Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Could the two older Jackson kids be Yids?

With all of the attention given to the three children of Michael Jackson, there is an interesting aspect to the two oldest of his brood. When Debbie Rowe bore the Gloved One his first two children, Jackson, a former member of the Seventh Day Adventists and a high profile member of the Church of Scientology, became the dad of two Jewish children. While Prince Michael and Paris Michael Jackson have probably never ventured near a synagogue or entertained the thought of having a Bat or Bar Mitzvah, the weird fact is that Rowe has finally admitted that she was born and had been raised as a Jewess. According to halacha (rabbinic law), any child born to a Jewish mother (or whose maternal grandmother was Jewish) is considered a member of the tribe. In addition, there have been new allegations that Debbie Rowe's former boss, dermatologist Arnie Klein, who is also Jewish and a longtime Jackson associate, was the actual biological father of Prince I and Paris. Not that this makes any difference to what the children consider themselves. All three (including the youngest, Prince Michael II, born to a surrogate mother) are the children of Michael Jackson. But the religious questions swirling around his children's religious affiliation remain to be sorted out. The children were raised by a nanny who is reportedly Muslim, something that alarmed Rowe, according to court documents she filed in the past on behalf of her two biological children. Whatever religious or spiritual background Michael Jackson imposed upon his three children is speculative. Katherine Jackson, Michael's mother and the court-dictated guardian of the children, has been a very committed member of the Jehovah's Witnesses church. How this tragedy continues to develop remains to be seen. Ultimately, though, all of his surviving children will need divine inspiration in the coming months, while a permanent home is determined for them by the courts, and they cope with the loss of the only parent they've ever known.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

AJPA Conference

Former AJPA president Rob Certner with a former CJN reporter at left.

Like everyone else, the members of the American Jewish Press Association (AJPA) have been hit hard by the economic crisis. Moreover, the newspaper industry in general and niche publishing in particular have been severely bleeding red ink due to lack of advertising and shrinking readership. The advent of the Internet as a main source of news for young readership has cast a pall over the future of the newspaper industry. Nevertheless, the AJPA, an organization representing 250 Jewish organizations, publishers, advertising sales directors and writers decided to meet this week in Evanston, Illinois (just north of Chicago). It's hard to encapsulate three days of mostly round-the-clock work, but I will endeavor to do so. Frankly, the demeanor of the attendees was somber, but hopeful. Much of the sessions employed by the AJPA gave members opportunities to evaluate where their institutions could make cuts and use their abilities to maintain the course during the turbulent financial times ahead. The American Press Institute's Andrew Davis representing its Newspaper Next project led several SWOTs exercises to determine the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to each member's organization. This took over two days of concentrated introspection and evaluation. It was very revealing and, hopefully, provided members some insight into where they can apply first or second aid once they return to their respective publications. Aside from the work there were opportunities to network and to glean from respected longtime members how they are weathering this current crisis. Thursday night the Rockower Awards for excellence in Jewish journalism were acknowledged in short ceremonies at the Spertus Museum on Michigan Avenue across from historic Grant Park at Lake Michigan. The comraderie among AJPA members was palpable, but genuine. I got to catch up with retiring Cleveland Jewish News (CJN) CEO Rob Certner as well as present CJN advertising director Jennifer Woomer and publisher/editor-in-chief Michael Bennett. It was great to see them as well as to see others whose previous stewardship in the AJPA have made them respected veterans. It was the first time in three decades that my former editor, Cynthia Dettelbach, who just retired from the CJN at the end of last month, had failed to attend the AJPA conference. Hats off to AJPA executive director Toby Dershowitz and associate director Natasha Nadel, whose hard work made the conference a glittering success. Although a decision hasn't been made yet on next year's conference, I am hoping to attend that as well. The future of Jewish journalism may be less sure than it has in the past, but the AJPA is working to guarantee that those who survive will be better prepared to meet the challenge head on.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The man in the mirror and the girl on the poster

