Sunday, November 28, 2010

The CJN's ex-CEO in N.O.

Alan welcomes Rob Certner to New Orleans

I got an alert just before Thanksgiving that my old boss at the Cleveland Jewish News, Rob Certner, was considering coming to visit New Orleans. Since August Rob and his lady friend Debby have been traveling by a 43-foot trawler from out of Cleveland past Lake Michigan and down through the Illinois, Ohio, Mississippi, Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers as well as the Tombigbee Waterway. While Debby was winging her way to have Thanksgiving dinner with Cleveland relatives, Rob had opted to rent a car and take the two-hour trip to the Crescent City. I offered him a place to stay, but more than that a deep immersion into the city of my birth. The first day we visited Domilise's, a po-boy restaurant noted for its fried seafood sandwiches and he was amazed. Later, after taking a tour of most of the parts of the city, Rob was then instructed in the making of and the drinking of the official New Orleans cocktail, the Sazerac. Finally, we enjoyed a meal at Galatoire's Restaurant on Bourbon Street, a favorite of locals for decades. Rob and I enjoyed the latter part of the night sipping absinthe under the stars.

Alan and Annette Smason with Rob Certner at Galatoire's
Is there any more an iconic New Orleans image other than Jackson Square with the imposing structures of St. Louis Cathedral flanked by the historic Cabildo and Presbytere on its left and right, respectively? In the picture at the top, Rob and I enjoy a spectacular view of the river with Jackson Square behind us. The twin Pontalba Buildings on the left and right sides of Jackson Square, which are the oldest apartment buildings in America, are mostly obscured by trees (at left) and out of view on the right. (Make sure you double-click each picture to get a nice full closeup.) Then we made our way next door to historic Café du Monde to eat beignets and enjoy coffee with chicory. Rob had his coffee black and I had the more popular café au lait.

Thanksgiving at Commander's Palace
The piéce de résistance was the traditional Thanksgiving meal at world famous Commander's Palace Restaurant in the Garden District. The famous offerings include turtle soup and all manner of fresh Louisiana seafood. Rob and I had the turkey, while my mom enjoyed the redfish. Above we all enjoyed different desserts. Rob had the strawberry shortcake. My mom had the caramel cup custard, while I had the decadent white chocolate bread pudding souflé. All in all we had a magnificent meal to cap off Rob's visit. Rob and Debby will soon be off to visit more of the Gulf Coast, but I have good reason to believe he will be back soon.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Commandments Hike

A rainy, but reverent Ten Commandments Hike

When things go awry, they often really do unravel. Despite months of careful planning, dawn arrived on the day after Thanksgiving yesterday amid threatening skies and a slight sprinkling of rain. It was the day of the Ten Commandments Hike, an annual interfaith six-mile event sponsored by the Southeast Louisiana Council that promotes religious tolerance and understanding. For eight different stops for the Cub Scouts and the full ten for the older Boy Scouts and adults, participants hike along beautiful picturesque Carrollton and St. Charles Avenues, hearing from religious leaders, each assigned a different Commandment. While intermittent sprinkling rain persisted during the morning, participants arrived at the first stop, St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, geared up for a great day. However, the skies began to open up as the participants headed for the second stop just two blocks away at Mater Delorosa Church, the first of two Catholic stops. Arriving at the front steps, we found the doors barred and no one around to open the facility, much less to deliver a talk to the Scouts. Using the Scout's motto ("be prepared"), the hikers were urged to move on and they did so.They found the next stop, Holy Name of Jesus open, but the featured speaker - a retired Jesuit priest - was also missing in action. The good news was that a good Catholic Scouter was able to fill in an provide a talk on that Commandment, "Thou shalt not murder" with a little prodding from yours truly. (It is important to note that, while he felt inclined otherwise, he did not, in fact, murder me.) Meanwhile, the rain persisted, but did not dampen the spirits of the Scouts, their parents and friends. The rain ended after 3:00 p.m. for the most part, which was when the winds picked up to chill us through our bones. The final portion of the hike ended about 4:30 p.m. and the contingent took a streetcar back to the starting point, arriving at 5:20 p.m. Despite the adversities of weather, nearly all of the participants had a great time and are looking forward to more of the same next year when, hopefully, we will be blessed with better weather.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Are You There Yet?

