Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Rebbe: A Great Leader

Book Review
Title: The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson
Authors: Samuel Heilman & Menachem Friedman
Princeton University Press
Publication Date:
by Perry J Greenbaum

Menachem Mendel Schneerson [1902-1994]: The Rebbe. "Tracht gutt, vet zein gutt", a Yiddish expression that translates as "Think good, and it will be good," which sums up the thinking and trust of many Hasidic Jews.
Photo Credit
: © Perry J Greenbaum, 2012

Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the seventh and last leader of Chabad-Lubavitch, a branch of Hasidic Judaism that follows the mystical teachings of Bal Shem Tov ("Master of the Good Name"), dating to the early 18th century. For some within the boundaries of Chabad's World headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn's Crown Heights district of New York City, the Rebbe, as he was called by his followers, was the long-awaited Messiah ("Moshiach") who would bring the long-awaited redemption and peace to a fractured world. It is understandable why this sentiment is so strong.

There have been a number of books and articles written about Menachem Mendel Schneerson, this being the latest offering on a figure in Judaism that helped to a great degree revive the Jewish world with the vitality that it was sorely lacking. Whether or not you agree with the philosophy and ways of Chabad, you cannot ignore what they have done in the last fifty years under the wise guidance of its last Rebbe.

The book, The Rebbe, does an excellent job of stripping away the hagiography that is common with many great religious leaders, and presents a human face to those interested in such matters. In many ways, the history of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, from his birth in 1902 to his death in 1994, traces the rise of Chabad Judaism and its transformation from an obscure sect to an organization recognizable to both Jew and non-Jew. Some will object to the well-researched book's chief premises: to wit, Menachem Mendel Schneerson was not groomed to become the leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, but when called upon to take on the mantle of leadership at a difficult period, did so with such vigor and intelligence that he transformed Chabad into the modern Hasidic movement that you see today.

Truly, all credit goes to the Rebbe for this, and the authors make that abundantly clear in this 343-page work. The authors, Samuel Heilman & Menachem Friedman, both academic sociologists, the latter at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and the former at City University of New York, are accomplished scholars, which is clearly evident in the final narrative. For the most part, they set about their task as biographers in an impassioned academic style; in a few occasions, however, they stray and allow their emotions to enter the discussion. This is both understandable and human.

One of the criticisms made in Chabad-Lubavitch circles is that Heilman & Friedman failed to draw from Schneerson's voluminous correspondence and and other religious writings and primary sources. This is a valid criticism. Their response was that they wanted to show the human dimension, in essence Menachem Mendel Schneerson the man, and not so much the religious figure or leader. To their credit, Heilman and Friedman do an excellent job of filling in the gaps of a life that was filled with much movement in its early years.

The constant traveling is in stark contrast to Schneerson's arrival in New York City, where he left his Crown Heights headquarters, called "770," only twice during his tenure as Rebbe, once to briefly visit a camp, Gan Israel in 1956, which he had established in upstate New York. Menachem Mendel Schneerson never visited the State of Israel; the reasons are intimated in the book, but we cannot know for sure his reasons for not traveling to Eretz Yisrael. There are also interesting facts, such as his long four-year courtship before marriage, atypical in Hasidic circles, but perhaps lending credence to his indecision on whether he wanted to lead a life in the Hasidic court of the sixth Lubavitch Rebbe. His reluctance, it seems, centers on his early career aspiration: to become an engineer. Such is intimated by the book's authors on why he delayed marriage:
It is entirely unclear, however, whether becoming his father-in-law's successor was in the young man's plans (75).
The authors add the following, suggesting that he had his feet in both worlds, the secular and the holy:
He was not ready to give up his pursuit of a secular education, even at a time of intensified Lubavitch involvement (94)
True, one could argue that such is entirely speculation, but it is speculation based on good scholarship and the marshaling of facts that present a consistent and cogent argument. Many a young man has particular career aspirations, only to be thwarted by circumstances, including world events, only to find another place to thrive and perform. That makes the early years all the more interesting, since it gives hints to the personality and forming instincts of Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Early Life in Ukraine & Russia

Menachem Mendel Schneerson's was born to Levi Yitzhak Schneerson and Chana Schneerson (née Yanofsky) on April 18, 1902 (11 Nisan 5662) in Nikolayev, an Ukrainian port city on the Black Sea. He was the eldest of three sons born to the couple, who were married on June 18, 1900. Dov Ber ("Bereke') was born a year later, and the youngest, Yisrael Aryeh Leib in 1909.

The family moved to Yekaterinoslav, a cosmopolitan city on the Dnieper River in 1907, where Levi Yitzhak took on a position as a Chabad rabbi; Menachem was aged five. His early interest in science and mathematics, an interest that would be used later on in his role as a leader, are depicted here in a recollection by one of their cousins from the Shlonsky family who lived next door to the Schneersons:
Vardina, his sister recalled her older cousin Mendel, or Mekka, as she called him, as being intellectually curious, finding everything of interest—decorating his room, for example with astronomical maps. Indeed, according to the Shlonskys' recollections, neither of the Schneerson's boys lived a life translated from the political, ideological and social currents that swept up their Jewish neighborhoods in Yekaterinoslav (71).
One of these was, of course, the strong currents of Bolshevism; the other, more particular to the Jews, was Zionism in its various forms. Particularly curious is the fact that "Levi Yitzchak did not 'permit' his son Mendel to go yeshivah in Lubavitch" (72). There is no record of Mendel of ever having attended any Lubavitch institution of learning, which is a point worth noting. The authors posit that the father wanted his two sons to gain a general education (DovBer suffered from mental illness and was sent to an institution.). They attained this by hiring a tutor, Israel Eidelsohn, five years older than Mendel and a confirmed socialist and Zionist, who would later emigrate to Palestine (1926), change his name to Israel Bar-Yehuda and become an important member of the Labor government.
At the time Eidelsohn became the Schneerson's tutor, he was already a leader of a Zionist youth organization and a student at the university at Yekaterinoslav and worked part time in the office of the Jewish secondary school (gymnasium). He taught the boys mathematics, Russian and other languages and mapped out a program of study equivalent to what would have been covered in a gymnasium, Mendel was apparently gifted both in translation and in mathematics. (72)
His interest in science and mathematics increased during his adolescence, and he served as an apprentice to an engineer for two years before deciding to attend Jewish Polytechnic Institute in 1923. When it fell under the control of the Communists, it became part of Yekaterinoslav University. "He remained there during 1924, after Lenin's death in January, and in 1925, while Stalin and Trotsky, whom his brother Leibel supported, were engaged in a power struggle for control of the nascent Soviet Union" (74).

Mendel wanted to continue his studies and could not be distracted by politics. He moved to Leningrad, Russia (St Petersburg) in 1926 at age 24, where Mendel lived at the court of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, who was also his cousin. It was also here he has met his future wife, Chaya Moussia, known as Chaya Mushka.

