Saturday, November 29, 2008

A heavy heart

The worst news that people had prayed would not occur was confirmed yesterday when Indian commandos finally took over the Nariman House, or Chabad House of Mumbai. When the body count was taken, six people were known to have been slaughtered including Rabbi Gavriel and Rebbetzin Rivkah Holtzberg. One American woman, Leibish Titlebaum from Brooklyn, and Bentzion Chroman, who like Rabbi Holtzberg carried dual American and Israeli citizenship, were among the dead. Rebbetzin Holtzberg was an Israeli. The couple's two-year-old orphan is still reported as doing well, but reports circulated yesterday that when he was rescued, his diaper was soaked in blood. Even though I never met the Holtzbergs, it is with great sorrow that I report on this horrible tragedy. The work that Chabad Centers across the globe do has always been done with the best of intentions, though I admit many traditional Orthodox Jews do find some aspects of their outreach to other Jews as unsettling. Nevertheless, very few considered that Chabad emissaries would be putting their lives at risk just by keeping their doors open to Jews and others in outreach communities. The deaths of the victims in Mumbai were confirmed by Chabad Rabbi Mendel Rivkin on the Ten Commandments Hike yesterday when he spoke at Congregation Anshe S'fard in late morning. It was especially significant that so many Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, adult leaders, parents, siblings and friends could gather and learn of the deaths of Jewish religious leaders and make a connection with them, if only for that one instant in time. Rain did not dampen the spirits of those in attendance even though the kosher lunch was punctuated by periods of heavy downpour. When, at least, the clouds parted and the sun came out, only two stops remained for the younger crowd and three total for the rest of the hikers. The hike ended before 5:00 p.m. and all felt they had participated in a special interfaith event that supported worship in each other's own faith.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Mumbai Massacre

The horrible news came out of Mumbai fast and furious, but it wasn't until late Thanksgiving night that I learned that the Nariman House of which reporters had been referring throughout the day, was indeed the Chabad House there. Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivkah maintained the center and were entertaining a number of foreigners, several of whom were reportedly Israeli citizens. A JTA report suggests that the Holtzbergs and at least six others had been taken hostage. The one piece of good news was that the couple's two-year-old son had been rescued. The fact that the center was targeted by the terrorists for retribution may be sobering to those within the worldwide Chabad organization in Brooklyn, not far from where the Holtzbergs grew up. The two were married back in 2003, shortly before leaving for India to start the house in Mumbai. Mrs. Hotzberg had been noted as an excellent hostess and the rabbi had made significant strides in reaching visitors as well as doing outreach to the small local Indian Jewish community in Mumbai. Anxious Chabad Lubavitchers have been e-mailing members of their local communities to urge prayers be said on behalf of all those still being held at the Nariman House. The one prayer suggested has been Psalm 20:
1. For the conductor, a song of David.
2. May the Lord answer you on a day of distress; may the name of the God of Jacob fortify you.
3. May He send your aid from His sanctuary, and may He support you from Zion.
4. May He remember all your meal offerings and may He accept your fat burnt offerings forever.
5. May He give you as your heart [desires], and may He fulfill all your counsel.
6. Let us sing praises for your salvation, and let us assemble in the name of our God; may the Lord fulfill all your requests.
7. Now I know that the Lord saved His anointed; He answered him from His holy heavens; with the mighty acts of salvation from His right hand.
8. These trust in chariots and these in horses, but we-we mention the name of the Lord our God.
9. They kneel and fall, but we rise and gain strength.
10. O Lord, save [us]; may the King answer us on the day we call.
Today is the day reserved for the fifth annual Ten Commandments Hike for the Southeast Louisiana Council of the Boy Scouts of America. I started this event in 2004 and after two events that year, we had planned another hike in the Lakeview area in 2005. Obviously, Hurricane Katrina's impact on New Orleans and in particular on Lakeview meant waiting until 2006. While still living in Cleveland, I managed to hop a flight and lead the hike in 2006 and again last year after I had moved back to the city of my birth. Today's hike will have over 250 Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, adult leaders, parents, siblings and friends moving along the historic St. Charles Avenue route to ten different houses of worship reinforcing the 12th Point of the Scout Law ("A Scout is Reverent."). It should be fun and meaningful, two things that Scouters love do do in concert with one another.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thank you, Squanto

Ah, yes. The day that all America gives thanks to the Lord (or for the atheists and agnostics gathering at their tables to thank themselves) for the many blessings we enjoy. The end of this year has been pretty tough on all of us but, despite the economic downturn, we still have much to be thankful for and a lot to look forward to in the future. As to the past, the one person that should be thanked above all, though, is Squanto. Squanto? You mean you don't recall the story of the Native American member of the Wampanoag tribe, who saved the original Pilgrims from what would have been their first and last winter had he not been, more or less, where they landed. The incredible story of Squanto is filled with good fortune, bad luck and redemption. Credit English explorer John Weymouth with getting Squanto to England, having him learn English and learn about "civilization." Squanto, captured by the Spanish some years later, had his freedom secured by the very same John Weymouth. He returned to his homeland with another captured Native American --Samoset -- only a few months prior to the Mayflower's arrival at Plymouth Rock. Because he knew of English society and spoke English, Squanto was an essential liaison to the native tribe there. It was Squanto who taught the Pilgrims how and what to farm, provided them pelts of beaver to keep warm, and gave them deer meat for sustenance. Squanto showed the Pilgrims, already decimated by disease and bitter weather, how to build round-roofed wigwams made of poles and flat sheets of wood. It was Captain Miles Standish who invited Squanto and Samoset along with their chief, Massasoit, to a feast that became known as the precursor to the first real Thanksgiving meal. There is so much I could tell you, but if you're interested in learning more, read this link.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Not just another crime statistic

