Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The final blog of 2008

So far so good. This first year I have blogged about 267 times, meaning that with about 98 exceptions, I have had a daily discourse on the Internet. There were several times due to travel or other considerations (like a busy holiday season), where I was unable to get my blog submitted on time. For those times, I do apologize. So what have I learned thus far in my entry into the blogosphere (now almost a full year since my first tenuous steps)? I have learned that the connections between far-flung people can be quite strong through the blogging process. I have learned that more people are reading these entries than I would have believed initially. I have also learned that it is important to me to write intelligently and with purpose, because no one wants to read a trite, insincere blog. I have attempted to write in an ethical manner, but not necessarily in an objective way. The blogging process screams for subjectivity in much the same manner that a newspaper columnist cannot be impartial and stay valid for his readership. It is, after all, pretty much about crediblity. Can you truly believe the words I am writing? Do I make a compelling case for what I am advocating? If you disagree, can you see my point or would you think it necessary to respond to me via a comment? I have had an incredible number of good friends I have made through this first year, and I resolve to continue to do more of the same in 2009. I hope that I will be a source for information and, perhaps occasionally, for inspiration in the year to come. In the meantime, may all of you enjoy the most blessed of new year's celebrations and may the coming new year bring you continued good health and success in your endeavors. See you next year....

Monday, December 29, 2008

A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and Edwin

The holidays are making this an extremely short workweek. Due to the placement of New Year's Day on Thursday, it is very doubtful that offices will reopen for one day on Friday, January 2. It is also true that many businesses will shut down for half a day on New Year's Eve. So, the end result is that there are but two full workdays this week, to wit, Monday and Tuesday. So, it was with great pleasure that I took in a concert by Edwin McCain on Sunday night at the New Orleans House of Blues. For those of you who recall "I'll Be" or "I Could Not Ask for More," you know who Edwin McCain is. He is one of the truly great troubadours of rock influenced by soul, jazz, folk and Southern rock. His memorable songs contain insightful commentaries and are full of unalloyed poetry. For those who have been privileged to see him in concert, the experience of his music is heightened ever so much by the dynamism of his powerful stage performances. With saxophonist Craig Shields and guitarist Larry Chaney giving tremendous support onstage, Edwin plays for an hour and a half or more without stopping. Bassist Murray Yanes and drummer Trommel Blassingame round out the band. The focus of the band is Edwin. He is a force of nature to be reckoned with and, for those that attend with their significant others, a nice date night too.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Slaving over scripts

While December 25 may mean Christmas to many, it has a more profound meaning to me. It means that I have only 12 days until the beginning of the Carnival season here in New Orleans. That may not seem like a big deal to many of you, but as the manuscript writer and narrator for four Carnival balls and the announcer of six street parades at historic Gallier Hall, it marks the beginning of a very busy time for me and one that forces a crunch of creativity. While few understand how much I slave away over the tableaux (or scenes) of each ball, the end result is not unlike a play with lighting, music and book. These components all contribute to the benefit of the whole. There is nothing more satisfying to me than being able to put into fruition a manuscript with entrances and accompanying music for the royal courts, officers and captains for each of the krewes (or Carnival groups) for whom I write these tableaux. These balls will begin in earnest on The Feast of the Epiphany for those in the Catholic world or, as Shakespeare would perhaps colloquially remind us, on Twelfth Night. That night is always January 6 and with Mardi Gras stated as February 24 this coming year, I have only a little over seven weeks before it's all over.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Chanukah, Christmas and Kwaanza to come

With all of the holidays that have begun and will continue to be celebrated over the course of the next several days, family and friends should enjoy quality time with one another. It is at the core of all such holidays and, aside from renewing the ties between loved ones, we should view this as a time for reflection. We should reflect on the past year with its many ups and downs as well as to speculate on the hope and promise of the next year with its many challenges. Today has been a day of reflection as I have enjoyed a festive meal with one family enjoying Christmas, while also being observant of the Chanukah holiday. I thought about the change that one year has brought to my synagogue at morning services, vibrant and alive with a family from outside of our community. Their many members are preparing to celebrate the Bat Mitzvah this weekend of a 12-year-old girl who wants to make a difference and combine the usual festivities with a week of work, repair and remediation at various locations across town. I saw women parading with one of five Torah scrolls donated to the synagogue over the last year and a half. I also heard guitar music in the middle of a service being played by none other than the dynamic new rabbi at Beth Israel, Uri Topolosky. The changes there have propelled Congregation Beth Israel into the forefront of recovery from Hurricane Katrina and Rabbi Topolosky has added another feather into He has overseen the koshering of a world famous New Orleans landmark. He has made Cafe du Monde kosher! Yes, as of a few weeks ago, the famous cafe au lait and beignets (square donuts) served to millions of tourists and enjoyed in the homes of countless others in mixes and gift boxes are now kosher. Rabbi Topolosky, in concert with the Louisiana Kashrut Committee, worked on the process for the past year. For some, it is nothing less than another miracle at Chanukah.
For Rabbi Topolosky it is all in another day's work. He and his lovely wife Dahlia and their two small sons are also awaiting the arrival of another miracle in another few months. This will be their first native-born New Orleanian and everyone is hoping their home will be filled with the joyous sounds of a healthy newborn by the time next Chanukah arrives. It has occurred to me that I have been back in New Orleans longer than my time away in Cleveland following the flooding that came after Hurricane Katrina. There has been much that has transpired since my arrival in April of last year, most of it very good and productive. We have experienced losses of close friends and family and yet we marched forward, knowing that births, special events and new wonders have also made the journey pleasant. Just two weeks ago the city was reveling from the splendor of a rare one- to five-inch snowfall. In Cleveland such a sprinkling of snow might occur in a blink of an eye, but here it was a cause for celebration. With temperatures hovering just below or slightly above freezing in Cleveland, it is hard for many of my friends to conceive that I celebrated yesterday in short sleeves and 82-degree weather. Unlike Cleveland's snow banks and slippery sidewalks, the metropolitan New Orleans area was dry throughout the day with sunny skies. It is a major difference between the two cities, but I must admit that I do miss an occasional incursion of snowflakes, if nothing else than to mark the seasons more prominently. While I did not have a White Christmas, it was the people with whom I shared it that ensured me of a very warm day, indeed.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Wingding in Westwood