It always amazes me how crazy this Thanksgiving scene is on the nation's highways and byways for Thanksgiving. If one considers it carefully, it really doesn't make a lot of sense to have a holiday so close to all the other holidays in December, when there is another superabundance of busy travel schedules. The hubbub of airports and travel depots or toll plazas and expressways make for very trying and vexing times as college students and offspring of all generations make their way back to their parents' homes or in-laws. Yet, this is in reality a holiday about family. For most Americans it is their favorite holiday. There's not gifting or wrapping involved. The present one receives or gives for that matter is himself. We are a nation that above all else reveres family. The sight of a child coming through a portal or ringing the front bell makes every parent's heart beat a little faster as we see how they have matured for yet another year. So, too, for the offspring is the thrill of seeing their parents a little grayer for the time or perhaps a favorite aunt or uncle who, were it not for Thanksgiving, would just be content to be eating a frozen meal at home or having a special at a local cafeteria. Thanksgiving is not just the most American of holidays. It is the most genuine of holidays. For those of us who recognize a higher power, there is a need deep within to praise God and join as a family in the celebration of life amidst the certainty that life is oftentimes all too short. For many of us it would not be surprising to recall the last time we saw a relative was at Thanksgiving a year or two ago before he or she was gone. Through the haze of many different Thanksgivings we see families grow and grow older and sometimes pass away without anything to recall their memories. Perhaps one of the best things we can do on Thanksgiving is hold onto one another just a little longer and remember that life is a gift that needs to be cherished. We need Thanksgiving not for ballgames or turkey or even those delicious pies. We need to be in the comfort of home and hearth to say to each other in our own way "I love you." May the celebration in each of our homes make for happy times as we break our necks to get wherever we are going or as we prepare to meet and greet our loved ones. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Don't touch my bags, if you please...

Sometime in the Seventies it was apropos to thumb one's nose at authority. Depending on one's political slant, either brave or dumb student leaders in the midst of fighting against the Vietnam War or demanding even more civil rights would encourage us to give it "to the Man." It was clear that the Man was constituted authority and the Establishment. In the Seventies the "revolution" was fought by those who would reject the values of the earlier so-called "greatest generation." Liberated women would burn their bras and swallow birth control pills. Couples would cohabit. Men would smoke, ingest and drink just about anything at least once. All of this behavior was designed to show contempt for established norms, but basically defined a generation that openly questioned or was completely out of touch with morality. Somehow, in the four decades since that turbulent time, it is clear we are now "the Man" and we are in danger of emasculating this generation by intimidation and fear. No better example exists today than the well-meaning, but convoluted logic of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). In order to protect weary holiday travelers they have put into place new screening techniques which ostensibly exist to protect us from terrorists, but which demonstrably mean an invasion of personal space and comfort. TSA screeners are seen by travelers less as protectors of our lives and more as unwanted sexual perverts, who get off on patting down their victims. Frankly, I am appalled that this has gone so far. There have been pictures and videos posted of the TSA officials going far afield in their efforts to keep the airways safe. Yesterday I saw a video of young boy, barely five whose father felt compelled to remove his son's shirt in order for the TSA officials to better be able to wand the youngster. One joker tries to blow up his underwear and everyone is now held hostage. It seems to me that the Israelis do a much better job of security in an area where they are surrounded by acknowledged enemies. Yet, how often do you hear of a youngster being forced for no reasonable suspicion to disrobe? We have become so paranoid about terrorism that we have allowed the lunatics to take over the running of the asylum. I don't care if anyone scans me or subjects me to low-level waves of radiation of whatever size or design they may desire. But please, don't touch a gray hair on my mother's head or wherever else. My "junk" should be sacrosanct and not meant to be manhandled by any TSA officer, regardless of how much they think I look like a terrorist. Luckily, I don't have to travel any time in the immediate future. I hope the TSA comes to its senses and tones down the level of sexual assaults and comes up with a practice that is both safe and secure for passengers.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Death of the new famous