There has always been crime in New Orleans. The term "Big Easy" was supposedly coined by criminals to describe how sweet the environment was for them to ply their trade. Much of the pre-Katrina crime had been linked to drug activity, although statistically many of the crimes reported by police were perpetrated as black on black crime. Occasionally, when white citizens were robbed or shot by black criminals, the news media invariably bordered on the verge of being inflammatory in the coverage of these opprobrious acts. We have always tolerated crime in a way that very few outsiders understand. It may be that it goes back to when Louisiana was first settled by those hapless criminals whose jails were emptied and those French women who had worked in the brothels. Many of them were exiled here to live a hard life beyond the protection of French society. Years later, buccaneers like Jean Lafitte operated in the open in nearby Barataria, unchecked by any police force. Lafitte, as many of you will recall, was so powerful that General Andrew Jackson enlisted him and his men in order to protect the city at the Battle of New Orleans. Years after the Civil War, the Louisiana Lottery proved to be as corrupt as any endeavor ever imagined by petty crooks, only on a grander scale. Perhaps, because of our history, successful criminals have garnered undeserved admiration for their plots and scheming. Following the exodus from Hurricane Katrina, when the city was emptied of all but non-essential personnel, there was virtually no crime. For weeks there wasn't even one person killed in a city known in the past as the Murder Capital of the U.S. As residents returned, however, the crime statistics began to inch up. Today I can tell you that the crime wave in New Orleans has now become more personal. My son called me to tell me that he had been held up at knifepoint on Friday evening at dusk. His wallet and cell phone had been demanded and he gave them up without incident. When the police responded, he gave them a detailed description of the offender -- a white male in his 40s wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey -- and assumed that it was the last time he would see his cell phone or his wallet again. Surprisingly, he got a call from the police Sunday. Apparently, the same perpetrator had attempted to try the same thing on Saturday night. This time his would-be victim got the upper hand and through sheer force or knowledge of martial arts stripped him of his weapon and proceeded to inflict serious harm to his body. When police were summoned to the scene, my son's description (he was still wearing the Dallas Cowboys jersey) came up. Not only did they have his weapon, but also a plastic bag found on his person contained my son's wallet (sans cash of course) and cell phone. The officers returned my son's wallet and cell phone and had him sign papers preferring charges against the perpetrator for aggravated assault. I have urged my son to take whatever measures are necessary to see that this lowlife is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. He is lucky and I am relieved (even though he didn't tell me about the incident until after the police had returned his possessions). As if to reinforce what I already knew, a new report by Congressional Quarterly says New Orleans is America's most crime-ridden city. Believe me, brother, I know. I know.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Kennedy Assassination Mystique

Two score and five years ago, our country went through the worst kind of gut wrenching and soul searching that could be thrust upon any nation. I was just nine years old, but it was easy to comprehend the gravity of the mood of the people on that horrible weekend. Our president was dead and the person who police said did it was from New Orleans. Oh my goodness. I recall the time in my family was somewhat uneasy. My parents had enrolled me in public school for the first time earlier that summer. Coming from a military academy, Rugby Academy, I was finding the experience a bit trying for me, but I was showing good academic prowess in an environment which no longer emphasized uniforms or marching (yeah!). Then, on that fateful day I recall my teacher being very solemn after lunch. It was then that our principal announced over the loudspeaker that President Kennedy was dead and that we were all dismissed from class for the remainder of the day. Immediately I was concerned about how I was going to be going home with my sister, because my housekeeper Victoria was supposed to pick us up and walk us home at 3:00 o'clock. That was at least an hour and a half away. Unlike today, when time seems to breeze by, an hour and a half back them seemed like an interminable period of time. I seem to recall that we did meet up with Victoria, but I can't say for sure at what time. The next few days were a blur of historical figures and events. A Time-Life book I had in my library, "Four Days" documented it all. Unfortunately, like most of my library, it was lost in the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina. I do vividly recall watching the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald over a live CBS feed on Sunday, November 24. The black and white imagery of the RCA television set is engrained upon my mind. Jack Ruby's attack on Oswald seemed to happen in slow motion, even though it was over with in less than three seconds. How ironic that Oswald died at the very same hospital as Kennedy within one or two rooms of one another. While the conspiratorial theorists may never be satisified, the evidence of Oswald's role as a lone assassin seems to bear more and more validity as the years drag on. Whether it will be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt also seems unlikely. Former New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison was sure he had the evidence to link Oswald to others who had better motives, but as we know, he was never able to prove his suspicions in a court of law. Whether we think that it was Castro, the Cosa Nostra, or agents of the military industrial complex, the fact is nobody can ever state categorically they know the answer to this question. The main thing for all of us Americans to remember is that it should never happen again. It almost did in 1981 with Ronald Reagan. Thanks to Providence and a staff of "Republican" doctors, as Reagan joked in the ER, his life was spared, but it could just as easily have been a tragedy had the bullet trajectory moved just a little to either side. Two times before that it was Gerald Ford who surivived two different attacks within weeks of one another in September of 1975; the first by Manson desciple Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and 17 days later the second by Sara Jane Moore, who I am reluctant to admit was born Sara Jane Kahn, a Jewish housewife married five times with four children. In case you didn't hear, she was paroled last December, a year and a few days after Gerald Ford passed away from natural causes. Another Jew, Samuel Byck, also attempted to kill a sitting president in 1974, I am sorry to report. The half-hearted attempt involved hijacking a bus and crashing it into the White House in an effort to kill Richard Milhous Nixon, the 37th President of the United States. While I was never a fan of Nixon's politics, I would never condone such a lame-brained scheme (as were all of these latter-day attempts). Yet, the one defining moment for me, when the country lost its innocence was when J.F.K. died. The later assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy also had pronounced effects on me, but they were defined best as auxillary to the assassination of our youngest elected president. There was a numbness that overcame the nation on November 22, 1963 and I am not certain it has ever fully lifted, now 45 years later.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Justice the Judge Judy way