The weekend was a blur of activity for me and I am just getting back into the New Orleans groove, punctuated by a cold wave that came through while I was in fast-moving Los Angeles. Everything in L.A. seems to be moving at a faster pace than here in the sleepy South, that is except for the traffic on the highways. Californians seem to accept a nine-mile, 50-minutes run from the airport with little or no alacrity. Apart from the traffic, there is that bright California sun that hangs up in the sky like a China ball spreading warmth and light across the city that bounces across nearby mountains and valleys. I saw no smog on this trip, but it is, after all, winter. The reason for my departure for the Left Coast was a family event: my second cousin Annie's Bat Mitzvah. I mentioned this in an earlier blog. This was the first time I had seen my Uncle Joel's family since his daughter Renee's wedding to Stephen Gingold about 17 years ago. Dr. Joel Smason, a retired orthopaedic surgeon, is the younger brother of my father. At that time many of my father's family were still alive. I rather enjoyed seeing them all gathered together at such a lovely affair at the very swank Beverly Hills Hotel. Back in 1960, I was the ring bearer for my Uncle Joel and Aunt Evelyne's wedding and when their daughter Renee got married, she and her fiancé asked my son David to act as a ring bearer too. The Bat Mitzvah weekend at Sinai Temple began with Friday evening services at the synagogue located on Wilshire Boulevard in a small chapel that was followed by an evening meal in a nearby room. The next morning there was a huge affair in the main synagogue sanctuary and I was asked to read from the Torah scroll during the services. It was a huge responsibility and I was extremely nervous, especially while chanting in front of an audience of five hundred that blossomed to almost 1,000 later in the morning. Apparently I did okay, because most people complimented me, but I still was relieved when it was over. The joyous affair was punctuated by sadness as the death of 83-year-old Torah scholar and president emeritus of American Jewish University Rabbi David Lieber was noted by Senior Rabbi David Wolpe. Wolpe was named this year as the number one pulpit rabbi in America by no less than Newsweek Magazine. He was an impassioned speaker, electing to talk on one man he knew so well whose death had marked the community and the country as opposed to Bernie Madoff, whom he said had generated news but in a wicked way. Wolpe took time to sermonize about the qualities that Lieber had and the effect for goodness in the world he had generated. In Wolpe's case there were times when Lieber's influence on him personally kept him in Los Angeles and helped him and his wife face a battle with cancer. Wolpe's speech about Lieber ultimately pointed out how effective he was in working with disparate groups. The "Etz Chaim ("Tree of Life")," the Chumash or Five Books of Moses the Conservative Movement has used in prayer services since 1999, lists Lieber as senior editor, above all other writers including the eminent Chaim Potok. Following services the family gathered for an impressive Kiddush luncheon repast in one of several large rooms at the facility. The evening party was held at the Brentwood Country Club with a DJ, dancers and a 1960s theme of "Peace, Love and Annie." Annie enjoyed herself and her friends managed to keep dancing until the midnight hour, even taking pity on a cousin from New Orleans who insisted on hitting the dance floor himself to tunes such as "Low" and "All the Single Ladies." The final family event was brunch at the Brentwood Country Club the following morning and early afternoon before I dashed off to the airport with my sister Arlene in tow. She was headed back for Cleveland. I was on my way back to the Big Easy. As it turns out the lines were so long for departures, it was a blessing that I arrived so early and was able to take my time going through security and the check-in process. On reflection the weekend was chock-a-block, but all so worthwhile. It was, after all, family.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Beam Her Up, Scotty

