Anderson Cooper’s Father and Mine

In listening to David Axelrod’s interview of Anderson Cooper on The Axe Files (October 21, 2021), Anderson spoke lovingly of his father who died at the age of 50 from a heart attack when Anderson was 10 years-old. He expressed gratitude for a book his father wrote (Families: A Memoir and a Celebration, by Wyatt Cooper, Random House, 1975) that revealed much about his father’s history, thinking, and values. He said that though his father died young, he feels his dad speaking directly to him in the book that he re-reads every year. Wyatt Cooper was a wonderful model of a father for Anderson who, at the age of 53, became a dad himself for the first time.

My own father, who died at 53 when I was 9, left no written record of his life, family history, and values except a group of letters he penned to his cousins in Philadelphia from the South Pacific during World War II. He was a fine writer as I learned only a few years ago after my mother died and we discovered these letters amongst her papers.

After listening to Anderson, I’m reminded how much I regret that my father didn’t leave me a written record of his own history, thinking, and core values. Anderson’s father was a writer, so his memoir came naturally to him. My dad was a physician and his generation of parents didn’t leave written testimonies about their lives and values for their children. All that I have of him are photographs and my childhood memories.

My father’s early death hit me very hard and it took years for me to cope effectively and integrate into my life the reality of this loss. I’m not unlike a lot of men who lose their fathers when they’re young either through death or abandonment. Each of us must choose, based on that core experience and what our fathers (and mothers) valued or we value how we wish to live our lives.

I could have chosen to feel sorry for myself, become consumed with envy and jealousy towards other kids whose fathers were alive and well, or become self-centered, hard hearted, and angry out of self-protection from the pain of my loss. However, realizing that I could lose everything again at the drop of the hat, and thanks to my positive memories of him as a loving father (and my mother’s love too), I decided long ago that life is too short to focus on the negative. Though I always have carried the pain of loss with me, I intuitively knew from a young age that I had to go forward as positively as I could. I worked hard, learned from my mistakes and failures, cherished my family and friends, chose work in which I could help others and make a difference in their lives, and sought to inspire my community to care for one another and to embrace all comers. Doing all that and more served as a powerful hedge against my own loss that I feel still 62 years after my father’s death.

I often wonder what direction my life would have taken and what choices I would have made had he lived. I’ll never know. But, I know this – every major decision I’ve made and all the virtues and values I came to care about are rooted in my memories of him as a loving father and a virtuous man who cared deeply about his family, friends, and patients. I consequently respect and admire all who are decent and kind, who make positive contributions to the community and world, are optimistic and positive-thinking in outlook, and use their time to help others.

We can’t suppress ultimately what happens to us, but we need not become bogged down by our losses and regrets. How we embrace the past does effect how we engage the present.

The New York Times journalist Roger Cohen put it well (“The Presence of the Past”, NYT Op-Ed, May 18, 2015):

“… The past is there. We must understand it, our own, our community’s and our nation’s. Suppressing it will only be achieved at a price. … nor can we be consumed by the past, re-fight its battles or succumb to the sterility of vengeance ….Not to remember, or to be overwhelmed by memory, are equally dangerous. Only through a balanced view of the past, conscientious but not obsessive, may we shun victimhood, accept divergent national narratives, embrace decency, meet our daily obligations, and look forward.”

William Faulkner (1897-1962) said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And Amos Oz (1939-2018) added: “The past belongs to us; we don’t belong to the past.”

For me, my father lives in me, and for that I’m grateful and have no regrets.

For those who love good writing

Over more than 40 years I’ve written countless articles and sermons, yet only when I began writing blogs a dozen years ago, my first book in 2017, and in helping to edit the work of others did I pay close attention to what makes writing good and bad.

The most important elements by far in good writing are a good idea and clear thinking. If the writer doesn’t have anything meaningful to say, no amount of verbiage will make the result worthy to be read.

Very few of us are born-writers. Most writers need time to evolve their craft. Good writing requires technique and artistry. Even good thinkers need maturation time as they work through ideas.

Serious writers study other writers. Newbies ought to do as great artists did who sat with a pallet and/or drawing pad before master works in museums and galleries and copied them as they developed their technique through imitation. Most of the best writers write every day, and when they aren’t writing they’re thinking about writing.

For those who speak and teach for a living – speaking well too is a skill developed slowly. Focus, self-discipline, clear thinking, command of the language, and awareness of one’s audience all work together as an integrated whole for maximum impact.

