Thursday, January 31, 2008

Common Ground

When I was about four years old, my father became very ill with a disease which caused uncontrollable bleeding. For a period of about ten months, the path of his day was from home to hospital and back rather than to and from work. Platelet and Hemoglobin counts replaced manager's meetings and company shop talk. with G-d's help, my father joined a drug trial that was instrumental in giving him thirty years of life. Controlling his illness generated medical discoveries that facilitated organ transplants.
Years later, my father told me that the mental idleness of being bedridden caused him to fear losing his mind. He did two things to maintain his grip on sanity. One was to fix an old vacuum tube radio that was broken beyond repair. It was made of the old brittle early plastic of the 1940's and early 50's. Most would have thrown it out, but to my father, the challenge was worth more than the radio itself.
The second thing he did was to write a highly specialised textbook for use in the field of high vacuum
technology. By late first grade, when the finished book was printed, I could read the opening dedication to my mother, and nothing more. The book was dense with mathematical formulae and words I couln't even sound out. It faded from my mind as part of the terra incognita in my father's library. I shared my mother's reverence for the book and my father's ability to author and explain it.
By sixth grade, memories of my father's illness had been joined by recollections of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Our entire family of five had been mobilised to bring cinderblocks, cement and supplies to our basement for a fallout shelter. Worldly fourth graders at school talked in hushed tones about a bomb the Russians had that could blow up the whole world. I had dreams of the earth bouncing up and down like a basketball.
With time, my jarring dreams faded and the fallout shelter became a secret hideaway from which we would emerge coated in fine grey dust. The memory of collective fear had subsided. The instructions for a nuclear attack remained though at the top of the basement stairs.
One rainy summer afternoon, I was looking for something to read in the basement, and I found a cardboard box with about a dozen of my father's books. Only my sketchy knowledge of the existence of algebra rendered my father's equations less foriegn to me. with a bit more patience, I looked at the bibliography. There were citations in German as well as English, but what absolutely riveted me was credit given to books printed in the USSR. I was awed at my father's research dwarfing geographical and political boundaries. When he came home I asked him how he got books from Russia. He had gotten them fom a technical library.
"But they're Communist." I poined out. "And you still talk to each other".
" I just studied their research." replied my father. "And it's not about politics. We're working on the same problems".
The bibliography and the discussion with my father made a vivid impression on me. Having a German Jewish father and a Catholic mother of Croatian ancestry, I was accustomed to walking through social and cultural walls as though they didn't exist. When I later chose an Orthodox Judaism that differed markedly from the beliefs and practices of both my parents, I struggled to discover and maintain a pale of commonality with both of them through an interst in history , Croatian and German art and other fields of interest to both of my parents.
Talking with an Arab taxi driver about Yemenite food, talking with a Serbian about rock music from Jugoslavia, I enjoy the fleeting moments of commonality in a divided world. As walls rematerialise out of the ether, I think sadly of the sometimes necessary waste of human life in war time.
Once during the Gulf War, my baby son terminated my avid persuit of war news by smashing my shortwave. As news coverage continued on a humble clock radio, I lamented the loss of my prize receiver
Thinking about the reports of war dead, the words of an Israeli car service driver echoed in my mind
"It takes nine months to make a baby. But it takes eighteen years to make a soldier" At once, my sense of annoyance paled into insignificance when I compared it to the human loss of war.
I opened the back of the shortwave my son had destroyed. (It was on the table and he pulled its tail) Inside were components from Japan, China Malaysia and a few other countries. The radio itself had been assembled in Germany. I thought back to my father's bibliography and its lesson to me of a transcendant common purpose.
Somewhere in the splintered casing of my now silent Grundig receiver, my father's message was still playing

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

About Immigration

The U.S. government dispenses billions of dollars in charitable aid, both in the United States and abroad. For many, immigration to the U.S. is a chance at a better life, for themselves and their family abroad.
Our Congress and President control the charitable purse strings , acting presumably on behalf of the people who elected them. Immigration is the gift of an opportunity. It should be bestowed on behalf of the American people after annual discussions of America's needs and those abroad seeking asylum or opportunity. Those who come illegally are taking a privelege which should be freely granted by our elected representatives.
I have noticed that some of the biggest advocated of unrestricted immigration are employers who want cheap labour. Our ability to sustain a vibrant economy depends on workers who have money to spend. Our ability as a nation to subsidize progress in developing nations depends on a solid tax base. Between illegal immigration and outsourcing jobs to the developing world, we are eroding our standard of living and our tax base. Especially in an age of terrorism, we have a right and duty to guard our borders and to bestow citizenship as a collective act of free will.
I can not bring myself to express any enthusiasm for Democratic or Republican candidates now running, as NONE of them have shown sufficient courage and insight in addressing this issue.
Copyright 2008 Magdeburger Joe