Leave it to me to head for the hills...the Hollywood Hills to learn of the passing of Majel Barrett Roddenberry. Majel (nee Hudec) Barrett, the actress known as Nurse Chapel on the original "Star Trek" TV series of the 1960s was also the widow of series creator Gene Roddenberry. Many of my friends there will note that she was a native Clevelander. True devotees of the series will also recall that Roddenberry cast her as "Number One" on the original pilot for "Star Trek." That pilot starring the late Jeffery Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike of the starship Enterprise was scrapped by network executives who were intrigued enough to order another pilot with another male lead: William Shatner in the immortal role of Captain James Tiberius Kirk. The original pilot was cleverly used in the two-part season two opener titled "The Cage." While playing Nurse Chapel on the TV series, she struggled as a health officer infatuated with Vulcan First Officer and Science Officer Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) while working alongside Chief Medical Officer Leonard McCoy (Deforest Kelly). Barrett Roddenberry wed her husband in Japan in 1969 following the cancellation of the series. She began to attend Star Trek conventions around the country and I recall meeting her at one of the first such events held in New Orleans. Following the death of her husband, Barrett Roddenberry became one of the standard bearers of the Star Trek legacy. She appeared in all of the series that followed and was noted as the voice of the computer in all films that were released bearing the Star Trek logo. She just completed the voice of the computer in the upcoming release that is based on the original series and is to be simply titled "Star Trek." Science fiction fans will note that she also appeared in "Babylon V" and was cast in Roddenberry's "Genesis II," which was his last TV project. Fans including me will miss "The First Lady of Star Trek" whose death from complications of leukemia was December 18. She was 76.
Meanwhile, several years following the death of Linda Lovelace, Mark Felt, the real "Deep Throat," also died the same day. Felt, an Associate Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation was revealed as Woodward and Bernstein's secret source three years ago, who insisted the reporters follow the money trail that eventually brought the Nixon White House down. Felt, 95, passed peacefully in a hospice in Santa Rosa, California.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Madoff's muck

Yeshiva University lost an estimated $110 million. Hadassah, according to a relative that quoted a report from the national president, reportedly lost an estimated $90 million. The Washington D.C. Jewish Federation lost its entire endowment. The American Jewish Congress reportedly lost millions. The Robert I. Lappine Foundation in Massachusetts closed its doors. Major Hollywood players like Steven Spielberg and Jeffery Katzenberg were victims. Real estate tycoons like Mort Zuckerman were taken in by Madoff. There are countless other Jewish organizations and other firms that trusted Bernard Madoff with their investments and are now penniless because of this misplaced trust. The ripples of distrust and unbelief are still radiating throughout the entire Jewish philanthropic world. How one man could be so destructive seems to boggle the mind. Remember that the Enron scandal involved $63.5 billion and Madoff is alleged to have bilked investors out of $50 billion in a Ponzi scheme that very few understand could have lasted for 25 years. But Madoff counted on Jews trusting Jews. A confidence man requires this trust while he practices his particular form of legerdemain. For those who are counting their blessings that they got out of their association with Madoff years ago before it was revealed that he was unscrupulous and downright crooked, there remains the looming possibility that they may not be so lucky. It is increasingly possible they may be forced to repay their funds back to the firm now that Madoff has agreed to a freeze of the assets of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, LLC and that everything in that account is turned over to a receiver, Irving Picard. Andrew Calamari, the SEC enforcement official in charge, announced that Picard will act as Receiver under the Securities Investment Protector Act (SIPA). The potential for this so-called clawback action has lots of former investors especially nervous. Imagine investing with Madoff years ago, getting a payoff, investing with another firm and then taking a huge hit with the decline of the market this past year. It is possible that all of those funds could be forced to be repaid to Picard as Receiver. Picard supersedes the previous Receiver, Lee Richards of Richards Kibbe and Orbe LLP, who continues to act as the Receiver for Madoff Securities International, Ltd. It is all part of the intricately woven web of deceit that is only now coming to light. Many people were surprised to learn that major banks and hedge funds had assigned part of their portfolios to Madoff, based on his performance and promised 8% return to investors. Feeder brokers for financial institutions would regularly send Madoff business, some of which he accepted. At other times, he apparently rejected other customers. For example, a well-known financial institution like Oppenheimer Funds, through its Tremont Funds Group, used Madoff for investment purposes. The amount of litigation that will ensue these actions will clog court dockets for the next decade. Far more badly than the loss to the banking institutions are those heartbreaking cases of couples who invested all of their life savings with Madoff and retired to places like Boca Raton, figuring their nest eggs would last them in their golden years. Now they are all at risk of losing everything they scrimped and saved for over decades. Frantic calls to children and relatives have been reported through the news media. That Madoff took away their life savings is a shame and a tragedy. But his greater crime was that he took away their hope and their independence. Madoff remains under house arrest in his tony $10 million New York City apartment now that the magistrate judge in his case took away his right to leave during the day. Except for court appearances that's where he will stay for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Time to switch browsers