When giving formal addresses, I found that I produce a far better product when writing everything out in advance even if I wander from the text during delivery. When I was a young rabbi, I received justified criticism for how I wrote and read from a written text. And so I sought out a veteran Hollywood and New York actor and director who told me a few things I never forgot, that the challenge the actor faces in every performance is to bring forward into the present what was written in the past. Imagine speaking the same lines hundreds of times and making each performance feel as though it was never spoken before.

When I asked him to share with me tricks he used that I could adapt to make it seem as though I was thinking out loud and personally to my congregation and students, he told me that he always directed his performance either to someone he knew in the audience or whose face he liked. Then he spoke as if to that one person who, he assumed, had never heard his spoken words before even if it was Shakespeare. Any formal address, he noted, though striving to be colloquial, ought to employ elevated language that inspires and touches the heart more than common words and phrases might do. Yet, he warned against using language that’s feels unnatural to the speaker, is self-conscious and pretentious.

In recent years, I have edited books and the blogs of others, and I’m often amazed at the number of grammatical errors made by thoughtful and good writers, as well as repeated words (use a Thesaurus), unclear thoughts (ask yourself if what you wrote makes sense), disorganization and repetition (outline your piece before and after your first draft), and unnecessary verbiage (stop stringing together superfluous adjectives and adverbs) that all diminish the punch and power of the thought intended. That’s where good editing comes in. Two heads are always better than one. Of course, if writers engage editors they have to show humility and be open to honest and constructive critique.

My first draft is invariably far from my final product. Once I get close to saying what I want to say, I read what I’ve written over and again, edit as necessary, be certain that I’ve caught careless grammatical errors, clarified confusing sentences and thoughts, and cut mercilessly that which doesn’t add value to the piece.

Being a writer requires immense patience with oneself. I rarely publish a blog or put anything onto social media without allowing time to pass before hitting the send button. I also don’t publish until I’m satisfied that I’ve written exactly what I want to express in precisely the way I want to say it. There have been many pieces that I didn’t publish because I came to regard what I wrote as rubbish. That said, I confess that sometimes I should have held back and pressed delete instead of send.

For serious writers I recommend checking a web-site – Stanford University’s Hume Center for Writing and Speaking, “Top 20 Errors in Undergraduate Writing” – https://hume.stanford.edu/resources/student-resources/writing-resources/grammar-resources/top-20-errors-undergraduate-writing.

Also, there’s a terrific volume written by the copy editor at Random House called Dreyer’s English – An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, by Benjamin Dreyer (New York: Random House, 2019, 320 pages).

The French author, mime, actress, and journalist Sidonie-Gabrielle Collette (1873-1954), known as “Collette,” once remarked:

Sit down and put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge one’s own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”

So true.

PATIENCE – SAV’LA-NUT – PLEASE!

As Joe Biden’s approval rating sinks below 50%, I shake my head at the impatience of so many Americans who suddenly perceive the President as weak and bumbling. It seems to me that those who voted for him against Trump (especially Independents and moderate Republicans) ought to chill a bit, be more patient, and give Biden and the Democrats time to complete their challenging work in passing the huge $3.5 trillion jobs and family bill that is likely to come down to about $2 trillion after the congressional sausage machine produces a compromise package. Should that bill be worked out by a unanimous Democratic Senate caucus and then brought to reconciliation, along with the trillion dollar infrastructure bill already passed by a bi-partisan Senate vote, it’s likely that Biden’s approval rating will improve. When that happens, so too will improve the standing of Democrats on the federal, state, and local levels.

According to Fortune Magazine (October 7), Biden’s 52% approval rating in the last week of July was nearly identical to his Day 1 approval rating, and well ahead of Trump’s 38.7% approval rating at the same time (Day 261 in office) in his Administration. Note that Biden’s disapproval rating of 44.2% doesn’t represent a majority of Americans. A significant portion of Americans (7%) neither approve nor disapprove of his job performance. For comparison, at the same point in his presidency, Trump had a 55.4% disapproval rating.

Most political pundits have expressed little doubt that the two major bills before Congress will pass in some form soon and arrive at the Resolute Desk for signature. After all, passing these bills into law is in the best interest and strong desire (according to all polls) of a large majority of Americans. Biden, Pelosi, and Schumer each is a skilled political operative, and I can’t imagine them failing to do what’s necessary to conclude negotiations successfully and get these bills passed into law.  