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Stirring Eulogy to an Auschwitz Survivor

Bs"dMonday, Jan 28, 2008

A tribute to Auschwitz's 'angels of life'BY RABBI YOSSI REFSON
The following article originally appeared in the Sunday edition of the Charleston Post and Courier
Today marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the largest of some 15,000 concentration, extermination and forced-labor camps established by the Germans during World War II. It is estimated that, at minimum, 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945; of which at least 1.1 million were murdered.
As a rabbi in this community here in Charleston and a grandson of one of those fortunate to have survived the horrors of Auschwitz, much about this dark chapter in human history informs my personal and professional life.
My late Bubby (Grandma) Bluma was 13 when her mother, five older siblings and their children were exterminated under the orders of Josef Mengele, aptly referred to as the "Angel of Death."
Upon her recent passing at the age of 76, I took the opportunity to reread Bubby's memoirs. In four different instances, my grandmother had stood — amid the smoke of the crematoriums, the barking dogs, the trampling boots and swinging clubs — on the infamous "selection line" at the head of which Mengele and his minions stood, pointing left and right, sentencing some to back-breaking labor, and sending others to the gas chambers. In each of those instances, somebody would come along and say or do something that would change Bubby's fate from certain death to tenuous life. In one such incident, she already had been sent to the line of those marked for death when a man appeared as if from nowhere, physically removed her from that line and shoved her into the other, without saying a word.
Indeed, the miracles and the mysteries of the events of those days abound along with the horrors and the tragedies. In contrast to the vile actions of the "Angel of Death" were the noble and heroic actions of many "Angels of Life" who stood ready to risk their own lives for the sake of saving that of a stranger.
It is thanks in no small part to "Angels" like these, who stepped out from behind their own misery and grief to come to the aid of others, that generations now live on to tell the story. How clearly we see the infinite ripple effects of single acts of kindness and compassion, even if accomplished in a split second.
As incredible and haunting as her story is, I find that the most powerful lessons of Bubby's Holocaust experience are not those found in the words themselves, but those that come piercing through between the lines. Everything about this woman's life — her faith, her dignity, her regal stature, her loving demeanor — makes a bold statement: There shall be no victory for the Nazis and their ilk. I can hear her saying: "Physically, they may have beaten and burned, tortured and maimed us, reducing us to subhuman conditions, but spiritually, there is something within us that they could not touch — not them, not the many others that have tried; not then, not now, not ever."
If Jewish history has proven one irrefutable fact, it's that the soul of a faithful people cannot be vanquished by those driven to destroy that which is good and right in this world. The forces of evil and tyranny are ultimately no match for those of goodness and sanctity.
The matriarch of a family of four children, 25 grandchildren and 35 great-grandchildren, all raised and educated with the values and traditions of her ancestors, Bubby lived to witness the victory of her convictions and the resounding historical defeat of those who sought to bury them. She established for all time the most meaningful memorial of all to those who perished in Auschwitz, a living, dynamic, eternal memorial: the continuity of a proud and resilient people.
It is to the perpetuation of this living memorial that my wife, Sarah, and I have now devoted our own lives. With every individual or family in this community helped, educated or infused with a spirit of pride in their heritage as a result of our humble efforts, another nail is hammered into the coffins of Hitler, Mengele, Eichmann and the rest, even as their victims are brought to life in our midst.
We are blessed to have established roots in Charleston. The city remains true to its long and rich history of kindness and benevolence toward the Jewish people. Dating back to the days of the Revolutionary War and even earlier, Charleston was a city that readily provided refuge and haven to Jews fleeing religious persecution in Europe. Indeed, the charter of the Carolina Colony expressly mentioned the granting of "liberty of conscience" to Jews, among others.
It is on this compassionate soil that Sarah and I now seek to promote the ultimate lesson of the Holocaust, for Jew and gentile alike: Whereas evil and selfish acts fade into nothingness, acts of goodness and kindness march across the expanse of time and space, forever illuminating the landscape of human history.
A U.S. serviceman who participated in the liberation of one of the concentration camps recounted how before his platoon entered the camp, the men were briefed by their commanding officer. "What you are about to see is like nothing you have ever seen before," he said.
Referring to the food supplies the soldiers were given to provide to the hungry inhabitants of the cities they had captured, including Hershey chocolate bars for the children, the officer forewarned against giving any of the food to the camp survivors. "You must know that these people have not eaten anything in years beyond scraps and morsels. As much as you may want to load them up with food; as much as you may want to give the children those Hershey bars, you must not. Their systems would not be able to withstand it, and they could die as a result. They will have to be slowly nourished back to health."
As they entered the camp, they were looked upon by the prisoners as if they'd been sent from heaven. A child of skin and bones, barely alive, came up to this soldier and begged him for some food. His heart began to break. A starving, dying child, and he couldn't pull out what was in his pack to give him what he was asking for.
"I don't have any food I can give you," he said, "but you know what I can give you? I can give you a hug."
In describing what happened next, he said, "I put my arms around this child, and he put his thin bony arms around me. Tears began flowing down my cheeks. And then, an incredible thing happened. Hundreds of these children, barely alive, began flocking toward me, asking if they too could have a hug. Before long, there was a long line in front of me. They were standing in line, not for a chocolate bar, but just a hug. After all the hatred and cruelty they'd encountered all those years, just a little bit of love and tenderness from a feeling and caring human being. And then the adults came, too. They waited for a hug; for someone with some strength who could show them just a bit of humanity. We all cried together."
Even when we don't seem to have the answers or the healing people need, there's always something we can do to help. We can share a smile, a caring word, some human connection and understanding; a hug. If we can lighten their burden only a bit, who knows what a world of good we might accomplish.
In a world that, 63 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, is still threatened by forces of evil seeking to destroy innocent human lives, where impulses of hatred, narcissism and greed still wreak havoc upon societies, it behooves people of conscience to counter these with simple acts of kindness. For any selfless step we take to benefit another creates one of those magical ripples.
Auschwitz showed us that just as man can sink as low as the basest animal, so can he rise to the level of angels.
Rabbi Yossi Refson heads Chabad of Charleston and the Low Country.

