night, food will never look the same on screen. The final image, a use of counterpoint between the final terrible moments of the hostages and their captors in the airport battle, and his tortured intercourse with his wife, struck me as vulgar and demeaning to the memory of the slain.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Five Points (From "A Woman Under the Influence" by John Cassavetes)

- Doctor, she's crazy!- She's an adult, and I would like to talk to her. Please. I have five points, Nick. I figured it out, and - They're for me. - For us.- Mabel. One is love. Two is... friendship, and three is... our... comfort. And four is... I'm a good mother, Nicky, and - Mabel, I love you. Um - I belong to you.That's it. Those are my five points.That's what I - I have five points. One. F-Five... points. Come here. Now listen to me. Baby... you know how I feel about you. - You're a great mother. Take deep breaths.Take deep breaths. I love you. You've made me happy.Take a deep breath. Take deep breaths. - And if I've made a mistake, I'm sorry.- Nick. - Nick. Nick, I need -- Sit down! I'll knock you right on your ass! Mabel. Baby. I love you.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Middle East Redux

As the political situation in the Middle East grows graver each day, I am compelled to wonder about the nature of war and addiction. I received an e-mail from a dear friend of mine this morning. She is an Israeli citizen living in the United States (or perhaps is a dual citizen, I'm not sure). My step-sister lives in Tel Aviv with her 9 year old son, Avi. I'm certain that she must have friends and family living in Israel as well. The upshot of my e-mail to her was for thoughts and prayers to go with those who are under attack. Those Israelis who are under attack. I didn't stipulate that, but certainly it was tacit.

My friend responded with a perspective that shook me up. She suggested that all parties involved are "addicted to war". I found this a deeply truthful statement that has enormously far reaching consequences and had really never occurred to me. Perhaps that is because, as Israel is concerned, I am an unqualified Hawk with absolutely no room for neutrality. I certainly don't consider myself an unqualified neo-conservative. I have a number of liberal concerns, am vociferously pro-union, and believe in equal rights for all. But as Israel is concerned, I am as far to the right as can be. Most of my opinions about Israel come from "right wing" radio. I listen almost exclusively to Dennis Prager, Michael Medved, Hannity and Colmes, Bill O' Reilly and read National Review, Wall Street Journal and editorial writers like David Horowitz, Norman Podhoretz...You get the idea. I simply need to have my information doled out in ways that feed the "addiction" to my pro-Israeli bias. I'm really not sure frankly how this got to this point. I know that I am a deeply suggestible person. If I listen to enough left wing talk I go there as well. But I have found as the years move on that I am becoming almost a knee-jerk conservative. However, I have never voted republican in my life. What's going on here? Humbly, I believe that it has very little to do with Israel at all, I'm afraid. It has much more to do with my people pleasing tendencies and need to feel affiliated with something greater than myself. I have almost no interest in the religion of Judaism. It has never spoken to me as a spiritual path. I have much more interest in Buddhism and Hinduism, as witnessed by the books I carry with me daily.

But Judaism is more than a religion. It is a people as well. And this is where my deepest biological imperative occurs. If someone is fucking around with the state of Israel then they are fucking with my people. This is even more strange, as I rarely even like my people. But they are my people. And everything seems to irrationally flow through that truth. I am a Jew. Even if I live in places like Hemet, or Desert Hot Springs or Santa Fe, New Mexico. As much as I have abandoned my Judaism, I have never abandoned my Jewishness. I suspect that many Jews feel this way. Assimilation is a bitch. And yet, more and more, I find myself connecting to more Jews than I have in years. Some are Israelis, most Americans. About half of us talk about the Middle East crisis and the other half about life in general.

The reason I have posted Elie Weisel's Nobel Lecture speech of 1986 below has as much to do with my current internal "Intifada" as my reactionary position on the murder of Jews everywhere. As this truth exists, I am intractable. It takes a very powerful heart and soul to see this as an addiction and to open one's self to our dismal self-criticism of the "self-hating Jew". It is an act of enormous courage to even consider it as a Jew. It requires the absolution of our past, the honoring of our collective memory, and the forging ahead into the realm of a territory Jews cannot face: acceptance.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Elie Weisel's 1986 Nobel Lecture