As we approach the 2022 elections, these pundits argue, the Democrats must demonstrate that they are the only party that governs effectively in order to win control of both houses of Congress once again. Even then, with gerrymandering favoring Republicans and Trump-Republican voter suppression laws being passed in so many states, there’s no guarantee of Democratic control of Congress after 2022.

Patience, therefore, ought to be the order of the day, because patience emboldens us, calms us down, restores to us a measure of perspective, and helps us avoid becoming nervous wrecks. We would be wise to step back and avoid social media on this issue and not watch or read the 24/7 cable news cycle that addresses in granular detail all the ins and outs of the negotiations.

Here are some helpful thoughts about the nature and virtue of patience:

“Patience is also a form of action.” – Auguste Rodin, sculptor (1840-1917)

“How can a society that exists on instant mashed potatoes, packaged cake mixes, frozen dinners, and instant cameras teach patience to its young?” -Paul Sweeney, Scottish politician (b. 1989)

“Knowing trees, I understand the meaning of patience. Knowing grass, I can appreciate persistence.” -Hal Borland, author and journalist (1900-1978)

The Hebrew word for patience is sav’la-nut – the three-letter root (samekh, bet, lamed) of the word means “suffering.” Hence, being patient is to suffer a bit, which isn’t so awful if the end result is positive and life-affirming.

Sheikh Jarrah Explained

Sheikh Jarrah is an Arab neighborhood located two kilometers north of the Old City in East Jerusalem. This small parcel of land (35 dunam which equals 6.85 acres) has been a hot spot over many years in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and especially this past year.

Background:

After the 1948 Israeli War of Independence when Jerusalem was divided between Jordan, which occupied the Old City and East Jerusalem and in which Israel held West Jerusalem, the government of Jordan took 30 Arab refugee families who had fled their homes in West Jerusalem and other areas on the Israeli side of the Green Line during the fighting, and settled them on lands formerly owned by Jews in the Jordanian controlled East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Now it is estimated that about 35 families numbering 200 people are under threat of forced eviction/displacement from this section. The Jews who fled homes in Sheikh Jarrah and other areas of East Jerusalem were settled into Israeli West Jerusalem by the Israeli government into vacated Arab homes throughout the city in such neighborhoods as the German Colony, Talbiye, Baka, Katamon, and elsewhere.

After the 1948 War, the Jordanian government assumed management of abandoned Jewish properties in East Jerusalem and thereafter designated land in the Kerem Alja’oni section of Sheikh Jarrah for the resettlement of dozens of Palestinian refugee families.

In 1950, Israel passed the “Absentee Property Law” that nationalized all Arab property in the State of Israel that had been abandoned during the 1948 War, precluding the possibility of any land reclamation by Arabs (including East Jerusalem residents) who lost assets in West Jerusalem and other areas within the Israeli side of the Green Line.

In the 1950s, as part of the Jordanian Housing Ministry’s refugee rehabilitation project, new homes were built in cooperation with UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency) for 30 aforementioned families in exchange for relinquishing their refugee status.

Following its annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967, in contravention of International Law, Israel absorbed East Jerusalem Palestinians into its territory. Yet, they were never fully granted Israeli citizenship and their status in the city has remained as stateless residents devoid of the power to participate in the legislative and policy-making processes that govern their lives.

Three years after the 1967 Six-Day War when Israel conquered the Old City, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, Israel passed the “1970 Legal and Administrative Matters Law” which affords Jews the exclusive right to reclaim lost assets in East Jerusalem now inhabited by Palestinians based on the claim that they were once owned by Jews prior to 1948.

The 1970 law not only confers land reclamation rights to previous Jewish landowners but also provides for a very broad definition of those who can claim those properties on their behalf. This broad definition is the mechanism which has enabled state-sponsored settler organizations to exploit the law for their own purposes in spite of having no relation to the previous Jewish occupants or owners of these properties. Rather, settler groups aim to evict Palestinian residents from their homes to expand Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. Moreover, since many Jews who lost assets in East Jerusalem were compensated with alternative properties in West Jerusalem at the time, they are essentially entitled to double compensation under the 1970 law.

Clearly, this represents a significant lack of parity in property rights between these two Jerusalem populations.