Marriage and Studies in Germany & France 

The next fifteen years would be a life of constant movement, crossing borders, learning languages, adapting to new cultures, exploring ideas while developing a more modern sense of a Hasidic Jewish identity. He would leave the USSR and the familiar surroundings of his parents to first study at Berlin in December 1927, and then marry Chaya Moussia, one year his junior, on November 27, 1928, in Warsaw, Poland.
Soon after the wedding, MM and his wife moved to Berlin where they both studied: he at Friedrich Wilhelm University while Moussia studied German language and culture at the Institute for Foreigners. Her father supported the family financially, but not morally. (118)
A few years later, the young couple were on the move again. In March 1933, he attended the École Spéciale des Travaux Publics, du Bâtiment et de L'industrie (ESTP), a Grandes écoles in the Montparnasse district of  Paris. For two years, he was an auditing student, a preparatory step before being granted admission to the engineering school. It was a demanding difficult period in many ways, marked by 40-hour work and study weeks and mandatory attendance at all classes and labs. It was made all the more difficult that Mendel had to balance school life with life as a Hasidic Jew and the requirements of such.

Yet, he persevered and was accepted into advanced degree-granting program in the fall of 1935. For the next few years, he had to again balance engineering studies with the demands of his religious duties. "At last, on March 25, 1938, Mendel Schneerson, who was now thirty-six years old, received his diploma. He was finally an engineer with a degree" (121). But war in Europe would change all future plans for many, including Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Life In America

With the situation becoming more perilous for Jews in German-occupied France, the couple had to move. They were fortunate to get to America, by way of Lisbon, Portugal, on the Serpa-Pinta, arriving on the ship in New York City on June 23, 1941, where they joined Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitch Rebbe, who had arrived in March 1940. What happens next shows not only some biases on the part of the book's authors, but a poor understanding of military work and the war effort. In effect, although the authors report it, they cast doubts if Menachem Mendel Schneerson would have been given classified military work.

Yet, an article in The New York Times says the opposite: "In 1942, a young rabbi and electrical engineer named Menachem Mendel Schneerson settled in, having fled the war in Europe and spent a year doing classified military work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard." One of the programs that he was working on was for the battleship Missouri (USS Missouri), famous for being the one on which General Douglas MacArthur accepted the surrender of the Japanese in Tokyo Bay at the end of the Second World War.

Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn died on January 28, 1950 (Shevat 10, 1950 in the Jewish calendar), after leading the Hasidic sect for 30 years. He was 69. During the next year, a reluctant Schneerson was convinced that he was indeed the right man to lead; the other contender was his brother-in-law, Rabbi Shemaryahu Gurary, who was married to Chana, another daughter of Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn.

In January1951 (on the 10th of Shevat in the Jewish calendar), exactly a year after the death of his father-in-law, Menachem Mendel Schneerson assumed the mantle of leadership, becoming the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe, at age 48. He forever changed the way Chabad did things. He had many things to consider, including revitalizing an Hasidic sect in a foreign nation, America, which many European religious Jews considered irreligious. The war ravaged the number of Jews, including religious Jews. Few Jewish families were exempted from its savage maw, including Schneerson, who lost a mentally ill brother, Dov Ber, to Nazi soldiers in the Soviet Union in 1941.

But life continues, such is the Jewish way. If he was not going to work as an engineer, he would use his high intellect, keen insights and moral vision to lead the Chabad sect into the modern era, and do so in a way that would make it a magnet for unaffiliated and dissatisfied Jews. One of the key changes was increase the number of emissary couples (shluchim) that he sent all over the world, whose purpose was to be warm lights and whose aim was to increase the knowledge and awareness of Judaism.

If any one achievement stands out among the many, it was the Rebbe's ability to transform Chabad from one of a number of Hasidic sects to the most well-known Hasidic, if not Jewish, organization worldwide. He did this by changing one key message. Soon after becoming its leader, six years after the dark clouds of the Holocaust ("Shoah") still hovered over the Jewish People, he integrated the positive and promising message of modern America into his talks and writings:
He made clear that redemption did not require any further death and suffering as a prerequisite, no more birth pangs or martyrdom. His was not a messianism of pain and catastrophe.  His was a messianism of promise. He stressed the ability of the converted sinner to change the cosmic balance and bring about the redemption, a Messiah whose footsteps (ikveso dimeshikho) could now be seen. (146)
It was in some ways like a mathematical equation. The more good deeds one does (i.e. mitzvot), the greater the possibility of bringing about the Messiah, or Moshiach, as he is called in Yiddish, thus ushering in an age of peace and justice. Instead of patiently waiting for that big event to happen, the Rebbe taught his followers that it was left, to a large degree, in the hands of humans to achieve. Truly, you can't find fault in the Lubavitch followers of their Rebbe for wanting, even demanding, justice and peace in the world, and to desire a messianic age of redemption. That desire is steeped in Judaism and in humanity's need for a better world.

Chabad's campaigns to bring about a change in the world became well-known, including encouraging Jewish men to don tephillin in public, Jewish women to light Shabbat candles and Jewish families to affix at least one mezzuzah on their front entrances—all outward signs of Jewish affiliation but, more important, symbolic acts infused with centuries of Jewish spirituality.

Such campaigns continued unabated for decades, each decade bringing greater hope of the imminent arrival of the Moshiach. The first shock-wave for the Lubavitcher followers of their Rebbe was the death of Chaya Mushka, lovingly called the Rebbetzin, on February 10, 1988 (22 Shevat). She was 86. The marriage, which lasted 60 years, produced no children. Her death was not only a great loss of her presence, a kind and generous individual and close and deicated confidante of her husband, but a reminder of her morality, "and that not even their revered rebbe could prevent her passing" (223).

Yet, the Rebbe was a human, and one could rightly argue a great human who achieved great things for the Jewish People. But he was not more than that. In many ways, he was pushed into the role of a messianic figure, becoming a reluctant messiah. This became all the more apparent after his debilitating stroke a month before his 90th birthday, on March 2, 1992. After Chaya Mushka's death, he spent more and more time at his father-in-law's burial site, known as The Ohel ("tent"), at Montefiore Cemetery in Queens.:
The Rebbe had collapsed. The Oracle of Brooklyn, whose followers thought he was the Messiah, was immobilized and silent. He had suffered a stroke, and the damage was substantial. (237)
It is true that the Rebbe never again made another speech. He would spend the remainder at his days at his beloved 770, near his Hasidim,  helpless in a bed, in a room surrounded by all the machinery of modern medicine. As many others have pointed out, including the book's authors, the Rebbe's health made it an even greater urgency that Menachem Mendel Schneerson reveal himself as the long-awaited Messiah.

During the next two years, his followers tried to make sense of what befell their Rebbe. Positions were taken, including affirmation to work harder and do an even greater number of mitzvot. Yet, his condition deteriorated, against their better desires and wishes and petitions to Heaven. On March 8, 1994, their Rebbe suffered a series of seizures and was hospitalized. On Sunday morning at 1:50 am on June 12, 1994 (Gimmel Tammuz 5754 in the Jewish calendar), Menachem Mendel Schneerson died. He was 92.

Camp Gan Israel in the Laurentians: The boys and their counselors gather in front of "770" for a memorial service called Gimmel Tammuz, which, as the Chabad-Lubavitch website puts it, is: "The anniversary of passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of righteous memory (b. 1902), who passed away in the early morning hours of the 3rd of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, of the year 5754 from creation (1994)."
Photo Credit: Perry J Greenbaum, 2011

The AfterLife

Many Chabadniks refused to believe that their beloved Rebbe was dead. Factions were formed between those that didn't and those that did (in effect, messianists and non-messianists). The messianists say that he is hidden, and don't refer to his death but to his histalkes, or leave-taking. In other words, this was a planned event and Menachem Mendel Schneerson will return someday.