The Paradox of English

English vocabulary is derived from a wider range of languages than Esperanto. It has a structural core derived from Latin , Germanic and Romance influences. Despite all this, there is no language to which it is related that is so close that an Anglophone monoglot could recognise it in conversation or even in writing.
By contrast, a Belgian speaking Flemish can sit at a table with a Dutchman and an Afrikaner and they can all carry on a conversation. Hindi and Urdu speakers can watch each other's movies without locking their gaze on the subtitles. Serbian and Croatian used to be Serbo-Croation before politics magnified their linguistic differences into an acrimonious divorce.
I used to work with a gentleman from Argentina who conversed with his Brazilian wife with each of them using their respective languages. They achieved a better understanding than many who share a common tongue.
When Romance or Slavic languages are written side by side, it looks like a family reunion, at which everyone can comment on the familial similarities.
When I look at linguistics and etymology, I see similarities that bespeak an underlying consanguinity. The study of language feels like a place of refuge from a harsh world in which angry slogans and fighting words are hurled in kindred tongues at fiberoptic speed.
Living in New York ,we mostly get along because we must.
I once went to an Indian newsstand in the early morning. The owner was Hindu. The manager was Muslim. While I checked out the magazines, they each were covering for each other so the store would be tended while each of them prayed. Since America is exporting so many good paying jobs, let's export brotherhood as well.

Statement of Purpose

This blog is going to focus on local(NYC), national, and international events. I am pro business, because it is only their success that can bankroll public compassion or any other undertaking. I am also pro labour, because the investment of labour is essential for the success of any business undertaking
Both parties have taken advantage of the disparity in wages between the developing world and the industrialised world and used it to gut the real wages (inflation adjusted) in our country.
I am dismayed at the secularism of the Democrats and the insensitivity to labour of the Republicans. I am anti abortion, except when the mother's actual life is in danger. I think that the children whose gestation should be constitutionally protected should be supported by parents earning a living wage.
Marriage should be defined as involving a male and a female.
America is a world power. Let's not pretend otherwise, and let's try to keep it that way. Unfortunately our allies may share business interests with us without sharing our political and moral values. I'm not sure what we can do about thi, but let's at least ask.
About 95% of Americans are Christian. Therefore America is a Christian country. Those like me who are not Christian should have the same rights to practice and proclaim our faith as the majority.
Every American has to send his children to school . Private school students should enjoy the same access to tax dollars as students in public school.
These are just a few of my ideas. I like the label of "labour conservative". None of the existing candidates for president fit the bill. How sad. This blog will promote those ideas and strive to be a forum for these and competing ideas.