In recent years, Israeli settlers have sought to evict Palestinians from their homes in which they have lived since 1948. The Israeli settlers aggressively seek to re-populate not only Sheikh Jarrah, but many East Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods such as Silwan and the Old City claiming former Jewish ownership rights or through invoking the Absentee Property Law.

The Palestinian Authority expects East Jerusalem to be the capital of the future State of Palestine and that its historic Palestinian neighborhoods must be in tact within it. Israel insists that Jerusalem will never be divided again as it was between 1948 and 1967.

Tension has resulted as a consequence of the continual efforts to undermine Palestinian rights to Jerusalem and displace them from their homes and city as a means to essentially “de-Palestinize” Jerusalem.

Israeli  peace advocates who support the Palestinian right to East Jerusalem as the capital of a future State of Palestine alongside Israel argue that it is a violation of human rights to evict Palestinian families from homes in which they have lived for decades based on inherently discriminatory Israeli legislation. The Israeli legal system affords Jews the right to claim ownership of homes from which they fled in East Jerusalem while denying Palestinians the same rights to homes they fled in West Jerusalem in 1948.

These cases have been tied up in Israeli courts for years.

In May of this year, demonstrations against the impending evictions in Sheikh Jarrah were met with disproportionate police force, resulting in violent altercations in the neighborhood, on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, and across East Jerusalem, which spread to mixed cities in Israel.

On May 10, Hamas took advantage of the tumult in Jerusalem and began shooting indiscriminately what ended up being 4600 rockets from Gaza into uncontested Israeli territory at Israeli civilian towns and villages. The Iron Dome defense system stopped many of these rockets from killing Jews. Israel responded by bombing Hamas military silos and sites in Gaza resulting in more death and destruction until a cease-fire was arranged on May 21.

Meanwhile, an Israeli court battle was being fought by Arab residents of Sheikh Jarrah in light of pending court-sanctioned eviction orders. The Israeli government has always treated this matter as a real estate conflict. But, in truth Sheikh Jarrah has become a battleground between state-backed Israeli Jewish settlers and East Jerusalem Palestinians and peace activists over the ethnic and national demography of Jerusalem itself and the political future of the city. The case has not yet been settled, though the Israeli High court has proposed a compromise whereby the Palestinians families of Sheikh Jarrah would be granted protected tenancy provided that they pay rent to alleged Israeli owners of the property. In addition, they cannot be removed from their homes for at least 15 years in the case of urban renewal plans and likewise retain their right to prove their claims of ownership within a future settlement of title procedure.

Yes – it’s all very confusing and troubling, which is why I urge you to listen to a recording made of a webinar that was organized and hosted by J Street featuring Suma Qawasmi, a young Sheikh Jarrah native and the Senior Program manager at Kids4Peace International, and Amy Cohen, Director of International Relations and Advocacy for Ir Amim, an Israeli non-profit organization  which  is focused on safeguarding the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians to live in Jerusalem and fostering conditions for an agreed resolution to the conflict. Both young women spoke from their homes in Jerusalem about the current state of affairs in Sheikh Jarrah, and they offered added clarity and insight into this conflict.

I am grateful to Amy Cohen for providing me many details about this conflict.

Also see:

file:///C:/Users/Rjohn/AppData/Local/Temp/Dr.%20Oppenheimer%20Ir%20Amim%20UNSC%20Briefing%20Note.pdf

file:///C:/Users/Rjohn/AppData/Local/Temp/Forced%20Evictions%20as%20a%20Lever%20of%20Mass%20Palestinian%20Displacement%20Brief.pdf

Click onto the following link, enter the pass-code, and you can watch and listen to the discussion.

Recording: Sheikh Jarrah — understanding its importance to the communal conversation – Type in the Passcode: EVjZ7cV!

Also posted at The Times of Israelhttps://blogs.timesofisrael.com/sheikh-jarrah-explained/


48 Years Ago today – October 6, 1973

I arose early on that Yom Kippur morning, dressed, grabbed my tallit, and walked from my student dorm in Rehavia near the President’s House to the Kotel (the Western Wall) in Jerusalem. As I approached the Jaffa Gate at about 6:30 am, suddenly, disturbing the quiet of Jerusalem on the holiest day of the year, 3 American-made phantom jets flew south over the Old City. I was stunned and wondered what this was about. I would learn a few minutes before 2 pm that afternoon as the sirens blared throughout the country that Israel was at war. Every able-bodied Israeli soldier was called to the two fronts in Sinai and the Golan Heights. The BBC reported that 1300 Syrian tanks had crossed the border and Egyptian forces had crossed the Bar Lev line in the Sinai.