Today, almost 18 years later, we have a whole generation of young Lubavitchers who have never met the Rebbe. Yet, his message lives on, chiefly with the efforts of the older generation.
These Hasidim also kept the Rebbe alive by continuously plumbing and internalizing the messages that were in the copious literature built up of texts their rebbe had left them. they paid particular attention to ensuring that the young studied and assimilated these words. (23)
Another way that the Rebbe is kept alive, or at least his digital presence is, is in large part due to technology that Chabad-Lubavitch enthusiastically embraces and uses. This became evident, at least for the book's authors, at the annual Chabad kinus, or conference:
There is yet another way that Lubavitchers revive the missing Rebbe, and it was manifested at the 2006 kinus. A wall of video screens surrounded the vast hall at Pier 94 in Manhattan where the gathering was being held. The ubiquitous of videos of the Rebbe made his voice and words very much part of the day. On them, past and present merged seamlessly in a kind of visual metaphor of precisely what was critical for continuity. (24)
On a personal note, I am not a follower of Chabad-Lubavitch nor of Hasidim in general. But I am familiar with their ways and a good number of their teachings (see here). Our family often attends a Chabad synagogue (shul) near our house for Sabbath observances and for holidays and festivals.  As in any group, there are things one can accept and things one cannot, greatly conditioned by upbringing and personal tastes. I can't accept their limited understanding and acceptance of modern science, arts and literature, and their general rejection of modern ideas and influences.

Their political and social views are often in contrast to mine, marked by the chief idea that humans play a more integral and responsible role in shaping human affairs. In Chabad, as with all Hasidic Jews, God plays the central role in human affairs, and all results, whether good or bad, are in accordance with God's true and just will. Such is not always humanly easy to accept, and it can lead to careless and heartless behavior.

Yet, not in the case of Chabad. As a group they are a welcoming people who don't quickly form judgments. I admire their zeal and devotion to a higher ideal. I can also admire what they have accomplished under the leadership of their last Rebbe and continue to do today in his memory, which is not inconsequential. He left a legacy and a wonderful example to follow. His death is sad, no doubt, and the world lost a great leader.

But to make him more than that would add nothing to his legacy, and might prevent the Lubavitch moment from progressing forward. He was, in many regards, a reluctant messiah, hesitant at first to take on the mantle of leadership. In that regard, Menachem Mendel Schneerson is in exceptional company, joining no less a figure than Moses, who despite his initial hesitancy became the greatest leader of the Jewish People.

In modern times, the Rebbe might be the greatest, if you measure greatness by accomplishments in bettering humanity and raising the moral level of individuals. In Judaism, a few persons reach the standard of a tzaddik, a righteous leader. In that regard, I am reminded of the words of Martin Buber, the known Jewish philosopher, in his wonderful work, The Legend of Baal-Shem (1955):
But he who is content to serve in solitude is not a true Zaddik. Man's bond with God is proven and fulfilled in the human world. The Zaddik gives himself to his disciples (several of whom he usually takes into his household) in transmitting to them the Teachings. He gives himself to his congregation in communal prayer and instruction and as a guide to their lives. Finally, he gives himself as comforter, adviser and mediator to the many who come "travelling" to him from far and wide, partly in order to dwell for a few days—especially on the high Holidays—in his proxmity, "in the shade of his holiness," partly in order to obtain his help for the needs of their bodies and souls. (222)
Menachem Mendel Schneerson embodied such qualities, without a doubt, to his followers, and even to those who were not part of his court at 770 in Crown Heights. But there's more. He was a man who undertook the rigors of engineering and scientific studies, his mind sharpened by this as much as by studies in Talmudic and Hasidic texts. Of course, no one doubts that his greatness was not as a scientist or engineer, but as a Jewish leader. He was the right leader for the right time. He brought a sense of righteousness and justice to the world, a high sense of morality and a hope that life would get better. If there is one thing the book, The Rebbe, brought out was that Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was a man of progress who stretched the boundaries of Hasidic Judaism for the good and betterment of all humanity.

For that alone, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Rebbe, will always be remembered. Kol hakavod.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Vladimir Horowitz: Schubert's Impromptus

Vladimir Horowitz plays Franz Schubert's Impromptus in B-flat major, opus 142 no. 3 (D.935) at the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory at the well-known Moscow recital  of  April 20, 1986. The recital, the return of Horowitz to Russia after a 60-year absence, has become so legendary and so much analysed that further analysis on my part would add nothing. All I can say is a personal note. I marvel at the 82-year-old Horowitz's dexterity and technical ability on the keyboard, which never ceases to give me enjoyment.


Monday, February 27, 2012

Jewish Humor: Life is Life

Monday Humor

Here are this week's Jewish jokes, each on a slice of life.


A Brit, a Frenchman and a Russian are viewing a painting of Adam and Eve frolicking in the Garden of Eden.

"Look at their reserve, their calm," muses the Brit. "They must be British."

"Nonsense," the Frenchman disagrees. "They're naked, and so beautiful. Clearly, they are French."

"No clothes, no shelter," the Russian points out, "they have only an apple to eat, and they're being told this is paradise. They are Russian Jews."

A young boy had just gotten his driving permit. He asked his father, who was a rabbi, if they could discuss the use of the car. His father took him to his study and said to him, "I'll make a deal with you. You bring your grades up, study the Torah more, get your hair cut and we'll talk about it."

After about a month, the boy came back and again asked his father if they could discuss the use of the car. They again went to the father's study where his father said, "Son, I've been very proud of you. You have brought your grades up, you've studied the Torah diligently, but you didn't get your hair cut!"

The young man waited a moment and replied, "You know, Dad, I've been thinking about that. You know, Samson had long hair, Abraham had long hair, Noah had long hair, and even Moses had long hair...." 
To which the Rabbi replied, "Yes, and they WALKED everywhere they went!"

A Jewish mother is worrying day in and day out about her poor son, far away in college: "Oy veh will he ever find a nice girl,... will he have enough to eat,...will he be cold at night?" While worrying she decides to at least buy and send him two warm flannel shirts. 
A couple of months later he travels back to New York to see his mother. After many hours in a bus he arrives erev Shabat at her door and thinks, "Wait, maybe I should wear one of the shirts she sent me! Surely this will make her happy!" He puts on the shirt, rings the door bell and his mother opens the door. "Jankel!" 
"Mammele!" "Jankel, I am sooooo happy to see you! And you even wear one of the shirts I sent you! But tell me one thing: You didn't like the other shirt?!?!"

Justice's Virtue: A Fair Deal For All

Politics, Protest & Society

There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. 
Elie Wiesel
Peaceful protest is a legitimate expression of dissatisfaction with the status quo, and one of the most fundamental and powerful signals to the political elites of injustice in a well-working and functioning democracy. If you dismiss the harsh rhetoric, common in some cases, you will note that one of the things coming out of the protests around the world is the universal idea of fairness, of some form of injustice.

Although many of the young persons involved might not be able to articulate where this idea of fairness emanates from, it is an ideal that is rooted in the religious and philosophical traditions of humanity. Justice, for example, is one of the four virtues of classical European philosophy and of the Catholic Church. Tzedakah is a fundamental belief in Judaism, it the melding of charity and justice. In its simplest form a just decision is one that takes the concerns of all the parties involved in a decision. It involves balancing self-interest with the rights of others.