This blog was titled Kosher Computing for a reason. With a goodly number of certifications to my credit, it is my intention to broadcast to cyberspace suggestions on best practices and, when the occasion warrants, to warn of potential problems. If you are using Internet Explorer to read this blog, you are in very serious trouble as of today. As a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer, it is not in my interest to make Microsoft look foolish or imply that their products are in any way less than sterling. However, over the course of the last few days, a serious security vulnerability has been identified by hackers that will allow websites and hackers which know how to manipulate Internet Explorer browsers to learn of passwords. In effect this could allow devious parties to gain access to sensitive information or in a worst case scenario could empty one's financial resources in seconds. The problem was reported on the ABC, Huffington Post and BBC sites among others. Estimates state the problem is mostly confined to websites hosted in the Far East and that only .02% of the world's websites are affected at present. However, that number at present translates to about 10,000 websites and could rise exponentially as soon as hackers get to work trying to take advantage of the vulnerability. For those of you who are looking for a solution, Mozilla's Firefox is probably the best alternative. This open source browser has been a favorite of many Internet surfers for a variety of reasons, chief among them is security and an almost vigilant determination to prevent hackers from doing just what Microsoft's Internet Explorer could be permitting at this juncture. Here's the site to download Firefox 3.0. Other web browsers that are good temporary choices are Safari, Opera or Chrome. It is highly recommended that you switch to one of these until a patch for the problem is announced and available from Microsoft. If you insist on using Internet Explorer, I have a few suggestions. First, if you are using your Administrator account (or an account that has full Computer Administrator privileges), switch to a profile that has limited abilities. You can easily create one under the Users icon found in the Control Panel. Just remember to give the owner or Administrator account a password and don't forget it. I don't recommend ever writing a password down or saving it to a plainly titled file like "Passwords." However, if you switch to a limited user account, the vulnerability probably won't have access to your original account files. You can, of course, share files with yourself, but that defeats the reason for creating the limited access. If there are files you need to use, I recommend copying them to a flash drive and keeping the flash drive plugged in while using the limited access account. Also, if you still insist on using Internet Explorer 7 or the Beta edition Internet Explorer 8, turn Protected Mode on. Make sure to have the latest updates available from the site, which can be located through Tools and the sub-menu Windows Update at the top of the browser. Aware of the problem, Microsoft has just released an emergency patch. You can find the link for the patch here. However, in the meantime, I would still be cautious and use an alternative browser for another day or two until reports are in that suggest the problem has been nipped in the bud. Or, you can do like I do when writing my blog: use a Mac.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Greed and the Madoff mess

According to the most learned of our early rabbis, as expressed in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbos 31a), when we die and are to be judged by the Almighty for how we lived on Earth, we are not checked for how well we prayed, how many mitzvot (commandments) we kept or even how observant we were. Nay, the sages say we are first asked "Were you honest in your business dealings?" It may seem odd, but on closer examination, it makes sense. Whether we are fair with our business clients and come across as ethical and equitable qualifies us as better human beings. If we treat strangers as we would family, then we set the level of ethical behavior in our business dealings as very high, indeed. This, naturally, leads us to consider how a Jew could be so unethical and greedy in his business dealings that he would bring disfavor, disgrace and ruin to so many hundreds of thousands of Jews and Gentiles as Bernard Madoff. For those who have been researching the fallout from the Madoff melee, the figures have been rising daily. There are some Jewish philanthropies like the Robert I. Lappin Foundation that have simply shuttered their doors. The Lappin Foundation's admitted goals were to reverse assimilation and fight interfaith marriage. They did this through teen travel programs to Israel and other programs aimed at heightening Jewish interest. The money to carry on their program has vanished and the foundation felt it had nothing more it could do than terminate its seven employees. Meanwhile other robust, diversified interests hit by the scandal like Yeshiva University and New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon's Sterling Equities are continuing to operate as before the scandal, but all sustained heavy hits. Hollywood mogul Steven Spielberg's Wunderkinder Foundation took a big hit and his Dreamworks Animation SKG partner Jeffrey Katzenberg also reportedly lost millions. Even Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel was reported as one of the victims of the $50 billion fraud. Weisel's Foundation for Humanity was noted as having suffered millions of dollars in losses, perhaps the greatest ignominy to one of the most inspirational voices of the Jewish people. Real estate developer and media tycoon Mort Zuckerman was one of the single investors who reportedly suffered the most. Many Jewish philanthropies headquartered in and around the New York City area are trying to deal with what is clearly a painful prospect at a time when money is especially short and gift-giving is at an all-time low due to the economy. Several Israeli insurance companies such as Clal, Heral, and the Phoenix lost millions, as did Israel's Technion University, which pegged its losses at $25 million. Madoff was a major donor to the UJA-New York Federation, but also was the Chairman of the Board of the Sy Sims School of Business and treasurer of the Board of Trustees at Yeshiva University. Madoff endowed a chair there in he and his wife's name. Madoff, the former president of NASDAQ, bankrolled his name and reputation into a multi-billion dollar concern for almost 25 years. How he got away with this huge Ponzi scheme while wearing the mantle of respectability and veneration as a trusted financial figure remains to be seen. The S.E.C. launched an investigation as early as 1992 on Madoff, but nothing came of it. Even as recently as just a few years ago, investigators could not point to any irregularities in Madoff's books. He managed to keep one step ahead of prosecution, while putting on a grand show and giving everyone the impression that he was a financial wizard. Well, the other shoe has dropped now and the financial fallout may continue to be felt for decades by Jewish philanthropic interests, Israeli corporations and the small investors who were taken in by Madoff's shady business practices. There are many Jews who retired to Boca Raton or in California who have been wiped out by Madoff. Many of them are hoping the 70-year-old Madoff will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, but they all recognize that nothing the government can do will bring back their funds. Madoff is out on $10 million bail, a figure he was able to post with little or no problem. Some, reeling from the stigma of going from millionaire to pauper are thinking they hope Madoff faces financial ruin too. Still others are hoping he has to answer the question about how fair he was in his business dealings very soon.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Guilty verdict in Lake Charles