Some afternoons while I am repairing computers, scanning files or doing something else that requires infinite patience, I have been flipping on the TV to pass the time. Usually, there's not much on to see other than Maury Povich exclaiming "You ARE the father!" or "You ARE NOT the father!" It would seem, though, that I am becoming more enamored with the short shrift Judge Judy Sheindlin has been giving plaintiffs and defendants in her TV courtroom. "Don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining," was one of her favorite taunts that I recall several years back. Some of her other more snappy rejoinders have been "Want to know how you can tell when teenagers are lying?" followed by "Their lips are moving!" She is the epitome of the know-it-all Jewish mother, who knows what's right and won't stand for any foolishness on the part of witnesses or litigants in her court. Although I wouldn't want to settle any of my legal battles in front of her bench, I find it incredible to think that there are hundreds of others who think that they will get a measure of justice on a TV program, especially with someone who is so opinionated and intolerant. But that's what endears her to me, I guess, and makes for fun TV entertainment. Catching witnesses in lies is one of her best talents and I offer a word of caution to anyone who thinks they can pull one over on her. The operative catchphrase would be: forget it! She's way too crafty and, as she will remind those who enter her court, way too smart to let that happen. Sometimes, I must admit, I find her lack of tolerance a bit unnerving, especially given that a judge is supposed to be neutral before rendering a decision. It would seem that in most cases she has predetermined what her judgment will be. The dance that is seen in her court seems to be for her pleasure as litigants each try to get a word in edgewise, usually not quite as effectively as they would have expected prior to their appearance. I like her nasty demeanor in some ways, but I am repulsed by it in others. Oh, well, I guess it does pass the time and, after all, that's the only reason I am really watching it. Oh, yeah, I'm also looking for some snappy retorts like " not an answer!"

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Big Three and Thee

Are there any people out there who still believe that what's good for General Motors is good for America? Those are the people who will no doubt support the $25 billion bailout package being sought by GM, Ford and Chrysler. Others, like me (and some members of Congress) have to question whether this is a wise move or more likely throwing money at a problem and hoping it will go away. The Big Three may become the Big Two or the Only One after this financial crisis resolves itself, but the industry has been in trouble for some time, hemorraging losses year after year as foreign car companies steadily captured more and more of the U.S. market. American consumers are not buying American cars as they once did. Credit Japanese and German carmakers with building a better, more fuel efficient series of vehicles that have left American car buyers clammoring for more of the same from their domestic carmakers. When gas prices were hovering around the $4.00 mark, those in fuel efficient gas-powered foreign autos or hybrids weren't exactly smiling, but they weren't wincing in pain like those driving American guzzlers. With the exception of a used Datsun that I drove back for a short time in the 70s following an accident and an ill-fated day that I bought a used Porshe only to have it fail, I have only owned one foreign car for more than a year, a Volvo. I don't believe there are quite as many American consumers who can claim that track record. Nevertheless, I can understand the need to move to a better, more efficient product. The American people have cast their votes with their wallets and pocketbooks. I believe that a handout is not necessary, but a hand up is. I am concerned about the possibility of American workers losing as many as two million jobs and the residual fallout from that. I'm also concerned about what those lost jobs could mean to local communities as car dealerships reel in economic disaster. The Big Three need to realize that the federal government doesn't want them to fizzle, but it's not willing to prop up failing businesses with wads of cash that will quickly evaporate. There's no doubt they would be back for another handout in short order. At $154 million per day in losses, it's time for the Big Three to start figuring out how they can work with the United Auto Workers, rein in these staggering losses, and come up with options on how they can maintain what little part of the marketplace they still cling to. These hard decisions will have to be made soon whether a bailout is possible or not. Perhaps the CEOs of the Big Three had this to mull over as they flew back to Detroit aboard their private jets, winging their way back to their boardrooms.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Fringe benefits and no bonuses