To make it plain, it's diametrically opposite to what we have been witnessing in the last 30 years with "vulture capitalism," and its winner-take-all approach. Those super-wealthy elites who benefit from such a way of life often defend their actions as legal—no one is arguing illegality here—yet, the question is whether operating in such a ruthless fashion to enrich only one party in a transaction is just. Such are the questions people are asking themselves these days in the wake of "business as usual" the last 30 years. Not only in the world's financial centres, but in the powers and corridors of government.

In democracies, you might hear politicians invoke the idea of fairness (or opportunity), but not justice. This is likely, and I am guessing here, a result of winnowing out virtue and leaving it to the judicial branch of government. While a fair and just judicial system is the hallmark of a well-functioning democracy, that does not abdicate others the responsibility of behaving in a just fashion. In truth, the virtue of justice is something that all persons can apply to their lives, in particular, the high and mighty whose decisions affect many.

The list would, of course include government officials and political figures. But there's more. Justice ought to be the responsibility of businesses. So, that would include the business executive who is considering a decision to lay off thousands of persons, ostensibly to cut costs, but more likely to increase shareholder value, and enrich themselves. Often lost in such decisions is that the persons who "lose" their jobs are deeply affected by its loss, often the only thing keeping their family from sliding into poverty and despair. A job is often the one thing that keeps people from protesting on the streets.

Such is only one example. The virtue of justice needs to be looked at and applied. Doing so would really transform society for the betterment of all, and would form a system of business and democracy differing from vulture capitalism. It's called Compassionate Capitalism. It's one example, and yet it strikes a chord, resonating with the many who have been denied a fair deal. .

Sunday, February 26, 2012

David Oistrakh: Beethoven's Spring Sonata

David Oistrakh on violin, accompanied by Lev Oborin on piano, performs from the second movement of Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major, opus 24 (the Spring Sonata), in Paris, France, on June 27, 1962.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Beatles: Lady Madonna

The Beatles perform "Lady Madonna," a song that has become as relevant today as it was in the 1968 when it was first performed. These are trying times.

The song was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London, England, during sessions on February 3 and 6, 1968, before the Beatles left for India. This single was the last release by the band on Parlophone in the United Kingdom and Capitol Records in the United States. All later albums, starting with "Hey Jude" in August 1968, were released on their own label, Apple.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Iran, Israel & The Ticking Bomb

Foreign Relations

Now that oil prices have risen worldwide, and might rise higher, Israel is being pressured from all sides to wait for sanctions to work against Iran before considering a military operation, including the possibility of an attack within the next few months. In particular, Britain, China, Russia and the United States have been making noises, in a coordinated response, that should Israel attack Iran militarily, the consequences for her, and the region in general, would be severe.

Here is what the U.S.'s top general, Martin Dempseysaid, a position obviously endorsed by his superiors in the White House:
The United States believes talk of military strikes against Iran's nuclear program is "premature" and has advised Israel that an attack would be counterproductive, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says. 
In an interview aired Sunday on CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Gen. Martin Dempsey said U.S. officials aren't convinced Iran has decided to pursue nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, economic and diplomatic sanctions are taking a toll on the Islamic republic, he said.
"On that basis, I think it would be premature to exclusively decide that the time for a military option was upon us," Dempsey said.
General Dempsey also added that Iran was a "rational actor," which leaves many people scratching their heads, wondering how he came by that conclusion. Here's what Britain's Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said, again endorsed by the prime minister's office at 10 Downing Street:
In today’s interview, Mr Hague says that the British Government has urged Israel not to strike. He said that Iran being “attacked militarily” would have “enormous downsides”. 
 “We are very clear to all concerned that we are not advocating military action,” he said. “We support a twin-track strategy of sanctions and pressure and negotiations on the other hand.”

He added: “We are not favouring the idea of anybody attacking Iran at the moment.” 
As for China, theirs is the ever-pragmatic response, with the Foreign Ministry saying:
We have consistently upheld and urged dialogue and negotiation as the only way to resolve disputes between countries, while force only escalates confrontation and instability," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at the regular news conference.
Russia's response to any impending attack, endorsed by the Kremlin, is as predictable as it is  economically expedient:
"The scenario of military action against Iran would be catastrophic for the region and possibly the whole system of international relations," Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told a news conference.

His comments came after a five-strong delegation from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) left empty-handed following two days of talks focusing on suspected military aspects of the country's nuclear programme.
The world's nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, left without any agreement and is unlikely to reach one anytime soon. What needs scrutiny is the morally untenable position of these powerful nations, and lesser middle powers as well, who collectively seem more concerned about stopping Israel than stopping Iran. It seems, as some astute commentators have noted, including Emily B. Landau of Haaretz "that the Obama administration has begun to resign itself not only to the fact that Iran will continue to enrich uranium, but also to recognition that the Islamic republic could ultimately build a nuclear bomb."

Equally important, they, the military leaders of these powerful nations, have cast doubt on the success of any military operation or surgical strike, which no one including Israel denies. The obstacles are real and many. To be sure, as military analysts have noted, it would involve flying upwards of 100 planes in a 2,000-mile round trip over hostile territory and requiring mid-air refueling of its fighter jets. All military campaigns have risk associated with it, and the outcome cannot be known in advance. Yet, the outcome of a nuclear-armed Iran can be known, argues Matthew Kroenig in an article in Foreign Affairs (Jan/Feb 2012):
But skeptics of military action fail to appreciate the true danger that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to U.S. interests in the Middle East and beyond. And their grim forecasts assume that the cure would be worse than the disease — that is, that the consequences of a U.S. assault on Iran would be as bad as or worse than those of Iran achieving its nuclear ambitions. But that is a faulty assumption. The truth is that a military strike intended to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, if managed carefully, could spare the region and the world a very real threat and dramatically improve the long-term national security of the United States. 
I hope that sanctions and political pressure will work, since military action is always the last resort of a rational and sane nation.  Although it hasn't worked yet. So the chief question remains: But, what if nothing deters the Islamic Republic of Iran, in effect a theocracy, from its nuclear ambitions and its stated plans to destroy the State of Israel?

This week, the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that Tehran's nuclear course would not change regardless of international sanctions, assassinations or other pressures.  As he put it:
With God's help, and without paying attention to propaganda, Iran's nuclear course should continue firmly and seriously ... Pressures, sanctions and assassinations will bear no fruit. No obstacles can stop Iran's nuclear work.
There is a ticking bomb in the making, and such is not a fantasy of warmongers. What happens next in this high-stakes game of international politics and diplomacy only a few people can know. What is certain, as always, is that the Jewish state might be left with little options, when facing an intractable, implacable and irrational enemy, who wants to deny the Jewish People's existence. In such situations, the Jewish People will find out whom her friends really are, as it did in the 1930s. Truly, we are living in serious historical times.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Liel Kolet: Ratziti Sheteda

Liel Kolet performs Elohim Sheli at a concert in Tel Aviv, Israel. It has a noticeable Middle Eastern sound. Liel Kolet was the young singer who sang along with President Clinton "Imagine" to celebrate Shimon Peres 80th birthday in 2003.