©Associated Press
It had to happen sooner or later. The Internet has been such a birthing chamber for new celebrities that its stars have now become stalked and hunted down like trophies for jealous web surfers. The term for these cyber stalkers who - like Mark David Chapman - profess both a love for famous persons and a desire to kill them, is haters. The colloquialism was first used within the past half-decade to describe Internet users who, because of jealousy or envy, post abusive or profane comments. Psychologically, they are compelled to find chinks in the armor of rising stars in order to make themselves appear better. Google's You Tube is very much aware of the potential for stalking, but the very nature of Internet users to post personal information or their video images creates the environment for fame and with it attendant scrutiny by the public. In the case of Susan Boyle on "Britain's Got Talent," the Internet established her as an overnight star. This led to an international singing career, but created a psychological episode in which she broke down, unable to deal with the sudden pressures of celebrity. Judson Laipply 's "Evolution of Dance" established him as an Internet sensation with now over five million hits of interested viewers. Like some Ponzi scheme gone awry, Internet surfers sent that video to five or ten or their friends and they to five or ten more and so on until the subject of the video entered the arena of celebrity and popular sub-culture. Unfortunately, while millions of hits on a video mean the potential for great success, there is also a potential danger of cyber stalking and assassination. There is a seamy sub-culture to the Internet of which few people are fully exposed and this has come to light with the Sunday slaying of New Orleans bounce rapper and comedian Messy Mya (real name Anthony Barre). The Internet had been the launching pad for his career and, sadly enough, after being fatally shot, curious bystanders could not contain themselves, snapping pictures of his body and posting them on Twitter via the third party Twitpic application. Several outraged protestors alerted Twitter, which has since removed the offensive photos. But the real story here is not that unfeeling idiots with camera phones could snap away and post these pictures. The real tragedy here is that Messy Mya was shot in the first place after leaving his girlfriend's shower for what would have been the upcoming birth of his first child. He was shot for no apparent reason other than his recently acquired fame. "Gangsta" rappers like Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls (The Notorious B.I.G.) are two of the most well-known victims of violence aimed at hip hop stars, but they were high-selling artists with a marked degree of visibility. Hardly anyone outside of You Tube or other places on the Internet where videos might be posted knew Barre as a "star." Another rapidly rising Internet star, Asia McGowan from Oakland, was similarly killed last year by a fan with whom she unwittingly went out on a date. The only motivation for her killing was the star status she had found on her video blogs on the Internet. Ironically, she posted a video derailing her haters and simply advised them to ignore their intended victims. In the end, though, these tragedies serve as a cautionary tale. Internet wannabe stars should not post videos or pursue a high visibility career on the Internet without considering that by doing so, they are putting themselves in harm's way. Cyber bullying which results in suicides by harassed teens has grabbed a number of headlines recently. While bullying is an identified major problem, it would seem that stalking victims through the Internet and planning their demise ramps up this inappropriate behavior another notch. It is yet another aspect of how out of sorts some sectors of our society have become. Simply put, kill a star and you gain his fame. There can be no redemption for souls who go down this tortuous path. In the meantime there is yet another family in mourning wondering why this horrible tragedy had to occur and why they will never again see their 22-year-old relative alive. Adding to the suffering for the family is that Barre's mother was herself a victim of foul play, killed in a hail of gunfire by a boyfriend nine years ago. It was in fact Barre and his sister who called police to the scene. My sympathies go out to the family. If it wasn't so sad, it would make great fodder for the Internet.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ten Commandments Hike 2010

View 10 Commandments Hike 2010 in a larger map
Map of this year's 10 Commandments Hike, sponsored by the Southeast Louisiana Council, BSA
Normally, at this time (less than two weeks before Thanksgiving), I have at least 100 people signed up for the annual Ten Commandments Hike, sponsored by the Southeast Louisiana Council of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). This year, perhaps because of the sorry state of the economy or the backlash from the the spring and summer's British Petroleum tragedy, there has been a noticeable lack of quick sign-ups for this very popular event. So, I am now going to take the veritable bull by the horns and invite all of my friends, followers and interested parties who are able to do so to take part in this year's 10 Commandments Hike. The idea of the hike is to promote religious tolerance and to promote diversity and acceptance of all faiths. There are ten stops, each representing a different faith background. At each stop one of the Ten Commandments is revealed to the Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, family members, parents, friends and adult Scout leaders who participate. Everyone gets a souvenir sports water bottle with the logo emblazoned on it, a commemorative patch for 2010, a hot kosher meal (hot dogs, chips, fresh fruit and drinks), all the Kentwood water one needs and a streetcar token with which to catch a return to the start of the hike. For more details and to register online click here.