The New Orleans Fringe Festival closed out its inaugural run last night and with few exceptions, I found it to be an incredibly successful four days of theatre, dance and innovative experimental multimedia. I was blown away with the caliber of performances and by the numbers of attendees who gleefully paid their $7.00 per ticket to attend the shows at six different main venues and seven alternative venues organized by the artists themselves. For the first year, it proved to be a well-run venture that brought in many dollars to participating venues. Although I was only able to see three shows on Sunday in addition to the four on Saturday I had written previously (see "Scurry with the Fringe on Top"), I found the shows to be worthy and with sufficient production values to make the presentations enjoyable. Shows that I saw ran the gamut from dark comedies to experimental theatre. Le Chat Noir's " other words, New Orleans," started off the Fringe shows that I saw Sunday. The ten short one act plays focused on New Orleans and its recovery efforts. The cast was composed of ten talented local players, some of whom were writers like Vernel Bagneris ("One 'Mo Time") and Jamie Wax ("Goin' To Jackson"). Following that show I rushed off to see other Fringe projects in the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny. "Danny the Diver and Luna" at St. Mark's Community Center was an incredible ballet of light, color and music produced by three overhead projector operators playing to a pre-recorded soundtrack. The three projectors would turn on and off in synchronicity providing brilliantly crafted concordance telling the two stories in seamless fashion on the large screen. I watched in amazement as they told their tales with the two file boxes of prepared transparencies, shifting them ever so carefully or rolling them across the face of the projector in concert with one another. Ponder one aspect of their artistic achievement, which is that everything they do is upside down. So, if a fish has to swim from top to bottom on the screen, it would be moved from the bottom of the face of the projector towards the top. Puppetry was the focus for the final show of the night. "The Tragical Ballet of Black Bonnet" was produced by a local troupe and was based on the true story of a Scottish kitchen maid born extra set of plumbing.
Goldman-Sachs top seven executives decided today they would not accept bonuses this year. How benevolent of them. After all, they each make a base salary of $600,000, which would seem pretty high for most executives. Last year's bonuses ran $19 billion and was split between them, so their decision will cost them over $2 billion each. With the current financial crisis and recession (yes, we can say that word) in place, I am glad that somebody out there is admitting that this is probably not the time to accept payment for what might be considered disastrous fiduciary stewardship. Hard times demand sacrifices. Now if we can only get the top hedge fund managers to take a similar posture and give some of their bonuses back to their companies.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Scurry with the Fringe on top

The inaugural New Orleans Fringe Festival kicked off this past Thursday and already, before it's even closed down, it is a runaway success. With dozens of shows in nearly a dozen venues, the areas of Faubourg Marigny and Bywater have been blessed with fair weather and huge crowds at small houses that have been packed with eager theatregoers and aficionados of dance. The success of the New Orleans Fringe Festival in only its first year has got to be due to the diligence of its creators Kristen Evans and Dennis Monn. Monn is the artistic director, while Evans is the executive director. The two have assembled a Cracker Jack staff of mostly volunteers and patterned it after other successful Fringe festivals, the granddaddy of all located in Edinburgh, Scotland, where Fringe began in 1947. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is known for dozens of street venues with performers putting on well-done original pieces or street performers doing their own eclectic thing. In any event the concept of a Fringe festival has spread like wildfire across the country. The New York Fringe Festival, for example, has garnered for itself quite a reputation for engaging and sometimes experimental theatre and there are several past entries at the New York Fringe that appear at this year's New Orleans Fringe Festival. This first festival has provided quite a number of quite reputable productions, each running about an hour in length. The price of pre-purchased tickets from the festival tent is only $5.00 each, but everyone has to purchase a $3.00 Fringe pin with any ticket purchase, so the cost is really $8.00. Tickets purchased at each venue cost $7.00, but the cost of a Fringe pin puts that up to $10.00. I must confess that I had not expected the large number of interested and attentive crowds that have attended all the shows. Some of the shows I caught on Saturday were "Galveston," a story about an old curmudgeon who considers himself "the greatest lover on the island" and his erstwhile 15-year-old "son" and best friend, whom he sends off to drown his girlfriend at her request so that she can be resuscitated and thus reborn. "Baby Boom" was a dark comedy that depicted a couple who find a machine gun in a baby basket left at their doorstop and who decide to raise it as their very own child. "The Last Castrato" was another dark comedy about a man born without genitals who loses it. The last show on my card Saturday was "Stripped," directed by Francine Segal and starring herself and Diana Shortes as Baroness Pontalba and Jennifer Pagan as an unnamed Latino who has come to the United States to better herself. It was a packed house for a show that started at 10:00 p.m., which is absolutely incredible when one thinks about it. It's great to see audiences enjoying themselves, but even better to see the talented ensemble that is New Orleans theatre showcased in so many different venues. Good luck to the Fringe and I can't wait to see what goodies they bring tomorrow and on into next year.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Jimi's band is complete now