2,656 Israelis lost their lives and 11,656 were injured in defense of the State of Israel on that day and during the ensuing three weeks. Though Israel won the war on the battlefield, the Yom Kippur War was a disaster and turning point for the Jewish State. It was unclear as the war progressed to Israel’s top political and military leadership whether the Jewish State would survive.

48 years ago seems as yesterday for me. At the time, we in Israel had no idea what was going on. We would learn much after the fact, and today an article appeared in Haaretz that explains even more about what PM Golda Meir and her closest colleagues were thinking in real time based on recently released records. You can read about it here.

Zichronam livracha – May the memory of all who died be remembered for a blessing.

“Last Best Hope – America in Crisis and Renewal” – Book Recommendation

As I reflect back on my teen years in the 1960s, I struggled mightily then to make sense of what it meant to be an American in light of the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK, the civil rights movement, the rise of Black power and identity politics, Vietnam and the draft, college demonstrations, the drug culture and free sex, the ’68 Chicago Democratic National Convention, Nixon’s election, and McGovern’s electoral disaster, the deep divisions between the ethos of the GI generation and us Boomers, and between the political left and right. Those were hard times. Today, it feels no different. I’ll spare you the list of events over the last two decades. You’ve lived them as have I.

A recently published book by The Atlantic journalist George Packer called Last Best Hope – America in Crisis and Renewal asks how we got where we are today and how we can get out of it. He begins by characterizing four American narratives that increasingly have divided and alienated Americans one from another: “Free America,” “Smart America,” “Real America,” and “Just America.” He posits the view (citing Walt Whitman, Alexis De Tocqueville, and Bayard Rustin) that we have to reclaim “Equal America” as the guiding idea of our national identity – moral equality, civic equality, and equality of opportunity.

“Free America…draws on libertarian ideals, which it installs in the high-powered engine of consumer capitalism” with an attitude of “don’t tread on me.”

“Smart America …welcomes novelty and relishes diversity. They believe that the transnational flow of human beings, information, goods, and capital ultimately benefits most if not all people around the world….Smart America values a meritocracy, credentials and expertise, and is cosmopolitan.”

“Real America…is the authentic heart of democracy and beats hardest in common people who work with their hands.”

“Just America…sees a straight line that runs from slavery and segregation to the second-class life so many Black Americans live today – the betrayal of equality that has always been the country’s great moral shame, the dark heart of its social problems.”

All four narratives, Packer explains, “are driven by a competition for status – the consequence of this broken promise [of equality] – that generates fierce anxiety and resentment…. In Free America the winners are the makers, and the losers are the takers who want to drag the rest down in perpetual dependency on a smothering government. In Smart America the winners are the credentialed meritocrats, and the losers and the poorly educated who want to resist inevitable progress. In Real America the winners are the hardworking folk of the white Christian heartland, and the losers are the treacherous elites and contaminating others who want to destroy the country. In Just America the winners are the marginalized groups, and the losers are the dominant groups that wanted to go on dominating.” (p. 139)

Packer describes well the multiple crises facing America today. He presents the four narratives, explains how each developed and the cross-over effects of one or more, and critiques them all thereby laying the groundwork for his prescription for “Equal America.”

I found the 210-page book enlightening – at times uplifting – and I recommend it. For a thoughtful and critical review, read William Galston of the Brookings Institution in The Washington Post – “The Search for balance among four Americas” (June 11, 2021).

 

The Art and Necessity of Compromise NOW

Should the Democrats in Congress fail to pass both the $1 trillion infrastructure bill and some facsimile of the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, it will be a disaster not only for the Biden Presidency but for the nation and our democratic traditions. Yes, the reconciliation bill is large, but those who crafted the bill indicate that it is fully paid for through tax increases on large corporations and the wealthiest Americans who have not paid their fair share. The benefits that the reconciliation bill could bring are substantial to middle-class Americans in the areas of health care, early childhood education, college tuition, and more, and for everyone in fighting climate change.

For us American citizens sitting in the bleachers watching hour by hour Congressional Democrats making their sausage, their struggle to get an agreement is not only frustrating but disheartening because the consequences of their failure to get a deal are huge. Though there’s no guarantee that Democrats will retain majorities in the House and Senate in the 2022 elections if both bills pass, it is guaranteed that they will lose one or both houses if they fail. The Trump Republicans are counting on it and if Dems lose the House, the majority Trumpites will get nothing positive done. They’ll initiate all kinds of stupid investigations and take stupid votes such as impeaching Biden just because they can.