My head was still reeling from the news of the passing of Farrah Fawcett when everyone at the American Jewish Press Association in Chicago started receiving news over their Blackberrys and iPhones  of the death of the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Nearby Gary, Indiana was the birthplace of the musical icon who, along with his brothers, took the world by storm in 1969 beginning with "I Want You Back." Jackson, 50,  was eccentric and controversial in his later years, but no less than another pop icon, Elvis Presley, who passed away tragically at 42. One cannot forget that Jackson married the King's daughter, Lisa Marie. Fame and fortune did not bring either of them true happiness. In the end the two musical figures died shut away from the outside world, seeking privacy and solace that all of the money could not bring them. Jackson had his Neverland, while Presley had his Graceland. Both were supreme influences over popular music and in their heydays no one could eclipse them. Jackson sold over 750 million albums and his "Thriller" album still holds records for sales that may never be breached. The world will continue to mourn his early demise despite the insinuations and suggestions of improper behavior with juveniles that will cast a cloud over his sunny career. While Jackson changed his skin color and facial characteristics over the course of the last several decades, Fawcett hardly ever changed her truly beautiful countenance. Cancer was her companion these last three years in addition to her love, Ryan O'Neal. It was announced a few days ago that the two would be married, but the ceremony was never held due to her condition. In the end she resembled only a shadow of her former beauty, yet her strength of character and her determination to fight with all of her being shone through, captured through Alana Stewart's moving documentary. Fawcett's iconic poster was on the walls of most of the teenagers and young men who grew up in the 70s. The Jackson Five's "ABC" and other top sellers were on the phonographs of that same crowd. My high school senior class song was "I'll Be There." Both of these figures will be sorely missed by my generation and those that have and will follow. Fawcett's talent may take a back seat to Jackson's musical genius, but the fact they are both gone on the same day within hours of one another will always strike me as strange and odd.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Computing another loss

For the fourth time in the last month I attended a funeral or memorial service yesterday. Two of the memorial services were Christian in nature. At one, the tragic ecumenical services for a 13-year-old Boy Scout from my troop, bread and grape juice were offered in an attempt to emulate the Eucharist, while at the second, an equally tragic service for a young adult son of a longtime friend and client at an Episcopal church, songs and readings were offered for comfort. At both of those services, there was no body or coffin on display. The last two funerals were Jewish in nature and coffins carrying the remains of the dead were prominetn. Both of the services were held at the same cemetery with graveside services conducted by Congregation Beth Israel Rabbi Uri Topolosky. Last week's funeral service was for a contemporary's octogenarian mother. Her life was chronicled Yesterday was similar in nature, but despite a smaller crowd, the feeling was a bit more telling because the deceased was a Holocaust survivor. Many survivors of the Shoah came to the New Orleans area following their liberation from concentration camps and eventual confinement in displaced persons camps. Between 1946 and 1950 a number of these victims elected to settle in the Crescent City rather than stay in other, larger Jewish communities in the Northeast, in Florida or in California. These refugees formed the New Americans Social Club as a means to band together and collectively integrate into what to them was a foreign culture. Through the years they became a force to be reckoned with; they became galvanized when American Nazis threatened to boycott a film. "Never again" has been their clarion call, but, sadly, many of them have passed on now. Their children and grandchildren document their survival, but the numbers of the survivors are diminishing with each passing year. This last service ended with the singing of "Hatikvah," now the national anthem of the State of Israel, but a song with greater meaning to a people who had only "hope" for a period of time following the war before their arrival in America.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Melton Adult Mini-School for a mini adult

Melton graduates sing for their diplomas at graduation on June 11

I am a graduate! For the sixth time in New Orleans, a class of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School has graduated and each person received a degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (as in Israel) to prove it. The process began almost two years ago following my return to the city from Cleveland and my attending a "Melton minute" intended to give interested potential students insight into what the courses are like. The short course was led by Rabbi Martha Bergadine, who has since moved with her husband (also a rabbi) to Hong Kong. Two other teachers of my first year courses, Rabbis Julie Kozlow and Miriam Lichtenfeld, also departed for other posts in South Carolina and New York, but they made great impressions on me as teachers while they were here last year. Also, both last year and this, my own synagogue's Rabbi Uri Topolosky taught the first hour for my Melton classes. The beautiful aspect of the Melton coursework is that it is neither Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Secular or whatever bent one ascribes to Jewish philosophical thinking. It is all of these leanings and more with references gleaned from the Torah, the Talmud, and from eminent Jewish thinkers from the past several thousand years. Many of the issues we tackled dealt with morals and ethics and covered such controversial topics as abortion and euthanasia in addition to the seemingly mundane (but very important) Shabbat worship and kosher observance. So, after nearly two years of weekly classes, am I a better Jew? Most definitely! A friend of mine and I saw each other this past week at a friend's funeral. It turns out he was confronting the subject of death in his Melton class a few months ago. Both of us understood deeper meanings and had a shared experience despite the fact that he lives in Salt Lake City and we hadn't seen each other in over a decade. Yes, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School will be something I will always treasure and I look forward to even more graduate-level courses in future years and, perhaps, a trip to Israel designed by Hebrew University of Jersualem to put the final frosting on the cake.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Boy Scout Camp Blues