Drummer Mitchell at left with Hendrix and bassist Redding

Some of you are either too old or too young to know who Mitch Mitchell was. If bassist Noel Redding's death in 2003 didn't affect you, then most likely Mitch Mitchell's passing in a Portland, Oregon hotel room yesterday morning won't make any impression either. But for those of us who grew up in the Sixties and Seventies -- those flower children and rockers who were defined by Woodstock, Haight Ashbury and the sexual revolution -- his death is significant. Mitch Mitchell, born in Ealing, England some seven years before me, achieved fame as the jazz tinged drummer for the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Noel Redding was the bassist and Jimi, of course, provided the left-handed lead guitar and lead vocals. It was one of the few trios in rock history that achieved any lasting effect. Most bands have always had a lead and a rhythm guitar who played against one another. That was the genius of Jimi Hendrix. No one could ever play rhythm against him, so he decided there was no need for one. Recently, Mitchell had attempted to capture lightning in a bottle for the second time, when he headed up the Experience Hendrix Tour. That tour ended last week and the 61-year-0ld performer was taking it easy over the course of a four-day vacation when he suddenly and unexpectedly died. If you ever saw a picture of Mitch Mitchell, you would say he was the perfect counterpart to Hendrix. Mitchell's wildly teased mane and colorful clothing was a complement to the leader of the band and his playing was termed by many as explosive and frenetic. He was a vital part of what made Jimi Hendrix the star he became and his passing would be considered a bigger deal had the Seattle-born guitarist lived longer than 1970. We all miss Jimi, but with Mitchell's passing yesterday and Redding's passing five years ago, the band has finally reunited. If I close my eyes, I can swear I can hear "Voodoo Chile" being played one more time....

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Studying for my cousin's Bat Mitzvah

Leave it to me to volunteer. If Rodgers and Hammerstein were still alive today, they would probably write a new song titled "I Caint Say No." Hmmm...well maybe they already did do that, but it would, nevertheless, still be a valid consideration for me. Ask me to do something and watch what happens. Yes, it gets done. Anyone who knows me knows that I rarely lack for something to keep me occupied. A few days ago I made plans to attend my second cousin's Bat Mitzvah in Los Angeles and was asked via an e-mail by her mom to read one of the Torah portions aloud during the services. It is a high honor to be asked, but it requires a great deal of study in order to do it properly. So what did I do? Did I graciously decline and state how honored I was in being asked? Did I make it a point to point out how difficult it would be for me to prepare for such an event? Did I quite rightfully suggest that it would be too much for to deal with in conjunction with my regular and extracurricular activities? Nope. I answered back in the affirmative and asked what aliyah (section) she had in mind. Hmmm....nothing like adding to my workload and increasing the pressure upon me. In the words of the queen of American theatre, Helen Hayes, "When you rest, you rust." Well, as I oftentimes figure, they'll always be a time for me to rest once I've passed on. In the meantime, it's back to get back to work.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

When we beat swords into plowshears...

Today we honor those who have gone to war or served to protect our citizenry on behalf of a grateful nation. While I feel that I am more than appropriately patriotic on a number of fronts, I don't have any surviving members of my immediate family who are among current U.S. veterans. There are two uncles on both sides. The first, my 86 year-old Uncle Irvin fought in World War II as a Marine, but my father, who was his junior by just three years, never had the opportunity to join the military. Most did. Roughly half of his graduating 1944 class at L.S.U. perished in the war. Being a chemical engineering graduate, he was immediately issued a military exemption and sent to a small town in Tennessee to work on a secret engineering project whose success would ensure the eventual end of the conflict. My father worked with uranium isotopes and was even exposed to uranium gas at Oak Ridge where only a few people understood what the Manhattan Project was all about. Although I am very proud of what he accomplished in the war effort, he had no uniform or medals to show for what he did. He had no tales of being pinned down by enemy fire in France or bravely storming Mt. Suribachi. Of course, I was glad that he did not have to undergo the terrors of a battlefield, but it is ironic that he was exempted from military service and was exposed to gas, while his father fought against the Axis in World War I. My grandfather was a part of the Rainbow Division that went "over there" and he experienced the inhumane war machine that used mustard gas to fill the lungs of thousands of soldiers, most of whom suffered horrible deaths. My grandfather survived his tour of duty, but just barely. Another soldier on the other side likewise survived a gas attack during the same war and spent several weeks convalescing at war's end. That German corporal named Hitler went back to his home and began a campaign of hate that embroiled into the World War II and the Holocaust. Meanwhile, my grandfather came home and eventually married my grandmother who bore him my father and later my dad's brother Joel (the second uncle of whom I spoke earlier) nine years later. Although my dad never served, his younger brother became a doctor and served in Japan as a member of the Air Force Medical Corps. I remember how proud my grandmother was of his service to his country and how glad she was that he served in a time of peace. It was different during my time to be called up for military service. There was a draft on and the war the nation waged in VietNam was one that split the country politically and philosophically. I don't know what I would have done had my draft number been number one as it was for those born on my birth date in 1955. I would like to think that I would have answered the call to arms and proudly served my country as did my paternal grandfather and at least one of his brothers. It is those simple men and women who serve this country that continue to guarantee freedom for our citizens and promote our democratic ways in a world where many would like to see a weak or impotent U.S military. While John Lennon imagined there were no countries, it is the realist in me that recognizes that idealism doesn't work in an imperfect world. Perhaps one day there won't be a need for soldiers and veterans, but until that day I am holding to the Scouting motto that says "Be prepared."