Nobel Lecture
Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1986

Hope, Despair and Memory
A Hasidic legend tells us that the great Rabbi Baal-Shem-Tov, Master of the Good Name, also known as the Besht, undertook an urgent and perilous mission: to hasten the coming of the Messiah. The Jewish people, all humanity were suffering too much, beset by too many evils. They had to be saved, and swiftly. For having tried to meddle with history, the Besht was punished; banished along with his faithful servant to a distant island. In despair, the servant implored his master to exercise his mysterious powers in order to bring them both home. "Impossible", the Besht replied. "My powers have been taken from me". "Then, please, say a prayer, recite a litany, work a miracle". "Impossible", the Master replied, "I have forgotten everything". They both fell to weeping.
Suddenly the Master turned to his servant and asked: "Remind me of a prayer - any prayer ." "If only I could", said the servant. "I too have forgotten everything". "Everything - absolutely everything?" "Yes, except - "Except what?" "Except the alphabet". At that the Besht cried out joyfully: "Then what are you waiting for? Begin reciting the alphabet and I shall repeat after you...". And together the two exiled men began to recite, at first in whispers, then more loudly: "Aleph, beth, gimel, daleth...". And over again, each time more vigorously, more fervently; until, ultimately, the Besht regained his powers, having regained his memory.
I love this story, for it illustrates the messianic expectation -which remains my own. And the importance of friendship to man's ability to transcend his condition. I love it most of all because it emphasizes the mystical power of memory. Without memory, our existence would be barren and opaque, like a prison cell into which no light penetrates; like a tomb which rejects the living. Memory saved the Besht, and if anything can, it is memory that will save humanity. For me, hope without memory is like memory without hope.
Just as man cannot live without dreams, he cannot live without hope. If dreams reflect the past, hope summons the future. Does this mean that our future can be built on a rejection of the past? Surely such a choice is not necessary. The two are not incompatible. The opposite of the past is not the future but the absence of future; the opposite of the future is not the past but the absence of past. The loss of one is equivalent to the sacrifice of the other.
A recollection. The time: After the war. The place: Paris. A young man struggles to readjust to life. His mother, his father, his small sister are gone. He is alone. On the verge of despair. And yet he does not give up. On the contrary, he strives to find a place among the living. He acquires a new language. He makes a few friends who, like himself, believe that the memory of evil will serve as a shield against evil; that the memory of death will serve as a shield against death.
This he must believe in order to go on. For he has just returned from a universe where God, betrayed by His creatures, covered His face in order not to see. Mankind, jewel of his creation, had succeeded in building an inverted Tower of Babel, reaching not toward heaven but toward an anti-heaven, there to create a parallel society, a new "creation" with its own princes and gods, laws and principles, jailers and prisoners. A world where the past no longer counted - no longer meant anything.
Stripped of possessions, all human ties severed, the prisoners found themselves in a social and cultural void. "Forget", they were told, "Forget where you came from; forget who you were. Only the present matters". But the present was only a blink of the Lord's eye. The Almighty himself was a slaughterer: it was He who decided who would live and who would die; who would be tortured, and who would be rewarded. Night after night, seemingly endless processions vanished into the flames, lighting up the sky. Fear dominated the universe. Indeed this was another universe; the very laws of nature had been transformed. Children looked like old men, old men whimpered like children. Men and women from every corner of Europe were suddenly reduced to nameless and faceless creatures desperate for the same ration of bread or soup, dreading the same end. Even their silence was the same for it resounded with the memory of those who were gone. Life in this accursed universe was so distorted, so unnatural that a new species had evolved. Waking among the dead, one wondered if one was still alive.
And yet real despair only seized us later. Afterwards. As we emerged from the nightmare and began to search for meaning. All those doctors of law or medicine or theology, all those lovers of art and poetry, of Bach and Goethe, who coldly, deliberately ordered the massacres and participated in them. What did their metamorphosis signify? Could anything explain their loss of ethical, cultural and religious memory? How could we ever understand the passivity of the onlookers and - yes - the silence of the Allies? And question of questions: Where was God in all this? It seemed as impossible to conceive of Auschwitz with God as to conceive of Auschwitz without God. Therefore, everything had to be reassessed because everything had changed. With one stroke, mankind's achievements seemed to have been erased. Was Auschwitz a consequence or an aberration of "civilization" ? All we know is that Auschwitz called that civilization into question as it called into question everything that had preceded Auschwitz. Scientific abstraction, social and economic contention, nationalism, xenophobia, religious fanaticism, racism, mass hysteria. All found their ultimate expression in Auschwitz.
The next question had to be, why go on? If memory continually brought us back to this, why build a home? Why bring children into a world in which God and man betrayed their trust in one another?
Of course we could try to forget the past. Why not? Is it not natural for a human being to repress what causes him pain, what causes him shame? Like the body, memory protects its wounds. When day breaks after a sleepless night, one's ghosts must withdraw; the dead are ordered back to their graves. But for the first time in history, we could not bury our dead. We bear their graves within ourselves.
For us, forgetting was never an option.
Remembering is a noble and necessary act. The call of memory, the call to memory, reaches us from the very dawn of history. No commandment figures so frequently, so insistently, in the Bible. It is incumbent upon us to remember the good we have received, and the evil we have suffered. New Year's Day, Rosh Hashana, is also called Yom Hazikaron, the day of memory. On that day, the day of universal judgment, man appeals to God to remember: our salvation depends on it. If God wishes to remember our suffering, all will be well; if He refuses, all will be lost. Thus, the rejection of memory becomes a divine curse, one that would doom us to repeat past disasters, past wars.
Nothing provokes so much horror and opposition within the Jewish tradition as war. Our abhorrence of war is reflected in the paucity of our literature of warfare. After all, God created the Torah to do away with iniquity, to do away with war1.Warriors fare poorly in the Talmud: Judas Maccabeus is not even mentioned; Bar-Kochba is cited, but negatively2. David, a great warrior and conqueror, is not permitted to build the Temple; it is his son Solomon, a man of peace, who constructs God's dwelling place. Of course some wars may have been necessary or inevitable, but none was ever regarded as holy. For us, a holy war is a contradiction in terms. War dehumanizes, war diminishes, war debases all those who wage it. The Talmud says, "Talmidei hukhamim shemarbin shalom baolam" (It is the wise men who will bring about peace). Perhaps, because wise men remember best.
