Thursday, September 30, 2010

Bernie, we'll miss you

Following the death last week of crooner Eddie Fisher and longtime Hollywood actress Gloria Stuart ("Titanic"), came the tragic announcement yesterday of the passing of comic Greg Girardo of TV's "Last Comic Standing." Fisher, the popular Jewish singer with standard hits like "Oh, My Papa" died from complications from hip surgery. He was the former husband of Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds and the father of actress Carrie Fisher, who herself became an icon for the 70's and 80's generations because of her role as Princess Leia in the "Star Wars" trilogy. Stuart was 100 at the time of her death and so her passing was not entirely unanticipated, but she had been a major mover and shaker in the acting community since the Silent Era. Girardo, 44, whose appearances at numerous Comedy Central roasts were often laced with obscenities, was not considered a top-tier comedian. Indeed, he struggled for much of his career to make a bigger name for himself, but no one could have expected that the unshaven comic would accidentally take his own life. He was rushed to the hospital on Sunday, but died Wednesday, despite the efforts of doctors there to revive and stabilize him. Early this morning it was revealed that the so-called "Prince of Hollywood," Tony Curtis had expired from cardiac arrest. He was 85. Born to Hungarian Jewish immigrants as Bernard (or as he liked to refer to himself) "Bernie" Schwartz, the future Hollywood heartthrob had a very hard upbringing in the Bronx, suffering beatings by his father and dealing with the rantings of his schizophrenic mother. At one point he and his younger brother Julius were institutionalized when his parents could not take care of them any longer. Although he was reunited with his parents after a month, the teenager was further traumatized four years later when Julius was killed as a 12-year-old after being struck by a car. In "American Prince: A Memoir" he noted how he endured countless incidents of anti-Semetism throughout his time on the mean streets of New York. The handsome and charming young man spent his time as a seaman in the Navy during World War II and used money from the G. I. Bill to finance his study of acting prior to his moving to Hollywood. His early screen roles were not memorable and, as was the norm during the studio era, he was encouraged to change his name. He picked Tony Curtis, taking on the first name from his favorite novel "Anthony Adverse" and his new surname from the Anglicized name of his favorite uncle named Kurtz. Among the roles for which Curtis garnered fame were those opposite Marilyn Monroe in "Some Like It Hot," Kirk Douglas in "Spartacus," Burt Lancaster in "The Sweet Smell of Success" and his future wife, Janet Leigh, in "Houdini." His work with Sidney Portier in "The Defiant Ones," in which the two played escaped convicts handcuffed together, won him his only Academy Award nomination. Curtis, whose well-publicized marriage to Leigh was not long lived (nine years), was known about Hollywood as a major womanizer with reported trysts with Monroe and Natalie Wood among dozens of starlets. He married five other times. He was also the poster boy for drug abuse, having admitted to dosing himself on everything from booze to marijuana to cocaine and heroin. He checked himself into rehab on several occasions, but admitted that it was always a struggle for him. Ironically, his 23-year-old son Nicholas from his longest marriage to his third wife (Leslie Allen), died in 1992 from a heroin overdose. Although he did appear in several movie roles in his later years, Curtis turned his professional efforts towards painting, commanding $25,000 per canvas for his post-Impressionist works. A little-known passion for Curtis was his work with the Emanuel Foundation for Hungarian Culture he founded in 1998 in the memory of his father. Serving as the honorary chairman, Curtis funneled funds into Hungary intended to restore synagogues and Jewish cemeteries there. He dedicated his efforts to the 600,000 Hungarian victims of the Holocaust and even worked as a spokesman for Hungarian tourism. Following a bout of pneumonia in 2006 from which he barely survived, the actor was confined to a wheelchair, but made steady progress and was able to promote his latest book, "The Making of 'Some Like It Hot': My Memories of Marilyn Monroe and the Classic American Movie," released a year ago. Curtis was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder during the summer. He is survived by his widow Jill Vandenburg Curtis and four children.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Getting a grip on Groupon

It would seem the latest craze to hit the social networking scene is Groupon, a perfect marriage between marketing for local businesses and the Internet. Frankly, I am amazed at some of the bargains that are trotted out daily in e-mail blasts to my account. Some are hard to resist: a $200 night's stay for $89 at a nice local hotel, half price meals at local eateries, half off tickets for Mississippi riverboat cruises, and a manicure-pedicure combination at a spa for just $35. Not that I'm in the market for a manicure-pedicure, mind you, but at that rate it's hard to resist. I'm not too sure that I would relish being in a retail business and offering these group discounts on a one-time only basis via Groupon. True, it would probably bring in more traffic, but in the end, how many of these bargain hunters will return to pay full value on a later trip? It seems to me that no matter how good the pedicure is, I would never consider it unless it was at a bargain basement price. For those ladies who wear sandals or attractive evening shoes, it might be a more common practice, but as for me, my dogs are usually penned up in Reebok walking shoes or on formal occasions encased in black patent leather shoes. It makes little sense for me to preen or primp in that department. Besides, what would I paint on my toenails?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

When a fast goes fast...