2009 Troop 48 contingent to Camp V-Bar

Last Sunday I packed up my S.U.V. and headed off to beautiful, hot and humid Camp V-Bar at the Salmen Scout Reservation. For those who were once Boy Scouts or had kids who were, the importance of Scout camp can not be understated. It is the only way for several Merit Badges like Environmental Science, Swimming and Camping to be earned, while affording Scouts an opportunity to do extended camping in a safe, protected environment. There is no greater responsibility for an adult leader as to when he or she is placed in charge of a troop of Scouts far away from telephones and television. Keeping the Scouts inspired to work on advancement and to enjoy time away from family and friends is hard work, but in the end so worthwhile. The task of a Scoutmaster is lessened by the support he or she enjoys from other Scouters (adult leaders), who take time off from work to share the workload. Frankly, it is tough work. Imagine, though, what it would be like with only one person having to do it all. That is why I was there: to lend a hand and to make the Scouts know they could count on me as well. In the process of walking back and forth from one venue to another I went up and down hills and along dirt trails and unpaved roads. The shoes I wore, which were walking shoes, apparently did not absorb much of the impact. I spent some time at the infirmary dealing with the fallout from the trauma to my feet, which eventually cost me my toenail on the second toe of my right foot and a portion of the same toe on my left foot due to infection. I am moving a bit more slowly today, but the knowledge that I gave a portion of myself (literally) in order to help the Scouts from my troop improve themselves and advance in rank is quite comforting. And besides...the doctor says my toenails will grow back six months from now. That means I'll be ready for another Scouting adventure next summer.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Obama Way

Fresh off his historic appeal to the Muslim world from Egypt, President Barack Hussein Obama made his way to Germany to address the horrors of the Holocaust. He journeyed today to Buchenwald, the final resting place of tens of thousands of Jews including among them a young teenager in the final days of the war who went on to speak on behalf of all of the victims of the Shoah. That man is Elie Wiesel and he accompanied the president today. It was a trip that was historic on a number of fronts, but following yesterday's outreach to Arab and Palestinian intersts that angered a number of Israelis, it was, perhaps, necessary to set the record straight that this president decries inhumane treatment and genocide. Calling Holocaust denial statements as "ignorant, baseless and hateful," President Obama made sure to visit the concentration camp that his Uncle Charles Payne had helped liberate 64 years ago as a young U.S. soldier. Payne will join in services in Normandy commemorating the 65th aniversary of D-Day tomorrow. However, the memories of what he saw still so haunt his psyche that he could not make that trip, despite urging from his famous nephew. "It is understandable that someone who had witnessed what had taken place here would be in a state of shock," said Obama. German president Ana Merkel and Obama placed white roses at several places at Buchenwald, symbols of German resistance to the Nazis. While largely symbolic, the visit does say a lot about the President's commitment to the Jewish people. Like what he may say to the Muslim world or not, Jews must know that the ties between the United States and Israel is, in Obama's own word "unbreakable." It may not make everyone in the Jewish world love him, but it will go a long way to making them understand that his administration will be even-handed in how they approach solutions towards peace in the Middle East.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

When Isaiah Met Nola

Isaiah Funds president Jeffery Dekro applauds as he receive a $225,000 check from the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation. This follows a half-million check from Isaiah Funds to Gulf Coast Housing Partners.