I had not felt compelled to discuss the Mary Elizaberth "Liz" Marinello murder case until the guilty verdict was rendered yesterday against her estranged husband and local sportscaster Vince Marinello. Much of the circumstantial case centered on Marinello's alibi and a checklist he admits he composed which prosecutors used to show his premeditation in the shooting death of the 45-year-old woman in front of the sleepy Old Metairie neighborhood apartment complex where Vince Marinello had been living under house arrest for much of the last two years. The story captured everyone's attention in New Orleans because of the celebrity involved, reverberations even being felt in Cleveland, where I was living at the time of the murder. Because of enormous pre-trial publicity surrounding the case, the venue was changed from Metairie to Lake Charles, a three-hour drive from New Orleans. The case took place over a two week period with prosecutors putting a number of witnesses to the actual shooting on the stand. In addition, jurors heard from a local arms dealer who testified that Marinello came into his now-closed gun shop to purchase a weapon for protection. According to the gun dealer, he recognized Marinello right away due to his celebrity status from TV and radio stints over the course of the last four decades. According to his testimony, he remembered selling special armor-piercing teflon-tipped 38-caliber bullets that detectives said were used to kill Liz Marinello. Witnesses described seeing a scruffy looking man in shabby clothing with a moustache and beard pacing the area before the two shots that rang out in broad daylight. One witness claimed that she recalled seeing the assailant's eyes and that they were wild-looking. She identified Marinello as having the same eyes. Witnesses reported they saw the same shabbily-attired man quickly pedaling away on a bicycle just after the attack. Prosecutors gave an interesting motive to the crime. They said that Liz Marinello had found out that her husband had not legally divorced his previous wife before marrying her. That meant that Liz Marinello could have leveled a charge of bigamy at the radio sportscaster. A vain and self-centered Marinello surprisingly took the stand to defend himself over the last two days of the trial, a move that must have delighted prosecutors. He tried to explain away his purchasing the faux facial hair from a costume shop as well as his purchase of the gun so close to the murder. His take on the check list detectives discovered in the FEMA trailer he was living in at the time of the murder? According to Marinello, the list was simply notes he had taken regarding his being considered a suspect in the murder and his attempt to counter each one of them. He suggested that he was going to contact Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee, now deceased, to discuss the list and explain how the perpetrator could not possibly be him. Lee's phone number as well as two others and a detailed map of the crime scene were allegedly on the list. Several of the checked items also contained information not known to the public, according to Sheriff's deputies. Such items as "Gun - river on way to mama" didn't seem to gel well with jurors as something that could be easily explained away. He also claimed he had never fired a weapon in his life, then admitted to prosecutors that he had lied and had discharged a weapon on the ground of his property around the time of the murder. That was the reason, he claimed, that gunpowder residue was found inside his car. Marinello's alibi that he left New Orleans at a specific time and was on his way the Byram, Mississippi to watch a Saints game with friends at the time of the murder was challenged by prosecutors who used his cell phone records and tower transmission reports to indiciate that he left New Orleans much later than he claimed. Jurors took only an hour and a half to unanimously find the 71-year-old Marinello guility of second degree murder. The mandatory life sentence carries with it a condition of no possibility of parole or commutation of sentence and the judge in the case says that the sentence will be handed down in two weeks. Marinello's 94-year-old mother met with her son briefly after the verdict was announced in a room adjacent to the courtroom. It will probably be the last time they will see each other without thick glass or iron bars between them or him wearing manacles and chains. In the meantime, Liz Marinello's relatives and friends are considering the verdict as an early Christmas present. Prosecutors state the murder was calculated, premeditated and particularly gruesome. They need only point out that Liz Marinello perished as a result of two shots directed to her face. My feeling is that justice has been served, but that all of those involved in the murder case -- with the possible exception of the now gleeful prosecutors -- have all been put through a great deal of unnecessary torment and pain. Perhaps, the healing process can move forward as still-grieving family members hope to gain closure and move on and Marinello is sent to prison for the rest of his life.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Snow in the Crescent City

Pictured above: a palm tree, my home and the historic St. Charles Streetcar in the New Orleans snow

The last time I recall a snowfall in New Orleans was on December 25, 2004; like everything else we use to gauge time here, it was pre-Katrina. Truly, it was a White Christmas. At that time it snowed for a little over an hour in the This morning the snowfall has been falling steadily for well over an hour and the grass has begun to be covered by a thin layer of the white stuff. People in my former abode in Cleveland are used to dealing with much larger accumulations than we will see today, but the fact that it is snowing is a big deal and probably a lot more dangerous, since most people here don't know how to drive on snow or ice. Also, there are virtually no contingencies prepared to deal with snow or ice on the roads or highways here and, given the lack of abilities of drivers to navigate through snow, there is potential for a good number of accidents. Some bridges have been closed due to icing, but most major roadways, including those with elevated portions, were kept open. All of that notwithstanding, it is a very pretty, albeit a very rare sight in New Orleans.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The right of return and Rubashkin