There's nothing like praying to keep one's mind off hunger. It turns out the Yom Kippur fast was a lot easier on my system than the Fast of Gedaliah, held a week ago. While I admit I am not typically as observant as to include both fast days in the week leading up to the Day of Atonement, circumstances made it easier for me to consider that option this year. Last Sunday morning I awoke at 5:34, which was three minutes too late to eat, according to rabbinical authorities. The previous day I had had a very large meal late in the day due to it being Shabbat Shuva and a special program we had at the synagogue. The program involved the Zeitouns, a married Muslim couple, who appeared at Gates of Prayer's Bart Room, the meeting place and temporary sanctuary for Congregation Beth Israel. Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American house painter endured unbelievable horrors and was unlawfully imprisoned for over a month, in the days following Hurricane Katrina. The irony of the tragedy is that he personally rescued several people trapped in their homes by canoe when the levees broke and the flood waters rose in Broadmoor and other sections of New Orleans. News reports a few days before his arrest in his own home labeled him a hero and described his efforts at saving the lives of many people trapped in their homes. Kathy, his wife, and their children had been evacuated to Arizona during this time and simply stopped hearing from him after his arrest and eventual incarceration at Hope Correctional Facility in St. Gabriel, Louisiana. The entire story was detailed in a best seller by Dave Eggers titled "Zeitoun." (For more info, click here.) Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is considered one of the most important on the Jewish calendar. Because of the continuing controversy over the building of what has been variously labeled as the Islamic Cultural Center, the Cordoba Project and Park 51 two blocks from Ground Zero in New York, Rabbi Uri Topolosky of Congregation Beth Israel and Rabbi Robert Loewy of Gates of Prayer Synagogue (Reform) invited the Zeitouns and their joint congregations to meet and discuss the greater questions of religious freedom and racial profiling, which had contributed to Zeitouin's arrest and imprisonment. It was the first time the Zeitouns had been in a synagogue and a very unusual program to say the least. So, because of this special program, I didn't begin to eat any meal on that Saturday until late and that meant not eating dinner prior to seeing a play that evening. I did decide to have a steak about 11:00 p.m. that night, figuring I would rise early and enjoy breakfast before the fast or have that late night meal and its high protein content keep me sustained for the following day. As it turned out, my late rising made the latter choice for me. On reflection I think I was more affected by dehydration than by a lack of food. That's why I think the praying, staying indoors for the most part and, perhaps, the sense of community at the services yesterday pulled me through the day with little or no ill effect. So, in five days it's yet another Jewish holiday, Succot, the Festival of Booths that commemorates the wandering for 40 years in the dessert. Thankfully, that holiday has a lot of eating inside the sukkahs, or temporary huts, that are erected on the sides of Jewish homes and synagogues. No more fasts for a while, but I guess I had better get my feet in shape because there will be lots of dancing in the days to come.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Happy New Year 5771

To non-Jews, the Jewish New Year called Rosh Hashanah is a rather odd holiday in many ways. But don't worry, it can also be confusing to many of us Jews. That's because the Jewish calendar is based on a lunar cycle wherein every month begins with the announcement of a new moon over Jerusalem. This was fixed many years ago by rabbinical authorities. Thus, every "day" begins at sundown. But it is not strictly a lunar calendar as is the case with the Islamic calendar. There is a specific passage in the Bible that prohibits the Passover celebration from being held in any other season other than Spring. Because of this, there are dechiyot (adjustments) that add an extra month in years 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17 and 19 of a 19-year cycle. As a matter of fact, if there is a date in the Jewish calendar that falls on a specific day of the Gregorian calendar (i.e., 1 Tishri=Thursday, September 9), it will fall on that same day and date every 19 years. Under a strictly lunar calendar specific holidays or celebrations, as is the case in the observance of the Islamic period of Ramadan, move from one season to another. The Jewish calendar is thus both a lunar and a solar calendar and is very accurate, although not perfect in any sense of the word. Normally, one would suspect that New Year's Day would be the first day of the first month. That would be a very wrong assumption. Because the original calendar was based on an agrarian culture dealing with planting, praying for rain, reaping and harvesting, the days now reserved as Rosh Hashanah actually occur on the first two days of the seventh month. The very first month on the calendar is found in the spring in the month of Nissan, which coincides with the season when the Exodus from Egypt occurred, and was used administratively during the era of the kings. The modern celebration of Rosh Hashanah was instituted after the destruction of the Second Temple. Scholars note that the original references in the Bible to the holiday were both Yom Hazikaron ("The Day of Remembrance") and Yom Teruah ("Day of the Sounding of the Shofar"). The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur ("Day of Atonement") are called the "Days of Awe," a period of introspection and privation. It is said that the Book of Life is opened on Rosh Hashanah and closed on Yom Kippur. It is one book we all hope to be in year after year.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Love's Labor Day lost