About a year ago I had the opportunity to meet representatives of an unusual group, a consortium of interfaith-based groups devoted to helping meet the needs of the ongoing recovery effort in New Orleans's Central City area. Isaiah Funds is composed of disparate philanthropic groups like Jews for Justice, CHRISTUS Health and MMA (an investing arm of the Mennonite Church). The Isaiah Funds managers are determined to provide millions of dollars in loans to needy areas such as Central City. The rebuilding effort in Central City began at least a decade ago. Yes, this was prior to the Hurricane Katrina tragedy. If it might be said that any one area benefited from the fallout of the flooding, Central City could well be considered. No amount of flooding could have washed away the sins of the city fathers who had allowed it to dilapidate into such a crime-riddled, depressed area before 2005. If anything, the loss of property in the area to the flooding helped clear the way for a new possibility in the area. To be sure, it is still a high crime area, but with the loss of the C. J. Peete and St. Thomas Housing Projects, many of the denizens of violent crime have been relocated. Some never returned from evacuated cities like Houston. According to the city's master plan, these areas in Central City are due to become multiple mixed housing units, some owner-owned, which should bring about pride and stability in a large city region that has had little of each. Monday brought about the first anniversary of the launch of the Isaiah Funds and as many as 60 strategic partners whose faith-based missions have become allies met in New Orleans at Loyola University to tour the city and see real measured progress. They toured several areas in transition, many of which are still devastated from the effects of the post-Katrina flooding. Then, they toured the area of Central City bordering on the former Dryades Street, now renamed Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. Dryades Street was known decades ago as "the second Canal Street," a retail area that was largely composed of Jewish merchants, many of whom served a significant area there that was largely Jewish. After World War II, the area began to fall on hard times and by the 1970's was largely in need of urban renewal. Many African-Americans did their shopping for bargains on Dryades Street in an era that was devoid of Wal-Marts and K-Marts. Many African-American merchants began their careers on what is now Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, but so many of the storefronts still remain vacant. An exception is the Ashé Cultural Center, constructed on the site of the former Venus Gardens grocery store. Participants gathered there before breaking up into two groups and embarking on a close-up tour of the area. They then reconvened at Cafe Reconcilé, a training ground for chefs and wait staff for the service industry. The delegates dined on broiled chicken, sweet potatoes, collard greens, and famous New Orleans red beans and rice (side order of sausage were also available. Following desert of their James Beard Award winning Bananas Foster bread pudding, everyone applauded as a check for $500,000 was presented to Gulf Coast Housing Partners, one of the major developers in Central City, by the Isaiah Funds executives there, chief among them Jeffery Dekro, who also serves as the executive vice-president of Jewish Funds for Justice. The Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation came up with their own check to Isaiah Funds in the amount of $225,000. These funds will certainly fuel the economic recovery machine that is just now gearing up into full steam with several projects that will completed by year's end like phase one of The Muses, a mixed income housing complex. Progress is slow, but it is coming.

Monday, June 1, 2009

New Hurricane Season and the loss of Angus

Today marks the opening day of the 2009 Hurricane Season. Just four years ago I was sitting here in New Orleans preparing for a summer that was full of adventure with little thought that a Category 4 or 5 storm might ravage the city and lead to the catastrophic failure of the levee system that protects the city from various drainage canals. I had my own misguided sense of safety, foolishly thinking that nothing could lead to the city of my birth being flooded by as much as 80% with waters as high as 15 feet or more. Hurricane Katrina changed all of that, even though I was already out of town when it chose to bear down on New Orleans, a fact that still makes me reel in disbelief. Had I been here, I probably would have saved more of my "stuff," but I would probably have lost my car. I'm sure I would never have been able to rebound so well and gain a position at the Cleveland Jewish News while taking refuge in that city. My being there already garnered me a first place position in line for assistance and, given that so few people came up to Cleveland to seek assistance, I made out very well. Nevertheless, I became a productive member of the city, paying local and state taxes while working over a year and a half there. It took almost two years for me to return, but I have now been back in New Orleans longer than my entire stay in Cleveland which lasted over two winters there. So, every June 1 brings a wake-up call to me and my fellow citizens. It's time to get prepared to meet any challenges head on and remember the not-so-distant past. Any day during hurricane season without a storm is a good day.
Meanwhile, my favorite Times-Picayune columnist, Angus Lind, has retired. Ever since I began my journalism career, I have written humor columns. In high school it was "With Pen in Hand and Foot in Mouth." I wrote "Quotations from Chairman Smason" during my stint at the Tulane Hullabaloo. This blog is intended to be a variant of a humor column, although not as many articles have been as funny as I would have liked. Nevertheless, it was with sadness that I learned yesterday that Angus, who had been writing since the 1970's, was calling it quits and penned his last column yesterday, a reflective look back at his 6,000 columns written over four decades. Angus always had my dream job in journalism: writing a humor column three or four times a week. I will admit that I could have deluded myself into believing I was in his category of writer. I can tell you I am not. His was a gift that was born from hard work and dedication and I will truly miss his wonderful and wacky way of relating everything from the crazy and kooky characters of N'Awlins (Allen "Black Cat" Lacombe and Ruthy the Duck Girl) to dealing with local sports legends (Buddy D. and others). His job is gone and will not be replaced, due to the current state of the newspaper industry, which is making fewer do more with less. Nevertheless, Angus wrote from the heart and his heart was mighty big. It still is. His plans call for him to continue writing, so perhaps I will follow a new blog or other similar endeavor soon enough. This is still a daring time for the newspaper industry with so many challenges that a number of people are opting out of work and grabbing attractive retirement packages while the getting is good. It may soon be that newspapers may fire employees and offer no exit packages. So, all of my best to Angus and his family. I trust he will do well. So sad that my dream job has now become a nightmare. Anybody out there looking, let me know. Should I hold up a sign: "WILL WORK FOR 401.K"?