Sunday, November 9, 2008

"God on Trial"

I was alerted at the last minute last night about a PBS "Masterpiece" drama titled "God on Trial" based on a supposed real life occurrence at Auschwitz during the Holocaust. Obviously, the well-written BBC drama lent itself to an examination of the horrible conditions Jews and others were subjected to at the death camps in general and in particular at that ghastly place. Moreover, it was an opportunity to explore the major issue confronting the surviving Jews after the Holocaust was over: namely, where was God during those intolerable times? How could God allow His "chosen people" to be so callously dispatched by such malevolent monsters when they had clung to their beliefs so tenaciously? What was God's plan in all of this or was there no plan at all? Was it all a matter of man's free will running amok? Or were the best among the Jews, their most precious of victims, destined to be slaughtered for some divine plan unknown to them at the time? It was a wrenching production that spared the viewer the most vile and sinister portions of what Auschwitz residents endured, but expanded what might have been a simple storyline into a philosophical and religious in-depth exploration. This was a group of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary times. Some were deeply devout and tried to explain their circumstances as a redaction of God's will, while others who had lost their faith questioned the very existence of an Almighty being who could allow the Holocaust to take place. The fast-paced script brought traditional Jewish thought and challenged it in a courtroom-like setting set in an Auschwitz dormitory. The British actors were superb with outstanding performances by Rupert Graves, Anthony Sher, Stellan SkargÄrd and Dominic Cooper among others. If you missed it, I suggest you keep your eyes peeled on PBS for a repeat performance. While not a historical certainty, the trial is a fascinating tool to bring into view the soul searching that tested the faith of all who lived during those trying times. This very strong drama provides its audience with philosophical and theological issues and makes for compelling, not-to-be-missed TV viewing.

Friday, November 7, 2008

O Come, O Come Emanuel

Rahm Emanuel is girded for battle, only not the kinds of battles with which his father may have been familiar some years ago. For those of you who have not heard, Rahm, the 48-year-old son of an Israeli physician who moved to New York, is leaving his position in Congress where he made a name for himself as a hardened Democratic fighter on the Hill. His entry into politics started many years ago during the late Paul Simon's 1984 race for president. He followed that up with a successful stint when Richard Daley captured the Chicago mayoralty. A bit later he started work with a then-unknown governor in Arkansas who was preparing a run for the presidency himself. Emanuel was probably Bill Clinton's biggest fundraiser and even during the most troubling periods of his presidency, Emanuel was still able to get money brought in to help the president wage his legal battles. Perhaps it's the scrappy Israeli in his heritage or it's just his nature, but he is not someone who will back down from a fight lightly. In "Godfather" fashion, he has been known during Clinton's presidency to send someone whom he felt was being disloyal a dead fish ("Luca Brazzi sleeps with the fishes.") and his selection as Barack Obama's Chief of Staff was loudly bemoaned by Republican Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio), who, given Obama's claim to be more centrist, labeled the choice as "ironic." Emanuel is not considered the cool, level-headed plotter that some may have thought Obama would have gone with as his Chief of Staff. In terms that Mario Puzo might employ, Emanuel is the "Sonny" of the House chamber, not a level-headed "Michael." Because of his temper, he probably wouldn't have made a good choice as Speaker of the House, which Emanuel was hoping to capture in another few years. But, perhaps Obama needs Emanuel as someone whose loyalty and insight he can trust. A good chief of staff must be able to tell the President no from time to time and to back up what he says. Emanuel strikes me as someone who won't pull his punches, even if it lands him in trouble with the rest of the Cabinet, the First Lady (as was the case with Hillary Clinton), or the press. Also, putting a man with close ties to Israel can't help but stifle some of the Jewish critics who have wondered aloud if Obama will be good for the Jews and the Jewish State. Interestingly enough, Emanuel is a close friend of Aaron Sorkin, the creator of TV's "The West Wing." Sorkin allegedgly based the character of presidential aide Josh Lyman in the drama on Emanuel. So truth echoes fiction and how the final script will be written only time and history will tell.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Another Spirit of 76

©TimothyA. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

The words historic, transformational, and momentous seem to pale given the light of day and the realization that the United States of America has initiated a new era of change with the selection of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th President. It took two years and was the most expensive race for the White House ever waged. Yet, as the dust settled on Election Day there emerged the two nominees congratulating each other with grace and admiration, reminding their party faithful that America had spoken and that everyone needed to support the choice that had been made. Like the war hero and patriot that he is, John McCain delivered a brilliant consolation speech advising the Republicans who gathered in Arizona in the midst of defeat that America had won respect throughout the world for the peaceful transition it had achieved at the ballot box. For his part, in front of a Chicago crowd of 125,000 at Grant Park, Barack Obama delivered a rousing, emotional speech with the anthem "Yes we can" reverberating throughout the crowd, their cheers rising up through the night air and reaching into the homes of the nation via the broadcast waves. It is incredible when one considers that 40 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King -- a moment when African-Americans most despaired for true equality -- that one of their own will soon occupy the highest office in the land. As a child I remember those turbulent days in the Old South and I recall the pushback to the civil rights movement that resulted in sit-ins, marches and, sometimes, unfortunately, that escalated into violence. America is on the brink of a new era that will have a great deal of scrutiny on the young family that will soon live in the White House. As the President-Elect suggested, these will be tough times ahead and there will be setbacks along the way. Only 76 days remain between now and January 20 when he takes his historic, transformational and momentous oath of office. God bless him and, in the words he ended his address last night, "God bless the United States of America."