I've been told that "wtf" doesn't stand for "wait till Friday," but there's no authority I can consult on this. I remember when I was a teenager distinctly hearing from my Uncle Irvin that "t.g.i.f." meant "thank God it's Friday" and that "p.o.e.t.s" meant the same thing, more or less, only the phrase was less than clean. When I was in college George Carlin's "seven words" sketch was very popular, but I believe that several of his prohibited-from-broadcasting words are actually heard on a regular basis these days over satellite radio and cable TV. Several have apparently sunk into generally approved acceptance. As a former broadcaster, I had a code of conduct to which I adhered. I never wanted to say anything over the microphone that couldn't be heard by somone's grandmother as in good taste. Yes, I might drop a double entendre every now and then, but it was usually not done in bad taste. Comedians today take a different tack. Programs oftentimes have so many bleeps in them, it's hard to follow them. I can't understand why the people on Jerry Springer and Maury Povich's programs are allowed to say whatever they want with seemingly no repercussions. It's as if the syndication suits have determined as long as we have a machine to bleep out the profanity, let them say whatever comes into their puny little minds. I have always contended that vulgarity, profanity and obscenity are the byproducts of a poor vocabulary. Yet, why is it that today - Labor Day - do I feel like standing from the highest tower and shouting out w.t.f.? It's because a relationship I once treasured has changed forever today and I both mourn its passing and cheer its morphing into one of simple friendship. This is the apex of ambivalence and the nadir of nihilism. Perhaps it is a wonderful thing that Rosh Hashanah is only a few days away. It will be a new year and a new start to work on those things that are right in my life and release the ones that are not productive or might even be considered toxic.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

September song

While many of us look to September as the month that signals the end of summer and ushers in traditional things like college and regular season professional football games, I am always struck by the very first day of the month. That's because it is the birthday of my late father, Dr. Arnold Smason. My dad was an O.D., which is a doctor of optometry, an eye specialist in the correction of the human lens. He was quite good at what he did, but excelled in a great many other things too. He did his early morning regimen of crossword puzzles (both of them) and the Jumble® before he finished his morning coffee. And he always did them in pen. I marveled at his energy and industry. He ran two offices - one downtown and another in the bustling Metairie suburb - and arranged his schedule so that he saw early morning and late afternoon patients downtown and late morning and early afternoon patients in Metairie. He did this six days a week and managed to still find time to handle a number of other chores including being active in the Jerusalem Temple Shriners and his Masonic lodge, where he served as treasurer. As a college student during World War II and a child of the Great Depression, he knew that hard work would eventually pay off in his realizing the American dream. But with the war came new challenges and dangers. He elected to become a chemical engineer due to his mathematical prowess and keen understanding of science. Many of his graduating class members were sent off to fight overseas and many of them perished. I am sure he would have served had he been drafted, but another fate awaited him. As soon as he graduated, my dad was given a military deferment and ordered to report for important civilian work at a little town in Tennessee that had blossomed practically overnight into the third largest city in the state. He became a specialist dealing in uranium gas at a complex in Oak Ridge that would, in less than a year, become famous as the place where the first atomic bombs were manufactured. He admitted to me many years later that even he had no idea what they were working on. It would seem only a few higher ups knew what the Manhattan Project was about and only those with a need to know were informed as to what the ramifications of this important work would portend. After the war and his release from service to the country, he settled back in New Orleans expecting to be snatched up in the wake of revitalization in the petroleum engineering firms that were headquartered there. He sent out numerous resum├ęs, but was never granted an interview that resulted in a job offer. At the time there was no law prohibiting a firm from asking applicants personal questions on the application. Every firm requested he state his religion along with name, address and phone number. Curiously, when he wrote down "Jewish" on the form in the space provided, he never got a call back, even though others with less experience did. After a year and a half of waiting and hoping, he decided to go back to school and enrolled at the Southern Illinois College of Optometry. Three years later, after attending classes, teaching, dipping ice cream and holding other assorted odd jobs he graduated with his O.D. degree. He came back to New Orleans and in short order became the head of the optical department at Maison Blanche, then the largest department store in the busy downtown shopping district. In a story I read on his appointment, it was noted he was the youngest department head at the busy downtown location. It wasn't long after that he was married to my mom and had started his family. He became noted as an outstanding optometrist and one one of the first in the city to offer what we now know as "hard" contact lenses for his patients. He eventually left Maison Blanche to start up his own practice, which he kept downtown at various locations. Later he took on work for the Cole National Corporation, which outfitted the optical departments at Sears and Montgomery Ward stores. Due to state laws, optometrists either worked for themselves or for other doctors, but they were compensated for sales they made through the optical departments at Sears and other locations run by Cole. Cole National was founded in Cleveland, Ohio, by a very interesting and dynamic fellow named Joseph Cole. At one point in the 1990s, it was the third largest optical retailer in the country. Interestingly, this is yet another connection I have to Cleveland, the site of my exodus following Hurricane Katrina. In any event some 15 plus years after he passed away, I am still thinking about my father and the legacy he left behind, especially on his birthday every year.