The song, Ratziti Sheteda (Hebrew: רציתי שתדע‎, "I wanted You To Know"), is a famous Israeli song that Uzi Hitman [1952-2004] wrote and composed in 1979. It was on Hitman's second album Noladiti lashalom ("I Was Born To Peace"), dedicated to his first-born son in hope that peace was ready to manifest itself after the Camp David Accords signed between Egypt and Israel. The song is widely known as "Elohim Sheli" or "My God." It is about a dream for peace, which remains a dream, a plaintive lament, at least for now.

Here are the original lyrics, in English translation, which differ from those of Liel Kolet. The sentiments, however, are very similar—a desire for peace in our lifetime, if not sooner.

I Wanted You To Know
by Uri Hitman

Oh my God, I want to let you know
A dream I dreamt at night in my bed:
In the dream I saw an angel,
From heaven he came to me, and said so:
I came from heaven, a long wandering,
To bring a blessing of peace to all the children,
To bring a blessing of peace to all the children

When I awoke I remembered the dream,
And went out to seek for a little bit of peace,
But there was no angel, there was no peace.
He went away long ago, and I am here with my dream.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Marilyn Horne: Copland’s ‘Simple Gifts’ (1991)

Simple Gifts: Marilyn Horne, the  American mezzo-soprano, sings “Simple Gifts” from an arrangement by Aaron Copland, at Carnegie Hall in New York City, during its centennial celebration in 1991. James Levine conducts the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Simple Gifts is a Shaker song that Joseph Brackett [1797-1882] composed in 1848. It was relatively unknow outside the Shaker community until Aaron Copeland used the song and arranged it for Martha Graham's ballet "Appalachian Spring" in 1944.

The Shakers are a sect of Christianity, coming out of 18th century England. “Shakerism was founded by an illiterate English factory worker named Ann Lee. Guided by divine visions and signs, she and eight pilgrims came to America in 1774 to spread her gospel in the New World,” Ken Burns, the noted American film-maker says about the Shakers in the 1985 film of the same name:
They called themselves the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, but because of their ecstatic dancing, the world called them Shakers. Though they were celibate, they are the most enduring religious experiment in American history. They believed in pacifism, natural health and hygiene, and for more than 200 years insisted that their followers should strive for simplicity and perfection in everything they did. The Shakers put their "hands to work and their hearts to God," creating an exquisite legacy of fine furniture, glorious architecture and beautiful music that will remain and inspire long after the last Shaker is gone.
In 1840, their numbers peaked at six thousand persons, residing in nineteen communal villages from New England to Ohio and Kentucky. Today, just a few Shakers still live in a single village in Maine.

Simple Gifts
by Joseph Brackett

Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come 'round right.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Sixteen: Handel's 'Arrival Of The Queen of Sheba'

The Sixteen, under the baton of Harry Christophers, perform Handel's "Arrival of the Queen of Sheba."

This piece takes place in the beginning of Act 3 in Solomon, an oratorio that George Frideric Handel composed and completed in June 1748. Its first performance took place at the Theatre Royal in London, England, on March 17, 1749. The Sixteen are a British-based choir and period instrument orchestra founded by Harry Christophers in 1979.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Jewish Humor: Business Is Business

Monday Humor

Here are this week's Jewish jokes, each with a focus on business:

Two beggars are sitting on a park bench in Mexico City. One is holding a cross and one a Star of David. Both are holding hats to collect contributions. People walk by, lift their noses at the man with the Star of David and drop money in the hat held by the man with the cross.

Soon the hat of the man with the cross is overflowing with coins and notes and the hat of the man with the Star of David is empty. A priest watches and then approaches the men. He turns to the man with the Star of David and says: "Young man. Don't you realize that this is a Catholic country? You'll never get any contributions in this country holding a Star of David."

The man with the Star of David turns to the man with the cross and says: "Moishe, can you imagine, this guy is trying to tell us how to run our business."


David has done well for himself and is Mayor of a small town in Israel.

One day, David and his wife Andrea are walking past a construction site. Suddenly, one of the construction workers stops and calls out

"What's new, Andrea?"

"Why, it's nice to see you again Avi," Andrea replies. She turns to introduce David to the construction worker, and they speak for several minutes.

After David and Andrea continue on, he turns to her and asks how she knows Avi.

"Oh," Andrea said. "We went to the same high school. I even thought about marrying him."

David began to laugh. "You don't realise how lucky you are. If I hadn't come along, today you would be the wife of a construction worker!"

Andrea replied without hesitation, "Not really. If I had married him, he'd now be a Mayor!"


"If I were Rockefeller," sighed the Hebrew teacher from Chelm, "I'd be richer than Bill Gates."

His friend asked, "What do you mean? How could you be richer?"

"I'd do a little teaching on the side."


When Abraham Liebowitz gets to school he discovers that he is the only Jewish kid in the class. But it's a decent town and nobody really bothers him.

One day the teacher asks the class "Who was the greatest person who ever lived? and why?" And to make it interesting she held a twenty dollar bill in the air and said "whoever gives the best answer will get this twenty

All of the kids called out their guesses.

One said "George Washington, because he was the father of our country."

"That's excellent" said the teacher.

Another said "Abraham Lincoln, because he freed the slaves."

"That's also good" said the teacher, reluctant to bestow an excellent, but still being polite.

One little girl said "Joan of Arc, because she saved France."

Another excellent choice said the teacher.

Then Abraham Liebowitz, raised his hand. So the teacher called on him. "Abraham, who do you think was the greatest person who ever lived, and why?"

And Abraham said "Jesus Christ."

The teacher was shocked. "Abraham," she said "I'm very surprised. Class, I think we can all agree that Abraham should get the twenty dollars." And she handed Abraham Liebowitz the money.

At recess, the teacher was still very impressed. So she asked Abraham why he said Jesus.

Abraham said "Look, personally I think Moses was the greatest person who
ever lived, but... business is business!"

John A. Hopps: The Cardiac Pacemaker

Great Advances in Science

John Hopps is seen testing the world’s first pacemaker in this 1946 photo.
Photo Credit: National Research Council of Canada
Source: CBC News

It has been more than 60 years since the first cardiac pacemaker was developed by John A. Hopps, a Canadian electrical engineer long considered the Father of Bioengineering. Known as “Jack” to his colleagues, Hopps’ invention and the refinement of it has saved millions of lives.

Today, the pacemaker is the size of a 50-cent coin, and the medical procedure is usually performed under local anesthetic, lasting about an hour. An artificial pacemaker typically lasts 10 years. Like most discoveries, the invention of the cardiac pacemaker came in stages, each one a marked improvement of previous accomplishments. The first external pacemaker was developed in 1950, and the first pacemaker implanted in a human was in 1958, by Dr. Ake Senning, a Swedish surgeon.
The first recipient of an implantable pacemaker was Arne Larsson in 1958. The prototype was about the size of a tin of shoe polish. It was built in the kitchen of Dr. Rune Elmqvist, and implanted by Dr. Åke Senning, a cardiac surgeon at Karolinska University Hospital in Solna, Sweden.
But it has to start with one individual, the pioneer. John Alexander Hopps was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on May 21, 1919. He graduated  with a degree in electrical engineering from University of Manitoba in 1941, and soon after joined the National Research Council. It was there that Hopps developed the pacemaker along with Dr. William Bigelow and Dr. John Callaghan at University of Toronto’s Banting and Best Institute laboratory in Toronto. They were doing research on hypothermia, where the body's temperature drops below what is necessary for regular metabolism and function. (There is a 1984 CBC interview with John Hopps here and some background information here.).