Monday, November 8, 2010

GA on my mind

New Orleans is the epicenter for what is no doubt the most important gathering of America's and Canada's most powerful and influential Jews. The biannual General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), formerly the United Jewish Communities, opened in earnest on Saturday night. In addition the International Lions of Judah, an organization that honors the achievements of significant Jewish philanthropic women, is also holding its own conference here. Yesterday's full day of activities included several sessions intended to inform and energize attendees. One central theme this year is to introduce members to the Israel Action Network, a program intended to counter and neutralize the efforts of outsiders to de-legitimize the State of Israel. Yesterday Vice-President Joe Biden spoke on the commitment of the Obama administration to the State of Israel and he publicly added both his and the President's appreciation for the Israel Action Network. Later this morning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will deliver a keynote address in another plenary session to approximately 3,000 attendees. The conference is exciting for New Orleans since the ongoing JFNA communities response to the city and the Gulf Coast has resulted in $28 million of funds being disbursed or promised following the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita five years ago. This is an important conference, but it also is an opportunity for volunteers to continue in their efforts to provide service to the community here. Over 600 Hillel students are attending and scores of high school students have for the first time become active participants at the GA. There are plans for attendees to help rebuild homes and to offer assistance as part of the JFNA's continued programs intended to promote tikun olam, a Hebrew phrase that literally means "healing the world."

Friday, November 5, 2010

The fallout of the elections

Purple America - the historic shift from Blue States to Red States
So much has been written about the historic surge in the ranks of Republican elected officials over this past week that I am finally distilling much of what it means to the nation in the coming two years. First of all, Mr. President, you are in deep doo doo, but you already know that. The pollsters were predicting a Republican backlash fueled by the Tea Party movement and a country not at all happy with the present state of the economy. Even they were surprised at the unbelievable turn of events that on reflection turned out to be a Republican rout. It is true that the previous administration - a two-term Republican one at that - left the country in the midst of one of its most perilous economic times. The words economic shambles come to mind here. There is little doubt that the overspending to which the Tea Party populists are complaining began in the Bush administration as the housing crisis spiraled out of control and, like a house of cards falling down, began to trigger failures at banks and investment houses on Wall Street and around the country. The hundreds of billions of bailout money were first justified in the Bush administration, so it will be interesting to see how the incoming class of Republican freshmen and incumbents will turn against the trend they started. It is not unlike Captain Renault in "Casablanca" accepting his winnings after pronouncing how "I'm shocked, shocked to find there is gambling going on in here!" The President and his Democratic supporters have themselves to blame for the public relations mess they are in, but it seems they are the victims of their own success. With majorities in both houses of Congress they had the luxury of being able to do pretty much whatever they wanted. Much of what this mid-term election will be viewed as is a reaction to Democratic hubris. Americans have traditionally reacted to those in power by voting against them when they feel they have gotten too big for their britches. The "shellacking" the Obama administration took on Tuesday should be a wake up call that unless the President prepares to become more moderate and conciliatory with Republicans in Congress, he may be the first one-term President since George Herbert Walker Bush. The change that was promised two years ago has finally come full circle. A Republican controlled Senate will be a thorn in the President's side, but Speaker-apparent Boehner should be cautioned that angry Americans will turn as quickly against Republicans should they see little progress on the Hill in the creation of new jobs and shoring up of the economy. The Tea Party movement is, after all, a populist movement and it can swing as easily back to the Democrats or establish a meaningful third party in the middle should it find neither is being especially helpful or lacking in bold leadership. Does this mean Sarah Palin in the presumptive Republican frontrunner for the nation's highest office in two years? Probably so. In a majority of the races she made endorsements, her candidates won. She has some fairly powerful friends on her side now. Has she garnered the strength and political knowhow to pull a presidential campaign off? Time will tell. But then again, for now time is on her side.