A fairly dangerous precedent that could have ramifications for all Jews was just set in an Iowa courtroom on December 5. In a story filed by JTA recently, lawyers for Sholom Rubashkin, the former supervisor of the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking facility in Postville, Iowa, asked a judge to reconsider his decision to deny bail in the case. In Rubashkin's case, prosecutors have stressed the possibility that Rubashkin could avoid jurisdictional prosecution for hiring illegal workers and bank fraud by fleeing the country and seeking sanctuary in Israel. They cite Israel's Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to every Jew, as their primary concern. Apparently, the judge agreed, particularly when it was pointed out that two former Agriprocessors employees also suspected for illegal acts did, in fact, flee and are presumed to be living now in the Jewish State. To his defense, Rubashkin's attorneys have offered to provide additional measures, such as 24-hour monitoring and any other security measures as determined by the court. They argue that Rubashkin has deep roots and connections to his family and the Postville community and that he is unlikely to be a flight risk. Several of Rubashkin's family members also agreed to post bonds with the equity built up in their homes in order to guarantee his appearance in court. Where the arguments may seem plausible, the thin veneer behind the prosecution suggests that any high-placed Jew under suspicion or facing indictment for alleged criminal acts could be denied bail due to the Law of Return and the possibility of flight to Israel to avoid prosecution. "That means that 5,300,000 Americans would be viewed as heightened bail risks simply because they are Jews" wrote Rubashkin's attorneys in their pleadings before the judge. Ironically, they point out, the Law of Return, intended to be used to provide sanctuary for persecuted Jews, is now being used as the basis for detaining a Jew, who were he not Jewish, would probably be freed on bail. As Rubashkin's attorneys pointed out, two Supreme Court Justices and the current Attorney General of the United States could, likewise, be considered Israeli flight risks. This is a very dangerous precedent and smacks of unequal application of the law and a possible deprivation of Rubashkin's civil rights. Whether Rubashkin is innocent or guilty is of no import here. He should have his day in court to determine that. However, an Israeli law should not be used to keep him confined while preparing for his defense in a court of American justice.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Times They Are A'Changing

The last several days have been a whirlwind of deep introspection and elections. While I was working with the Chilankatoba Lodge of the Order of the Arrow, Scouting's National Honor Society, I had an opportunity to take part in ritual work that dates back to the order's founding in 1915. The experience was deeply personal and quite thrilling. As a result of my time spent in the outdoors, I achieved a greater connection to my fellow Arrowmen, much of which I can't and won't discuss. Suffice it to say that it will be something that I will treasure for the remainder of my days as I continue my association with some of the finest young men and dedicated Scouters I have been privileged to know. It was late Saturday night that I perchance was in my car driving back to my campsite when I heard the unbelievable news. William Jefferson, the controversial nine-time U.S. representative from Louisiana's Second Congressional District had been defeated by a relative unknown, a 41-year-old political newcomer named Anh Joseph Cao (pronounced Gow to rhyme with cow). Cao became the very first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress. Jefferson was stunned, especially after defeating Democratic challenger and former newscaster Helena Moreno last month and emerging from the primary as the frontrunner a month earlier. Blame it all on Hurricane Gustav, the storm which preempted the Democratic primary scheduled for the first Saturday in September. With Jefferson forced into the runoff with Moreno in November, many of the members of his district -- gerrymandered to maintain a large black population -- thought he had won it all at the same historic moment in time when Barack Obama was elected the nation's first African-American president. But in reality the final election took place this weekend and Gao took advantage of extremely low voter turnout (60,000+ versus 160,00+ the month before) to capture the Congressional seat from Jefferson. To Gao's credit, he is a capable lawyer who was strongly supported by the local Vietnamese-American community in addition to those in the electorate who were embarrassed by Jefferson's recent indictment and pending trial as well as other indictments leveled at other family members. The Jefferson family once considered one of New Orleans' most powerful may soon be one of the most convicted if but some of the charges leveled against Jefferson's brother Mose, sister Betty others are proved in court. Had Jefferson run against Cao in November, there is little doubt that he would be back on Capitol Hill for another two-year term. As it turns out, a new face will be representing New Orleans, albeit for the minority party. In addition Cao will have very little power to wield in his inaugural term given the fact that he was elected as the junior member of Congress last Saturday and that all of the major committee assignments have already been handed out. But it's not really much of a loss of power for Louisiana: Jefferson had been stripped of his leadership posts when the indictments were first handed down. So, it seems like a win-win proposition. The people of Louisiana win and Cao wins. Or, perhaps it's a lose-lose situation: Jefferson loses and the people of Louisiana lose an embarrassing, impotent leader who had outlived his political usefulness.
Meanwhile, I note with sadness the passing of folk singer and American music legend Odetta last week. Odetta was a powerful voice in the Fifties and Sixties, who inspired folk singers like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, both of whom went on to become even more well known voices for change in the country. In 1965 my mother, father and uncle promoted a concert at Loyola Field House with Odetta during a time when the civil rights struggle was in full swing. Her deep vibrato seemed to well up from within her soul, while her acoustic guitar was used as both a rhythmic and percussive device. Here's al link to a fellow Jewish blogger, Danny Miller's"Jew Eat Yet" tribute to Odetta. Odetta, who sang at the side of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial when he delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, was slated to repeat a performance at the historic inauguration of Barack Obama. In fact her most recent album, "Odetta: Lookin' for a Home" was nominated for a Grammy Award. Odetta was 77.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Flying my flag in the face of festivity