Personally, I want to see the $3.5 trillion package pass in tact. Realistically, that isn’t going to happen. So, now is the time for Democrats to swallow hard and do what they must – compromise. The $1.1 trillion infrastructure bill has already cleared the Senate with bi-partisan support, and House progressive members say they’ll pass it too as long as the second bill accompanies the first.

Taking a step back, it’s best we remember that the Democrats (progressives and moderates) are not the villains here. There are NO Republicans expected to vote for the second large bill. Yet, one or the other (progressives or moderates) can become villains if in the end they insist on their way or the highway. Allowing this huge legislative effort to fail based on “principle” means that in 2022 Trump Republicans will win one or both Houses of Congress setting up a potential return of Trump into the Oval in 2024.

Compromise is now what is required. Any fair compromise means that each side walks away both happy and unhappy. The great legislators in our era, such as Senator Ted Kennedy and Congressman Henry Waxman, approached their work driven always by principled vision on the one hand and pragmatic realism on the other. Henry once said to me in the middle of the Obamacare debate that it was important to remember not to “let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Both Kennedy and Waxman, at the end of every legislative battle, were content to accept as much as they could and then, in subsequent years, seek improvement on what they had already accomplished. Their records of legislative success over decades are second to none. Their pragmatic realism is what Democrats need now.

Thankfully, Speaker Pelosi and Leader Schumer are masters of the House and Senate. Consequently, I still have hope that they will succeed (today?) in shepherding these bills forward to the President’s desk for signature.

Here are two apt quotes on the importance of compromise from two Jews who lived nearly 2000 years apart:

“It is meritorious to compromise.” -Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha, Talmud, Sanhedrin 6b

“The opposite of compromise is not pride or integrity or idealism. The opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death.” -Amos Oz, Dear Zealots – Letters from a Divided Land (New York: Mariner Books, 2019)

“The 600 Pound Elephant” – Anonymous

I am bound not to quote anyone who writes on a restricted rabbinic list serve on which 2300 Reform rabbis internationally discuss matters large and small, religious and mundane, lofty and pragmatic. However, a recent posting elicited a great deal of response about which I want to say a few words while, at the same time, holding to the confidentiality agreement.

One colleague asked what we all thought she ought to say and do concerning her adult son-in-law who is anti-vaccine and an 8th grade teacher where the local hospitals’ ICUs have been overwhelmed by people fighting for their lives against Covid. (I changed a few of the details to protect this colleague’s identity).

Some of my colleagues argued from philosophy; others from the position of parenting adult children and their partners; and others from the position of autonomy (a high value in liberal Judaism) and social responsibility (a high value in Judaism generally).

The old story of the acceptability of a man drilling a hole under his seat in a boat thus allowing water to enter the craft and eventually sink it and then defending his action because the hole is under his seat and no one else’s is obviously appropriate to this conversation and to the many mandates for vaccination of federal and some state workers, those in large companies, many school districts, religious houses of worship, and in Israel’s Haredi and Arab communities.

One colleague put it right when he responded to another colleague who called this conversation “complicated.”

“It is not at all ‘complicated’ in any ethical system I know of” she wrote. “Society has the right to limit the freedom of its members to protect the public. Sometimes it may be difficult to determine where to grant license and where to apply limits to personal conduct, but not on the question of the value of human life.”

The problem in America today regarding vaccines and masks has nothing to do, ultimately, with autonomy and personal freedom, and everything to do with POLITICS (ala Trump and his sycophants) that are distorting morality and social responsibility and threatening people’s lives. It’s an entire other issue in Israel’s Haredi and Arab communities. But, in all of them, we are each other’s keepers and those government, business, educational, and religious leaders who require proof of vaccine for entry and participation in employment and social spaces are our best guarantors of freedom and life because everyone who dies or is disabled from this pandemic because of rigidity, ignorance, or refusal to get the vaccination risks losing everything.

Also posted at the Times of Israel – https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-600-pound-elephant-anonymous/

At the Window of Yearning – A Frightening Threat

Since the 1967 Six-Day War when Israel conquered all of Jerusalem from Jordan including the Old City, then General Moshe Dayan made an agreement with Jerusalem’s Muslim authority (The Waqf) on behalf of the State of Israel that no Jewish prayer services would be allowed on the Temple Mount.