Modern Cardiac Pacemaker: This is a pacemaker generator, which is bout the size of a 50-cent coin, and three times as thick. Typically, the heart rate is between 60 and 100 beats per minute. It can drop to 40 at rest and rise to 200 when excited, such as when exercising. Pacemakers are electronic devices that are implanted under the skin, helping to regulate a heartbeat that has slowed down. The generator is connected via two leads insulated (wires) that are inserted through a vein into the heart, typically into the right atrium and the right ventricle. Pacemakers send small currents to stimulate and regulate the heart.
Photo Credit: J. Heuser, 2005
Source: Wikipedia

Hopps himself became one of the beneficiaries of his invention, having a pacemaker implanted in 1984. In an article about the invention of the pacemaker in Canadian Archivers, Hopps says credit ought to be shared:
"There's always been a bone of contention surrounding the 'invention' of the pacemaker," Dr. Hopps says. "In truth, no single one invented it. However, ours was the first of its kind. In 1950, we at NRC were collaborating in a hypothermia study by Dr. W.G. Bigelow at the University of Toronto. Dr. Bigelow observed that a cold heart could be triggered into activity by a mechanical or electrical stimulus. We developed a device to maintain or activate the heart beat as an adjunct to that investigation.

"We called our device a pacemaker after nature's own pacemaker, the sinoatrial node which normally organizes the heart's rate. It appeared to be a good descriptive name for the device. Subsequently, other devices designed to control the heart beat were called pacemakers.

"Those were good times for research in Canada. I doubt very much if the pacemaker would be developed today, that's how much times have changed. Things then were much more flexible. Now our science is so circumscribed with the desire to assist industry that there is little pure research being done in the country today, particularly by the government.
I doubt that the situation for scientific funding has improved since then, the 1980s. We now live in more pragmatic times and the non-scientific consider pure research a "waste of money." There is little patience and instant results are expected. Except for the fact that without it, research that is, we will not advance as a society. That's hard for the "bean counters" to understand.

John A Hopps died on November 24, 1998. He was 79. His wife, Eleanor, died before him, and he left behind a daughter, Margaret, two sons, Donald and John, six grandchildren, and a great grandson. That's a wonderful legacy, adding to his scientific one. It's exciting when an invention leads to bettering the life of humans. This is one of them.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

New York Philharmonic: Arirang Fantasia

 The New York Philharmonic performs Arirang Fantasia, under the baton of Lorin Maazel, during the orchestra's appearance in Pyongyang, North Korea, at the East Pyongyang Grand Theater on February 26, 2008. 


One could say with a high degree of certainty that this was the first time that most North Koreans had heard the Korean folk song, hauntingly ethereal, played by foreigners. In The New York Times, Daniel J. Wakin reported the day after the concert the response of the privileged North Koreans in attendance:
As the New York Philharmonic played the opening notes of “Arirang,” a beloved Korean folk song, a murmur rippled through the audience. Many in the audience perched forward in their seats.
The piccolo played a long, plaintive melody. Cymbals crashed, harp runs flew up, the violins soared. And tears began forming in the eyes of the staid audience, row upon row of men in dark suits, women in colorful high-waisted dresses called hanbok and all of them wearing pins with the likeness of Kim Il-sung, the nation’s founder.

And right there, the Philharmonic had them. The full-throated performance of a piece deeply resonant for both North and South Koreans ended the historic concert in this isolated nation on Tuesday in triumph.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra: Saint-Saëns—Bacchanale

The Teresa Carreño Youth Symphony Orchestra, under the exciting baton of Gustavo Dudamel, perform the "Bacchanale" from Camille Saint-Saëns' Samson and Delilah, a grand opera in three acts, opus 47, at an outdoor concert at the Concha Acustica de el Parque los Caobos ("The Caobos Park Bandshell"). The concert was part of the celebrations surrounding the 442nd anniversary of Caracas, Venezuela, on July 26, 2009.


The opera is based on the biblical story of Samson and Delilah, which is found in the Book of Judges in the Christian Old Testament (chapter 16); and in the Jewish Torah forms part of the Deuteronomic canon, the second book in Nevi'im (Prophets), called  Sefer Shoftim (ספר שופטים).

Camille Saint-Saëns composed the score, and Ferdinand Lemaire wrote the French libretto. It was first performed in Weimar at the Grossherzogliches (Grand Ducal) Theater (now the Staatskapelle Weimar) on December 2, 1877, in a German performance. The Bacchanale takes place in the Temple of Dagon (Act III, scene 2), considered a pagan place of worship for the Israelites.  You can view an operatic performance here to get a sense of it. Saint-Saëns created a wonderful musical drama.

Samson was an Israelite leader and a nazirite, dedicated at birth to serve God; one of the outward signs was that his hair could not be cut. He is shown as a inspiring yet vulnerable leader and judge, open to the declarations of love that a seductress, Delilah, a Philistine, offers. She is not true to such declarations and by deception learns the secret of his strength lay in his hair. So, Delilah arranged to lay a razor to "the seven braids of his hair." Samson, in his weakened state is captured, and his eyes gouged out.

He is mocked and ridiculed. In the end, Samson's faith prevails, leading to the downfall  of his enemies when, after Samson calls out to God, he regains his strength and pulls the pillars of the Temple of Dagon crashing down. All is destroyed: Samson, his enemies and the temple. It's an old-fashioned morality tale, with all its implicit warnings.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Promises, Promises

Politics & Society

Everyone's a millionaire where promises are concerned.
People make promises for all kinds of reasons, and sometimes fail at it. As important as a promise is, so is how one responds when unable to keep a commitment. Some respond with arrogance and dismissive behaviour, as if a promise is unimportant. Others with humility and grace, offering profuse apologies and sincere opportunity to make amends. The response, in either case, is telling.

A number of reasons are put forward on why people fail to keep their promises, including:  1) a sincere intent to do so, but forgot about it; 2) an intent to do so, but the situation changed; 3) no intent to do so but wanted to appear otherwise in public; and 4) are career liars, adept in sophism and dissembling, and promises are not taken seriously.

Politicians often fall into the last two categories, which explains why the majority of persons express a lack of trust in politicians, continuing to rank them at the bottom [see here, here and here]. For too many politicians the consequences of lying are minimal if not non-existent. They might lose an election but pop up somewhere else in the political system, as a consultant or lobbyist or other political patronage position, such as an appointed senator in Canada's parliamentary system, a political sinceure for serving the party well.

The helping professions, such as doctors, pharmacists and nurses are top-ranked. My wife is a nurse and is highly ethical, so this will please her, earning her some small satisfaction and recognition while working in an emotionally demanding profession.

As for the level of trust accorded politicians, many persons privately say they distrust politicians, saying it matter-of-factly and dismissively and often with amusement, that used car salesman garner more trust. Yet, this speaks volumes. If we cannot trust our political leaders, then we can't trust our democratic institutions, since politicians hold the levers of power. There is a clear line drawn between faith in our democratic institutions and citizen participation in democracy. That is also dropping.

Such faith is essential to democracy's well-being, a point that one Canadian, Paul Kersaw of  the University of British Columbia, makes in an article in defense of politicians:
 With very little fanfare, the vast majority of elected officials work very long hours — more hours than most of us. This includes giving up a great deal of private time to attend community events and engage constituents. Most politicians are drawn to public service because they genuinely want to make our communities and our country better. Sure, we may disagree with some of their ideas about what constitutes improvement, but this doesn’t require that we disparage the person, or her or his commitment to the job.