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

00 or 01

With today's elections, the choice boils down to two simple selections. Do we want to vote for 00, which is a possibility? Or will we decide to go with 01 instead? In binary, the language of computers, it's just that simple. Either the bit is turned off (0) or it is turned on (1). Granted, when it comes to selecting a president, it is a much more complex and detailed affair. Over the course of the last several weeks, I have received a number of troubling e-mails from friends who are obviously supporting John McCain that suggest a vote for Barack Obama is a vote that guarantees creeping socialism. There have been a number of other e-mails from a smaller group of Barack Obama supporters who have similarly predicted economic disaster under a McCain presidency. Of course the two can't both be right, but such is politics. If only the choice were as simple as a bit turned on or a bit turned off. Computers have it much easier than we responsible American voters. A rogue program can be installed that can do great harm to a computer system. Yet, in most cases a computer program can be removed and, if corrupted, reinstalled without any trace of a lingering problem. Unfortunately, the decision rendered at the polls and through the number of electors selected for the Electoral College, which is what we popular voters are actually doing today, cannot be reversed so easily. There will be at least four more years in front of us to undo what agenda we launch today. Frankly, I believe both major candidates march to the beat of their own drums. A vote for McCain is not a continuation of the Bush era in all respects; nor is a vote for Obama going to necessarily mean a sweeping series of reforms from which America will never recover. There is a truth that lies somewhere in the middle of all this rhetoric. As a responsible journalist with -- dare I say the word -- ethics, it has been my aim to walk the middle ground between the Democratic and Republican Parties without expressing my own leanings or desires. What I want for the future of America will be expressed privately in the voting booth and not necessarily through words I write or post online. I do want a strong, secure America with a robust economy and freedom for all of its citizens. I want the children who cannot vote today to inherit a country that offers them protection and guarantees them and their children and their children's children rights and liberty. The best way we all can do that is to exercise our right to vote today and to cherish the fact we have this opportunity. May God provide the providence to the leaders of our nation elected today to keep the United States a leader among nations and a country of whom our forefathers can still be proud. If only it were as simple as 00 or 01.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Take it from "Les Miserables"

At the very end of Act One in the musical "Les Miserables," the protagonists are prepared to battle one another at the barricades. The student revolutionaries are joined on stage by the beleaguered Jean Valjean who is relentessly pursued by the malevolent police inspector Javert. Valjean's ward -- his daughter Marius -- has smitten one of the idealistic students, Marius, who must decide as to whether he will join his fellow students or seek out her love. Meanwhile, Eponine, the daughter of the cutthroat thief Thernadier, pines for Marius, hoping he'll notice her. The students, led by Enjolras, wave a red flag in the background as the voices of the hopeful rise in harmony proclaiming "Tomorrow we'll discover what our God has in store! One more dawn! One more day! One day more!" It is riveting theatre and among the most powerful onstage moments in a Broadway musical. It is much the same in the political theatre today. The two presidential candidates are jetsetting across the country trying to haul in as many votes in the traditional red or blue states, but in reality they are just trying to innervate the electorate. Voting lines should be very long tomorrow, but the election is so important to the future of this nation that I can't imagine too many people complaining excessively. Well, there will be voter irregularities. There always are. Make sure that your votes count. Don't wear campaign buttons, paraphenalia, or shirts that may contain logos or the names of candidates. It might be considered electioneering and could be cause for poll workers to prevent your voting. Carry I.D. with you and be prepared to prove to poll workers that you are who you say you are. Proper identification is usually a driver's license, U.S. passport, or state-issued I.D. card. Don't think anything less will be considered valid. Wherever you may be, check out in advance to whom you need to report voting irregularities or fraud. Call them right away and, if you have a cell phone, do so within moments of voting as close to the polling place as you can without being inside. It is important that you document any problems and, if you can do so without inviting injury from others, ask if any other witnesses are willing to come forward as well. Here's the link for the Louisiana Secretary of State, whose office is in charge of elections. Use common sense and don't make a scene. If you feel intimidated or threatened, remove yourself from the polling place immediately and alert authorities. So, one more day! One day more! I hope this real life Act Two turns out better than it did in Les Miserables.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