And yet it is surely human to forget, even to want to forget. The Ancients saw it as a divine gift. Indeed if memory helps us to survive, forgetting allows us to go on living. How could we go on with our daily lives, if we remained constantly aware of the dangers and ghosts surrounding us? The Talmud tells us that without the ability to forget, man would soon cease to learn. Without the ability to forget, man would live in a permanent, paralyzing fear of death. Only God and God alone can and must remember everything.
How are we to reconcile our supreme duty towards memory with the need to forget that is essential to life? No generation has had to confront this paradox with such urgency. The survivors wanted to communicate everything to the living: the victim's solitude and sorrow, the tears of mothers driven to madness, the prayers of the doomed beneath a fiery sky.
They needed to tell the child who, in hiding with his mother, asked softly, very softly: "Can I cry now?" They needed to tell of the sick beggar who, in a sealed cattle-car, began to sing as an offering to his companions. And of the little girl who, hugging her grandmother, whispered: "Don't be afraid, don't be sorry to die... I'm not". She was seven, that little girl who went to her death without fear, without regret.
Each one of us felt compelled to record every story, every encounter. Each one of us felt compelled to bear witness, Such were the wishes of the dying, the testament of the dead. Since the so-called civilized world had no use for their lives, then let it be inhabited by their deaths.
The great historian Shimon Dubnov served as our guide and inspiration. Until the moment of his death he said over and over again to his companions in the Riga ghetto: "Yidden, shreibt un fershreibt" (Jews, write it all down). His words were heeded. Overnight, countless victims become chroniclers and historians in the ghettos, even in the death camps. Even members of the Sonderkommandos, those inmates forced to burn their fellow inmates' corpses before being burned in turn, left behind extraordinary documents. To testify became an obsession. They left us poems and letters, diaries and fragments of novels, some known throughout the world, others still unpublished.
After the war we reassured ourselves that it would be enough to relate a single night in Treblinka, to tell of the cruelty, the senselessness of murder, and the outrage born of indifference: it would be enough to find the right word and the propitious moment to say it, to shake humanity out of its indifference and keep the torturer from torturing ever again. We thought it would be enough to read the world a poem written by a child in the Theresienstadt ghetto to ensure that no child anywhere would ever again have to endure hunger or fear. It would be enough to describe a death-camp "Selection", to prevent the human right to dignity from ever being violated again.
We thought it would be enough to tell of the tidal wave of hatred which broke over the Jewish people for men everywhere to decide once and for all to put an end to hatred of anyone who is "different" - whether black or white, Jew or Arab, Christian or Moslem - anyone whose orientation differs politically, philosophically, sexually. A naive undertaking? Of course. But not without a certain logic.
We tried. It was not easy. At first, because of the language; language failed us. We would have to invent a new vocabulary, for our own words were inadequate, anemic.
And then too, the people around us refused to listen; and even those who listened refused to believe; and even those who believed could not comprehend. Of course they could not. Nobody could. The experience of the camps defies comprehension.
Have we failed? I often think we have.
If someone had told us in 1945 that in our lifetime religious wars would rage on virtually every continent, that thousands of children would once again be dying of starvation, we would not have believed it. Or that racism and fanaticism would flourish once again, we would not have believed it. Nor would we have believed that there would be governments that would deprive a man like Lech Walesa of his freedom to travel merely because he dares to dissent. And he is not alone. Governments of the Right and of the Left go much further, subjecting those who dissent, writers, scientists, intellectuals, to torture and persecution. How to explain this defeat of memory?
How to explain any of it: the outrage of Apartheid which continues unabated. Racism itself is dreadful, but when it pretends to be legal, and therefore just, when a man like Nelson Mandela is imprisoned, it becomes even more repugnant. Without comparing Apartheid to Nazism and to its "final solution" - for that defies all comparison - one cannot help but assign the two systems, in their supposed legality, to the same camp. And the outrage of terrorism: of the hostages in Iran, the coldblooded massacre in the synagogue in Istanbul, the senseless deaths in the streets of Paris. Terrorism must be outlawed by all civilized nations - not explained or rationalized, but fought and eradicated. Nothing can, nothing will justify the murder of innocent people and helpless children. And the outrage of preventing men and women like Andrei Sakharov, Vladimir and Masha Slepak, Ida Nudel, Josef Biegun, Victor Brailowski, Zakhar Zonshein, and all the others known and unknown from leaving their country. And then there is Israel, which after two thousand years of exile and thirty-eight years of sovereignty still does not have peace. I would like to see this people, which is my own, able to establish the foundation for a constructive relationship with all its Arab neighbors, as it has done with Egypt. We must exert pressure on all those in power to come to terms.
And here we come back to memory. We must remember the suffering of my people, as we must remember that of the Ethiopians, the Cambodians, the boat people, Palestinians, the Mesquite Indians, the Argentinian "desaparecidos" - the list seems endless.
Let us remember Job who, having lost everything - his children, his friends, his possessions, and even his argument with God - still found the strength to begin again, to rebuild his life. Job was determined not to repudiate the creation, however imperfect, that God had entrusted to him.
Job, our ancestor. Job, our contemporary. His ordeal concerns all humanity. Did he ever lose his faith? If so, he rediscovered it within his rebellion. He demonstrated that faith is essential to rebellion, and that hope is possible beyond despair. The source of his hope was memory, as it must be ours. Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair. I remember the killers, I remember the victims, even as I struggle to invent a thousand and one reasons to hope.
There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. The Talmud tells us that by saving a single human being, man can save the world. We may be powerless to open all the jails and free all the prisoners, but by declaring our solidarity with one prisoner, we indict all jailers. None of us is in a position to eliminate war, but it is our obligation to denounce it and expose it in all its hideousness. War leaves no victors, only victims. I began with the story of the Besht. And, like the Besht, mankind needs to remember more than ever. Mankind needs peace more than ever, for our entire planet, threatened by nuclear war, is in danger of total destruction. A destruction only man can provoke, only man can prevent. Mankind must remember that peace is not God's gift to his creatures, it is our gift to each other.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Why do the Ants have to die?