There is no doubt we will always need auditors-general, judges, the media and others to scrutinize what politicians do, and how they spend tax dollars on our behalf, just as we must scrutinize activities in the financial sector, among doctors, police officers, teachers, etc. In any profession, the odd bad apple betrays our trust and the authority of their positions.
Such are nice sentiments, and undoubtedly valid, but politicians' decisions affect more people than those of individual doctors, lawyers and teachers. Much more so, and thus explains why politicians, particularly political leaders need be under the harsh lights of scrutiny. Something else is going on in society that can't be explained by political differences of liberal and conservative, left or right.

It's an issue of trust. The result is that, as a group, the public remains unconvinced of the promises made by a large degree, particularly of the presidents, prime ministers and top elected officials. I suspect that politicians at the highest levels have to do a better job of being transparent and honest, or else they will be trusted even less.

With good reason, and it has nothing to do with cynicism and everything to do with bad policy decisions. Many of them. For the majority of persons, the truth remains that politicians are not looking out for the interests of the vast majority of citizens but, rather, the interests of a small minority. The trust will return, slowly, when that equation changes. People want to have faith in democracy, but it is difficult when the leaders themselves do their best to undermine its guiding principles. 

The current situation reminds me of the David Lean film, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), from which we have that memorable line of T.E. Lawrence: "There may be honor among thieves, but there's none in politicians."

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Montreal Symphony: Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade

The Montreal Symphony Orchestra performs from the first movement of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, opus 35, Charles Dutoit conducting, during the orchestra's tour of Japan in 1992.


Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov completed the four-movement orchestral suite during the summer of 1888 at Nyezhgovitsy, a summer residence along the Cheryemenyetskoye Lake. It was first performed on November 3, 1888 by the Russian Symphony, in St. Petersburg, Russia, with Rimsky-Korsakov conducting.

The work is based on the tale, One Thousand and One Nights, which is also known as The Arabian Nights, a collection of  Middle Eastern and South Asian tales and folk stories compiled in Arabic during Islam's Golden Age.

These stories, including "Aladdin," "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" and "Sindbad the Sailor" were brought to Europe by  Anotine Galland, a French orientalist and scholar, who between 1704 and 1717 published these stories in 12 volumes.  It coincided with an European interest in Orientalism, of something foreign and mysterious. As one reviewer, Barbara Heninger, writes:
Though the subject of Scheherazade is based on Arabian tales, the work is still firmly Russian in its sensibilities and its flavor of "oriental" sound. Rimsky-Korsakov himself wrote that the piece was not meant to be an exact depiction of Scheherazade's stories, and titles of the movements are meant to "direct but slightly the hearer's fancy on the path my own fancy traveled." The piece exhibits his skill in varying orchestral color, using a standard Brahmsian orchestra that has been augmented by piccolo, harp, and extra percussion (snare and bass drum, tambourine, cymbals, and tam tam).

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

NBC Symphony Orchestra: Mozart Symphony No. 40

The NBC Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Arturo Toscanini, performs from the first movement of Mozart's Symphony No 40, in G minor, KV. 550live at the 8-H Studio in New York City on Dec, 4, 1948. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart completed the symphony on July 25, 1788. The minor key gives it a feel of melancholy, symbolic of the way Mozart was feeling at the time he composed this great work. Although, it must be added, that it finishes with a more hopeful flourish.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

NY Philharmonic: Copland's Fanfare For The Common Man

The New York Philharmonic performs Aaron Copland's Fanfare For The Common Man, under the able baton of James Levine. A fanfare is a short piece scored for brass and percussion. Copland wrote the piece in 1942 for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under conductor Eugene Goossens. Part of its inspiration came from a speech that Henry A. Wallace, U.S. vice president made on May 8, 1942, where he proclaimed the dawning of the "Century of the Common Man." It is highly popular piece, and has found its way in many productions and venues, including on the Space Shuttle Atlantis.


Monday, February 13, 2012

Jewish Humor: Moishe & The Pope

Monday Humor

Today starts a new weekly humour post, an attempt to lighten the mood. Everyone likes a good joke and, more important, humor has been used by peoples the world over as a relief from suffering and persecution. The Jewish People are masters of the self-deprecating joke, as this one clearly shows. Many are well known, having been passed down the generations, a humorous oral tradition. And they have been compiled, in keeping with such traditions. A good many of the humorous anecdotes, yarns, jokes and stories can be found in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Humor: From Biblical Times to the Modern Age, Henry D. Spalding, editor. I have a copy on my bedside table, often reading a joke or two to my wife and children before bedtime.


About a century or two ago, the Pope decided that all the Jews had to leave the Vatican. Naturally there was a big uproar from the Jewish community. So the Pope made a deal. He would have a religious debate with a member of the Jewish community. If the Jew won, the Jews could stay. If the Pope won, the Jews would leave. The Jews realized that they had no choice. So they picked a middle aged man named Moishe to represent them. Moishe asked for one addition to the debate. To make it more interesting, neither side would be allowed to talk. The pope agreed.

The day of the great debate came. Moishe and the Pope sat opposite each other for a full minute before the Pope raised his hand and showed three fingers. Moishe looked back at him and raised one finger.

The Pope waved his fingers in a circle around his head. Moishe pointed to the ground where he sat.

The Pope pulled out a wafer and a glass of wine. Moishe pulled out an apple. The Pope stood up and said, "I give up. This man is too good. The Jews can stay."

An hour later, the cardinals were all around the Pope asking him what happened. The Pope said: "First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up one finger to remind me that there was still one God common to both our religions. Then I waved my finger around me to show him that God was all around us. He responded by pointing to the ground and showing that God was also right here with us. I pulled out the wine and the wafer to show that God absolves us from our sins. He pulled out an apple to remind me of original sin. He had an answer for everything. What could I do?"

Meanwhile, the Jewish community had crowded around Moishe. "What happened?" they asked. "Well," said Moishe, "First he said to me that the Jews had three days to get out of here. I told him that not one of us was leaving. Then he told me that this whole city would be cleared of Jews. I let him know that we were staying right here."

"And then?" asked a woman.

"I don't know," said Moishe. "He took out his lunch and I took out mine."

Variety Is The Spice Of Life

Politics & Society

During the winter doldrums one has a lot of time to think. One of the constants of winter here in Montreal is its consistency, which can be boring. You seen one snowflake, you seem them all, despite scientific claims that no two snowflakes are alike. What does it matter? Snow is snow, and unless you are a kid or an avid skier, it is a nuisance. (Yes, I am aware of the argument of the resident beauty of crystals, but not everyone finds solace or delight in this endeavour.)

Consistency is fine in nature, and we come to expect it, rely on it to attune our lives, including the changing of the seasons, the celebration of festivals and the planning of gardens. Consistency is good and wonderful for our lives, but harmful when it's perceived as a negative consistency. In other words, same old thing. Then, we crave for positive change, and scientific studies have shown that we need such change in order to survive. Variety is necessary in human affairs as it is in cooking, in meeting the varied needs of our palates.