I am not a member of an insular Jewish community. I will be the first to admit that. Nevertheless, were I to live among the more observant community, I would have to be blind, deaf and dumb were I not to admit that the overwhelming message of the holiday season seems to have very little or nothing at all to do with my religion. Living as I do in a an old, but small Jewish community, it is a challenge to deal with all of the outside holiday trimmings and keep on target towards enjoying a spiritually meaningful Jewish experience. There is guilt in that we must acknowledge in one way or another that the ongoing hoopla and rush to the stores is in response to a gift-giving holiday that begins with a "C" that is not Chanukah,. I remind all of my Jewish friends and relatives that Chanukah celebrates victory over oppression and a rededication of spirit and really has nothing to do with the giving or receiving of gifts. That expression of holiday celebrations is a much more recent invention that permits well-meaning Jews who want to be included in the "spirit" of the Christmas season to take an active part. All Jews are commanded to do is light the Chanukah lights each night and say blessings. The gift giving is entirely up to us. Having grown up in a Southern Orthodox home, it was not until I was a seven-year-old that I learned that my family was different from most of the others. It seemed wrong that I couldn't have presents and enjoy colorful lights and beautifully festooned trees that seemed somehow magical. And then there were the TV specials like "Frosty the Snowman," "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and movies like "It's a Wonderful Life" that all hawked the significance of Christmas. To a kid like me I craved programs like that. There was virtually nothing on Chanukah. I have to face it: Chanukah songs like "Rock of Ages" or "Ma'otz Tzur" are stirring calls to arms and pride in faith. "I Have a Little Dreidel" is very cute. Yet they pale in comparison to the dozens of Christmas melodies that permeate the airwaves and clog store shelves at this time of year declaring peace, universal love, and religious faith. In fact the family record store I managed and worked in from my early years depended heavily on the income derived from holiday sales in order to keep afloat each year. Suffice it to say we didn't depend on sales from the Jewish community in support of Chanukah or we would have shuttered our doors decades ago. I do take a bit of Jewish pride in remembering that Irving Berlin wrote the biggest holiday sellers for both Christmas and Easter. So, it is a challenge to keep faithful at this time of year despite the barrage of billboards, advertisements and commercials thrown in all directions. And the question that many in the Jewish community ask each year: "Is it permissible to wish a non-Jew holiday greetings?" and if so should we say 'Merry Christmas' or just 'Happy Holidays?'" I’m certainly not the person to ask for a ruling here, because the answer depends on one’s level of observance and comfort in relating to others. Frankly, in my business dealings, it was expected that extending seasonal greetings to non-Jewish clients was not only good form, but essential to keeping them as customers. Personally, I don’t consider myself a bad Jew by wishing someone else a good holiday observance or celebration of his or her own. It is not something that will test my faith, but some will differ with me on this point, so I will leave that up to sharper wits and greater minds to debate. So on this first week of December, as I am overwhelmed by the green and red trimming that abounds, I take one small step for myself to give me a sense of identity and to make me feel at ease in a sea of festivity not of my own, but to which I relate in a small way. Today I display my Chanukah flag. As the blue, white and golden figure of a Chanukiah unfurls in the wind, I see it as a tiny gesture of Jewish identity on my part. The flag flies bravely in the face of an overwhelming majority in a land where, thankfully, we are free to follow different religious paths – whether insular or not – and feel good about ourselves at a special time of the year for all religions when we all truly should.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Who is Radio-J and why does it sound like me?

Starting very soon at an Internet radio station near you is my newest venture. Fans of my writing have been enjoying or dealing with my Kosher Computing blog for almost a year. Now, through the magic of the Internet, everyone who is interested will be able to not only read my words, but hear them as well. It's all part of the programming over Radio-J, the Jewish Internet radio station heard at . Radio-J is the brainchild of Cleveland area broadcasters Phil Fink and his son and program director Shawn. Phil has been a fixture of the Cleveland airwaves for over four decades with his "Shalom America" program. His son has followed in his illustrious broadcaster father's footsteps, putting together an impressive lineup of commercial-free Jewish programs that can be heard at any time of the day with just a simple mouse click. The key program on is Shalom America Worldwide, a live program anchored by the elder Fink on a Monday through Friday basis from 9 a.m. to 12 noon, Eastern Time. Other programming includes stories for kids, "Chai Time" for young adults, chazzanut from various cantors in a program titled "Cantor's World" and even a resident psychologist, Dr. Mark, who offers advice and information. Now enters yours truly with radio commentaries that I hope will be insightful, humorous, timely and pertinent to Judaism in one way or another. "Spinning your Jewish web" the website proclaims and in short order listening to the beautiful Jewish music heard on the website will become a habit. Aside from my writing, I have had extensive experience as a broadcaster since the 1970s. So, please welcome me, your friendly neighborhood webslinger as I make my humble entrance over the airwaves of Radio-J. It's enough to make my Yiddishe Mama smile.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