Fifteen minutes till class time. I washed my hands and cleaned the table. In the sink the myriad of Ants marched, scurried about in their seemingly aimless search for water. The heat has them inside, forcing us to deal with the unthinkable.

I noticed a solitary Ant (are there any "solitary" Ants?), and tried to help the hopelessly overwhelmed creature. I picked him up and placed him down in safety, or so I thought. He landed in the tiniest pool of water and drowned instantly, one last life shriek as his little body forced it's way to the sky only to plummet back down into oblivion and nadir. All notions of meaning drowned with him. The absurdity of my feeble, pitiful attempt to save a life that even my breath could extinguish was beyond what I could bear. What's going on here? Could anything be more pathetic than the randomness of this creatures existence? Perhaps only the thought that my interference may bring it some meaning at all. Why would a creative force of the universe create a being that bumbles through the universe and is laughably and agonizingly blown out? And I'm not talking about the Ant folks.

In his extraordinary book "The Power of Now", Eckhart Tolle has a passage in which he talks about the birth of a fish that is named "John" by his human owners and within seconds is eaten by another fish. All of our human proclivities to attach a personality and significance to this aquatic infant were turned into mush as soon as he become food for the other predators of this cosmic restaurant. The shock of such an event is simply too much to bear. What is a cosmic force doing here, I ask again? Eckhart Tolle suggest something that I have cognated as well: perhaps this has something to do with form. Immediately the Fibonacci series comes to mind, or the eternality of the Mandelbrot Fractal (no to be confused with the Mandelbread of my ancestors). If the Universe (with a big time "U") is incomprehensible in it's mystery and impenatrable by the human mind at all, then perhaps it's safe to say that all concepts of morality are subject to impermanence and transitoriness. That in fact what is good is rather irrelevant as all things are finite, pass away into dust and all that remains is the timeless Now, with all that this represents. As is said in the Course of Miracles, "Nothing real can be threatened, Nothing unreal exists. Herein lies the peace of God". If it is indeed true that what IS is what matters, than the limitations of the human mind and senses perceived are akin to looking at the universe through a dixi-stick.

Birth and death are then as meaningless as thoughts. All surrender in the face of the light of the eternal Now.