McCain on SNL: politics as unusual

The words "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night" had barely left his mouth and I thought to myself. This John McCain is certainly a good sport. He may be trailing in the polls, but he isn't so stiff or incapable of self-deprecation that he can't enjoy a laugh with the rest of us, especially if it's at his own expense. It reminded me of when Richard Nixon appeared on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh In."(Sock it to me?") The idea was to soften Nixon's image before he ran for office in 1968 -- no matter how ridiculous he looked -- and it worked. While McCain did let the SNL writers weave a bit of their magic for him (the John McCain pork knives pitch was clever as was the allusion to McCain "fine gold"), I still had the feeling McCain had tarnished his presidential mantle and crown just a bit, but in doing so, had somehow made himself more like one of us. A man whose wife's family owns a brewery could probably never be a "Joe Six-Pack." Then again, it's nice to see him try to peel away some of the layers of his hard veneer and show the nation he's prepared to take a little flak as long as he can get his message to the people. Saturday Night Live's QVC John McCain sketch may go down in history as a comic anomaly of when truth and fiction merge in a quirky way. Sarah Palin managed to keep her name in the spotlight, but in an unfavorable way yesterday when it was revealed that she was the victim of a radio hoax by broadcasters who convinced her staff that it was French president Nicolas Sarcoczy on the phone. ("Palin Punk'd" read the headlines!) Meanwhile, McCain and Palin will be journeying across several key state battlegrounds as they try to pick up the requisite 270 electoral college votes needed for election. According to the pollsters, Obama has a significant lead and is in the driver's seat. But the headlines have two more days before the ink can dry on this matter. It is important that we all vote on Tuesday. It is our right and privilege and this year it means more than just whether we have a Democrat or a Republican in the White House. With the wars being waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economy in a shambles and lingering questions on the future of the nation still abounding, all of those undecided voters will be crucial in determining the course for America over the next four, and possibly, eight years.
A shout out to my friends in Cleveland, apparently one of the more heated electoral battlegrounds in the country and one that Obama and McCain seem intent on having in each other's camp. I wish I were up there now reporting on the seemingly endless appearances of the campaign principals, but the weather has been so pleasant in New Orleans these last several weeks that it's taken much of the sting out of my political jones. Besides, the odious task of electing New Orleans and Louisiana politicians has given me plenty to absorb as charges fly from one candidate to another. The four most hotly contested elections are that in the New Orleans District Attorney's office, the First and Second Congressional Districts and the race for the U.S. Senate seat presently held by Mary Landrieu. As to whom the next New Orleans D.A. will be, voters will be choosing between two former first city attorneys in criminal defense attorney Ralph Capitelli and former criminal court judge Leon Canizzaro. I'm going out on a limb here, but I predict that the next D.A. will be an Italian. In the First Congressional District race incumbent Steve Scalise, only elected about a year ago in another close race, is getting a significant challenge from newcomer Jim Harlan, a businessman and Scout leader. Former newscaster Helena Moreno is trying to unseat indicted Congressman William Jefferson in the Second Congressional District, but the polls suggest that he may have a walk of this race. Whether he will be as successful in the Virginia courts following the election remains to be seen. Senator Landrieu has pulled away from Republican challenger and State Treasurer John Kennedy in recent weeks, according to pollsters, but she never has had a large amount of support in north Louisiana. Even though Republican governor Bobby Jindal endorsed Kennedy in a show of party solidarity this past week, Landrieu is still expected to keep her Senate seat and become an even more powerful presence in the U. S. Senate.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

This Studs's for you

Studs Terkel died yesterday, a writer many of you know far too little. He was a tireless champion for the little man and the subjects of his Pulitzer Prize winning essays and books were the unknown workers who make up the majority of people across our land. He was an original like no other, who would recount the pain and suffering of the Great Depression in "Hard Times" with hundreds of personal stories, each one a study in determination and the will to survive. Terkel's "oral histories" were collected as a lepidopterist might capture fleeting butterflies and mount them for display. He would conduct interview after interview, with meticulous notes and then move on. He wasn't searcing for an explanation as much as he was looking for the feelings and coping mechanisms people have when dealing with adversity or the mundane. Another of his more well known works was "Working," where the stories of America's working class were revealed in a similar fashion. "Studs Terkel's Working" became a Broadway show and later was shown on PBS, the network for whom he had many projects. He was a prince among writers who asked the right questions until he had run out of them. In talking about his PBS production "Hope Dies Last," Terkel explained in 1990 that his hopes may have diminished, but his curiosity still remained and he had already picked out his epitath: "Curiosity didn't kill this cat," he beamed. Terkel's "The Good War," for which he won his Pultizer in 1985, suggested that, not unlike the VietNam War, World War II was not necessarily a period of national solidarity and unabashed unity. He was born a New Yorker, but became a proud Chicagoan at age eight. He got the acting bug while still a young man, but didn't do much with his career. (He did appear in the movie "Eight Men Out" as a reporter.) He had his own Chicago radio program for over four decades, "The Studs Terkel Program," in which he would interview guests and make commentaries. He was a man after my own heart, favoring well-mixed martinis and chomping on cigars on a regular basis. Because of the controversial positions he held (he would probably admit he leaned towards socialism), he was blacklisted from TV during the McCarthy era. It is interesting to note that Terkel then began his writing career. He started while in his mid-40s due to his love of jazz music. His "Giants of Jazz" was released in 1956, but he wasted no time in continuing his writing and was working all the way up until his passing. As a matter of fact, his last book will be published in just another two weeks. He may be a footnote in the newspaper editions this morning, but the Chicago museum that houses many of the oral histories he donated will be forever grateful as will a nation who mourns the passing of one of its favorite sons.