The Temple Mount is the holiest site in all of Judaism. The 37-acre platform built by King Herod on which he reconstructed the 2nd Jerusalem Temple in the first century BCE now houses the Islamic Dome of the Rock, a magnificent Byzantine structure (built in 691–92 CE) over the site that legend teaches Mohamed rose to heaven. Only meters away is the Al Aqsa Mosque (i.e. “The Southernmost Mosque”), the third holiest Islamic shrine after Mecca and Medina.

Israeli authorities understood in 1967 that for Israel to allow Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount could spark an international conflagration with the Muslim world of nearly two billion faithful. The rabbis of yore argued from a religious perspective that it was sacrilegious for any Jew to set foot on the platform out of the fear of stepping onto what was once the Holy of Holies, the Inner Sanctum of the Ancient Temple, a space forbidden to every Jew except the Jewish High Priest on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.

The agreement between Israel and the Waqf has held since 1967, but the arrangement has given way recently to something entirely new and potentially very dangerous, so reports Anshel Pfeffer of Haaretz in his piece In Jerusalem’s Holiest Site, These Modern Pilgrims Are Playing With Fire (September 14, 2021).

I was stunned by what Pfeffer revealed, and I worry that, as his article’s title warns, these Jewish religious pilgrims are indeed playing with fire. Though the Waqf seems to know that Jews are praying on this Muslim (and Jewish) sacred site and is saying nothing about it (so far), the more it becomes known that Jewish prayer is taking place there the greater will be the risk that more and more Jews will flock to join in thus stoking more Muslim-Jewish violence in an already highly fraught chaotic political cauldron between Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians in the city of Jerusalem.

“For the sake of peace” (a high Jewish virtue – mipnei darchei shalom), Jewish prayer there should cease immediately and the Israeli-Waqf agreement be reaffirmed. That said, something unique in the Jewish world is actually happening in a quiet section of the large platform that should be repeated in more traditional sites, such as at the Western Wall, in Israel generally, and around the Jewish world.

Individual prayer is taking place there that includes a wide variety of Jews, religious and non-Orthodox, men and women. They pray respectfully alongside each other without apparent judgement of one another. They do not hold prayer books, or carry Torah scrolls, or offer divrei Torah. They pray using apps on their cell phones twice a day (morning and afternoon), don’t shuckle in their davening, and keep their voices to a whisper so as not to attract undue attention.

Borrowing some of their language cited by Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz (link below), I offer a poetic reflection that I hope evokes the spirit and consequences of what these Jews are doing upon the ruins of the ancient Beit Ha-Mikdash and contemporary “Noble Sanctuary.”

“At the window of yearning / Standing quietly / A smattering of Jews visit God / Speaking blessings in muted tones / Reading from their cell phones sans prayer books / Touching sanctity devoid of religious judgement / Against other religious streams / Risking massive inter-religious conflagration / Where once a massive building stood / A sacred palace of peace.”

Seems innocent enough when considered out of context, and the motives of these Jews may be quite pure. But the consequences of their continuing to pray on this hotly contested symbolically loaded piece of earth are frightening.

See Anshel Pfeffer’s article – https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium.HIGHLIGHT.MAGAZINE-in-jerusalem-s-holiest-site-these-modern-pilgrims-are-playing-with-fire-1.10209633

The blog was also published at the Times of Israel – https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/at-the-window-of-yearning-a-frightening-threat/

Ida Nudel – Heroine of the Soviet Jewry Movement dies at 90

I did not know Ida Nudel personally, but I got my start as a Jewish activist in 1970 through the Bay Area Council on Soviet Jewry (San Francisco) that was among the first organizations in American Jewish life fighting on behalf of the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel (or America). As a 20 year-old, the names of Natan (nee Anatoly) Sharansky and Ida Nudel were the inspiration of our activism in America. I was privileged to meet Sharansky a number of times, but never Nudel – but I knew her story and am quite certain that she will go down in Jewish history as one of our most courageous and storied leaders.

Zichrona livracha – May her memory be a blessing.

timesofisrael.comFormer refusenik and Soviet Jewish activist Ida Nudel dies at 90Known as ‘Guardian Angel’ for humanitarian work on behalf of Zionist prisoners held in Soviet Union, Nudel moved to Israel after receiving the exit visa she spent years pursuing