An opportunity for mitzvah in the midst of mourning

Monday night and elsewhere around the world, Chabad organizations began to unveil a very determined and organized campaign to keep the spirit of Rabbi Gavriel and Rebbetzin Rivkah Holtzberg alive several days after their shattered bodies were discovered at the Nariman House, the Chabad House in Mumbai. While similar faith-based groups might point to the need to keep their programs alive and campaign for monetary contributions in the memory of those lost, Chabad asked instead for a commitment from those attending the memorials that was far more lasting than financial. After showing short videos on the lives and sharing some of the experiences of the Holtzbergs, they asked for mitzvahs to be observed. They asked that Jews be more Jewish in the way they live so that the Holtzbergs loss to the world would become more of a blessing than a tragedy. Women who never light Shabbat candles or men who never lay teffillin (phylacteries), for example, were encouraged to start. Everyone was asked to learn to read Torah or to begin to keep a kosher home. What they asked for in return were small items to some, but reflected a lifetime of commitment to Jewish faith and practice. Chabad's shluchim reflect on the Hebrew word shaliah, which means "legal emissary." The first shaliah to whom the Torah refers is Eliezer, who was sent by Abraham to find a wife for his son Issac. The Chabad organization has sent hundreds of shluchim across the globe for decades to areas that are somewhat devoid of observance (domestic posts like here in New Orleans) and to places that are flashpoints for violence or under oppression from governments (places like the Congo and Morocco come to mind). Similar husband and wife or rabbi and rebbetzen teams have willingly left the relative safety of American homes to struggle in far-away lands attempting to build Jewish homes and community. It is incredible for me to consider that they are all observant Jews inspiring others there with acts of chesed (kindness) and ask nothing more than that Jews live a more observant lifestyle. To this end the site has created a "good deed" site where others can pledge their mitzvot (commandments) in memory of the Holtzbergs. Meanwhile, the Holtzbergs were buried to the tears of hundreds of compatriots and family members there. Both Holtzbergs carried Israeli citizenship, although Rabbi Gavriel was a naturalized American who held dual citizenship. Tragically, the Holtzbergs lost a very young daughter to a genetic disease this past year and the fact that Rivkah was six months pregnant at the time of her murder was revealed by her grandfather, a Chabad rabbi living there. The brightest spot in the midst of this very grave event was the successful rescue of Moshe, the Holtzbergs' son who turned two this past Saturday. The nanny, Sandra Samuel, is being considered for the coveted title of "Righteous Gentile," a term that Yad Vashem, the Israeli organization that bestows the honor, usually only considers for rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust who did so at great peril to themselves. Obviously, Samuel's actions meant life for the Holtzberg family in the midst of death. Her brave actions ensured the survival of the young boy who cried "Ima...Ima! (Mama...Mama!) at his parents' funeral yesterday. She arrived in Israel on a visa Monday night and will stay with Moshe for at least a year. If bestowed the title of Righteous Gentile, Samuel may elect to stay there permanently. In the meantime, one does not have to be Jewish to remember the victims of the Mumbai Massacre. There were 172 people slaughtered in coordinated attacks of terror in the city formerly known as Bombay. If we all do one thing in remembrance of those slain -- act with kindness towards one of our fellow humans near us -- we will honor their memories to the penultimate degree and cheat their murderers of any victory.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The heat is on

December came around and I figured it was about time to finally fire up the heater. This is, after all, New Orleans. It does get cold here at this time of year, but compared to other places around the country, such as my former abode in Cleveland, the cold is less severe, yet nonetheless bitter. It is the humidity that pervades our sub-tropical clime that makes our summers so sticky and hard to take for visitors and which in winter contributes to make chills go right through one's bones. I remember being cold in Cleveland, but I was able to wear layers (underwear, shirt, sweater, jacket) and I felt rather toasty when all was said and done. Here in the Crescent City, no matter what layers one wears, the cold pierces like a knife. And it is so much worse when the wind blows. The wind is the great equalizer in winter. It can cripple the most stalwart of the brave as the temperature plummets ever more downward.
Speaking of things heading downward, I want to thank the geniuses at the National Bureau of Economic Research who announced that we have officially been in a recession since last December. The nearly 700 point plunge that the Dow Jones Index took yesterday following their announcement canceled several of the best performances on Wall Street in the previous week when some insiders were hoping things might be stabilizing. Letting us know that we are officially in a recession some 12 months after the fact is like announcing that Britney Spears is pregnant...for the first time! Oh, well, now that the cat's out of the bag, perhaps we won't be pussyfooting about what to call this economic downturn. Recession...that starts with an "r." Let's hope that we don't hear any other pronouncements from them about any words that start with a "d."