The desire for positive change becomes greatest when prospects, life in general, seem poor, unfair, and unhappy. It becomes acute when we have no progress in humanity's moral standing. Call it a sort of moral index of human goodness. Is the moral index rising or falling? People often turn to religion when society's problems seem intractable, humanly impossible to solve. Or amusements to distract. We can expect more of such distractions.

Many psychologists and religious leaders say happy thoughts dictate our feelings. Perhaps so, to a point. Happy talk might change some people's perceptions, but not their harsh reality. It's also no use comparing ourselves to years ago, a neat trick of distraction that some commentators perform, since such comparisons can't immediately offer any change (or even hope) to people's lives.

So, we are left with the ugly reality. Many people are unhappy with their governments and their unfair policies, an intrusion so unkind and unexpected that they have been compelled to act emotionally, irrationally, often violently, surprising even themselves. Alas, such explains the protests, the eruptions around the world. It's the attempt of the denied to salvage their human dignity.

Will things improve for humanity? Many think not, at least not in the near term. Such is the view today for the majority of the world's people, including many in the world's most-developed nations. As for the world's leaders, they are outwardly deaf and blind to the everyday reality, chiefly because they are sheltered from it. The vaccine of elitism inoculates them, protects them from any plague of conscience. No ugly reality invades their lives; any and all dissent seem like an anomaly, a gesture of fools who understand not. So, when the leaders of the G8 or G20 or other nations get together at summits or at economic forums, enjoying a fine meal and a glass of wine or two, it's no surprise that little is accomplished. How can it be otherwise?

The sad things is that we now rarely expect anything of substance to be accomplished. It's the same old routine, the same old faces and types, generally speaking the same old ideas. These forums, like many other conferences, bring forth little original ideas. How could they? It would be a pleasant surprise if original ideas made it to the final communique.

One of the reasons is that the leaders themselves are stuck in a rut, their speeches written beforehand and the meetings laden down with boring and predictable routine. As if performing a role in a badly scripted feature film. Truly, it must be equally boring for these leaders, who are expected to stay on script. No surprises in store for the journalists, who also must sit through another predictably stifling conference. The leaders, the handlers, the managers and their aides probably feel the same. When will we escape from such madness?

The world's leaders ought to break away from their tightly scripted routine. Perhaps act like they do when they are out campaigning trying to win each citizen's vote. They are out there listening to real people who have different ideas, often in a charged and energetic atmosphere. It might bring some fresh insight and recharge the batteries (and minds) of the world's economic and political elites. You can't eat steak every day.

Sometimes, humble pie is on the menu.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Gordon Lightfoot: Early Morning Rain

Gordon Lightfoot performs "Early Morning Rain," in Chicago in 1979. The singer and songwriter wrote the song in 1964 and recorded it in 1966.

Gordon Lightfoot, a Canadian institution, sings songs, as a balladeer does, about things that touch the common man. The words and the sentiments they express are straightforward, and are applicable today as they were almost 50 years ago for the many left behind. It has been recorded by many noted artists, including Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and Paul Weller.  You can hear the version by Peter, Paul & Mary here.

Menachem Herman: Sweet Home Jerusalem

This is, of course, a religious Jewish take on Sweet Home Alabama, a 1974 song by the American rock band, Lynyrd Skynyrd. Songs about geography speak about a love for a place, both its sweetness and its sourness, its good and bad, often informed by history, both ancient and modern as to its meaning today. Menachem Herman is a self-described Canadian–born Israeli, Hasidic rock guitar player. This song was recorded and released in 2009.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Sviatoslav Richter: Bach Recital in Moscow

Sviatoslav Richter [1915-1997] performs a Bach recital at the Moscow Conservatory on March 28, 1978. Richter is accompanied by the Moscow Conservatory Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Yuri Nikolayevsky. The program includes two pieces by J.S. Bach: Concerto No. 1 in D minor, BWV 1052; and Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, BMW 1050.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The CEO As Leader

Politics in America

There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else.
Andrew Carnegie
One of the current political articles of faith in American politics is that a person who runs a corporation is best suited to run a nation, since the characteristics of a CEO are ideally suited for those of a political leader.  The working idea behind this thought is that a nation ought to run like a business. That idea is often closely associated with conservative parties, since this has always been the party of the wealthy.  Conservatives, true to their nature, want to conserve wealth and keep it in the least hands as possible—the top 1%, or even better the top 0.1%. It's an exclusive club.

This idea of business leader turned political leader has become such a matter of faith that even the middle-class and the poor have bought in to this piece of political religion, voting against their best interests. This belief needs more scrutiny. Who benefits the most from having someone in office who has elite business connections? And which group would such a person, once in higher office, richly reward? Not the poor and middle class whose votes were necessary to vote him into office.

The essential argument is that a nation is very much unlike a business. The capabilities a CEO brings to a business is often  unsuitable for the office of the president, acting as a leader to a diverse nation. Paul Krugman, a distinguished if not opinionated economist, hits the nail square on the head in a piece, "America Isn't a Corporation," in The New York Times:
But there’s a deeper problem in the whole notion that what this nation needs is a successful businessman as president: America is not, in fact, a corporation. Making good economic policy isn’t at all like maximizing corporate profits. And businessmen — even great businessmen — do not, in general, have any special insights into what it takes to achieve economic recovery.

Why isn’t a national economy like a corporation? For one thing, there’s no simple bottom line. For another, the economy is vastly more complex than even the largest private company.
Precisely. And this applies to my country, Canada, which as of late "believes as a matter of faith," that CEOs make good political leaders. CEOs are no better or worse than other professions, including lawyers, engineers or career politicians, in being a leader of a nation. The chief question the electorate needs to ask is whether the candidate has earned the trust of the people for higher office. Money and social status should never be chief deciding factors.

Let's look at the United States, which is facing a domestic crisis. Today, when the underemployment rate remains stubbornly unsustainable at over 15%, with 23 million persons underemployed; and the number of persons in poverty exceeds 46 million, that would mean doing something big to give people dignity and hope. If the candidates running for the leadership of the Republican Party haven't noticed, people in America have lost hope and are dispirited.

The election will likely became an election focused on the economy and the current inequalities built-in to the current model or form of capitalism. This is suggested in a recent article in The New York Times, "Obama and Romney Face Tough a Fight for Key Group," which shows what's important to Americans:
But the political landscape seems unusually fluid as the main argument of the past two years – over the national debt and the size and role of government – gives way to some degree to a related one about inequality and the nature of capitalism. For example, recent months have produced some evidence that non-college-educated white voters support the goals of the Occupy Wall Street movement, an indication that populist anger over the economy is more free-floating than ideologically fixed.

Truly, the last thing America needs is a CEO as president, whose strength it seems is slashing jobs to maximize shareholder value, and again reward the privileged few. The key word and the chief priority ought to be the Economy: Jobs, jobs and jobs. Focusing on such a priority would take a courageous leader who understand the average Joe or Jill. Perhaps President Obama will awaken from his slumber and make that the focus, the center-piece so to speak, of his election campaign. (Republicans historically have had other interests.)

The U.S. presidential election this November 6 is probably the most important since 1980. It will decide the direction that this nation takes, whether it continues on this path of deepening inequalities or reverses course to once again make America the land of opportunity for all.  I despair for the former and hope for the latter. Yes, I know, I am living in Dreamland, not steeped in political reality.

There is a nice expression in Yiddish that characterizes such people: Du bist ein luftmensch.