Thursday, December 23, 2010

Musician of the Day: Josh Ritter

I was poking around on, a site that delivers a dizzying cascade of blog entries, including mine. I found a blog called "sightless among miracles". The complete lack of capital letters is identical to what I found on the blog header, and not a typo on my part. The blog's motto captures a sense of quiet wonder with its motto.
"Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles…"

Today, "sightless among miracles featured Josh Ritter, a musician born in Moscow Idaho to two parents who were both neurosurgeons. While attending Oberlin college, Ritter changed his major from neuroscience to "American History Through Narrative Folk Music." He has lived in Massachusetts, Idaho as well as Ireland, where his CD's sold very well after open mike performances.
Since 1999, Ritter has produced 7 albums, 7 EP's and 12 singles. He makes his living in music full time.
I find his style to evoke a bit of Bob Dylan on the more "unplugged" of his work. It is easy to imagine Ritter achieving mega stardom. This hard working, creative musician certainly deserves such a break in his career.

Josh Ritter on Myspace

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Note To readers about Sudan Flogging video

You Tube has been taking down this video of a woman being flogged in Sudan. Just as quickly it has been put back up by users concerned about its contents. Although admittedly its contents are disturbing, it is important that the bravery of the person who filmed it and thereby provided a glimpse of the misogyny and brutality of Sudan not have such efforts negated by Yu Tube's misguided censorship. It is for that reason that I am puttingthe video up here, out of the reach of You Tube's censors

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Crown Heights Gag Order Creates Controversy

  The new "don't snitch" edict from the rabonim of Crown Heights has generated a lot of controversy, both within the community and in the world at large. Among other things, the order calls for people in the community not to publish reports in the media critical of police without prior permission from the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council. It prohibits filing complaints against the police without prior permission from the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council.

It also prohibits publishing anything that could lead to investigation or other legal difficulties for a Crown Heights Jewish Community member. The text of the edict is not in dispute. It has been reproduced on and on Crown Heights.Info.

The letter raises a lot of questions. People have a long list of complaints about treatment of community members by police. In the age of the internet, anyone can publish news,opinion and rumours. Some people are responsible. Other people put up spur of the moment blogs that are riddled with profanity, anonymous and slanderous. A bit of googling will bring up some of these sites. There are prohibitions in Jewish law against gossiping and slander. People need to be reminded of such restrictions on speech.

Plenty of people have disputes that they settle out of court or in private arbitration. If every financial dispute, every slap and every shove ended up in court, the police would have no time to deal with serious crime.

Between Jews, there are laws from the Torah that govern disputes. Observant Jews should prefer to resolve their disagreements among themselves according to the Torah, in order that their studies have some connection to reality and in order to make the words of the Torah alive.

There are legitimate reasons to question the police. Many people feel that their crime reports have been mishandled, misclassified or "lost". If someone has a complaint against the police and they don't want to go the civilian Complaint Review Board, then they need an aggressive advocate.

If people are being asked to waive their constitutional rights to complain about law enforcement and governmental administration, there must be an effective substitute. Following are some proposals.

1. The Crown Heights Jewish Community Council should be able and willing to follow up crime reports to see that the reports get a complaint number, and that disputes about the incidents are classified correctly. Too often, members of our community have faced these issues alone.

2. Some people in our community do "mouth off" to police. We need to have seminars and articles on how to interact with police, as well as what our rights and responsibilities are.

3.If the CHJCC is to earn the respect of the community, it must advocate for the community and individuals in the community. If it is perceived as "managing" the community on behalf of the police, even when there is police misconduct, it will rightfully lose respect in the community.

4. We face the same problems with rising crime as our African American neighbours. Many criminals victimise not only Jews but our gentile neighbours as well. Crime in Crown Heights is anti Jewish because crime itself is against Judaism, whether the victim is a Jew or a gentile.

We need to create institutions and social structures that will accomodate and resolve the inevitable disputes that will occur in our community. The letter from the Crown Heights Beth Din seems to many people to be an awkward attempt to get this process going. In these tough economic times, we need to work together with the police, our gentile neighbours and each other, because even when money is short, we have each other.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Michelle Obama: Childhhod Obesity "National Security Threat"

First Ladies have a history of adopting a cause. Ladybird Johnson's signature theme was "Beautify America". Barbara Bush adopted literacy as her cause. The idea of Presidential spouses taking on a cause that transcends partisan barriers is an old one. Michelle Obama has taken on childhood obesity as her personal project, declaring it to be a national security issue, noting as follows.

“And from military leaders who tell us that when more than one in four young people are unqualified for military service because of their weight, childhood obesity isn’t just a public health threat, it’s not just an economic threat, it’s a national security threat as well. These folks come at this issue from all different angles. But they’ve come together to support this bill because they know that it’s the right thing to do for our kids. And they know that in the long run, it won’t just save money, it will save lives.”

Her solution is a piece of legislation known as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which is an attempt to address with legislation. There is no doubt that many adult health problems start in childhood. Adults do not develop heart disease or diabetes without years of preparation in fast food restaurants.

There may well be a role for government in promoting children's health.School cafeterias should offer food that is both healthful and attractive to children. Food stamps should not cover "dead calories" like sugary soda. Health education and exercise should be promoted as ways of saving money in the long run and subsidised with tax breaks.

But government can not do everything. A lot of education and social conditioning takes place in entertainment venues. Movies, television and music have a lot of influence on people.

There are food trends that are a step in the right direction already. Sushi, salad bars and falafel sandwiches are a big improvement over grease and chloresterol laden burgers and deep fried foods. People are increasingly turning to such foods. Spring water is also seen with increasing frequency in the hands of young children who a generation ago would have drunk sugary soda.

Corporations pay millions of dollars for advertising that they know will create a need for their products. There is money to be made promoting good health. People who are diabetic or who have high blood pressure like to eat out like everyone else. Some of the better restaurants address their needs. Imagine a restaurant that catered entirely to the needs of those who must modify their sugar, salt or some other aspect of their diet. There are plenty of people who are in danger of developing hypertension  or diabetes who want to head off such illnesses. Imagine restaurant chains that prepare safe healthy food. Imagine regular restaurants having a part of their menus that are suitable to weight watchers, diabetics and people with high blood pressure.

Sushi was a rarity back in the 70's. Now it is is found all across America. It is possible to create a perceived need even for useless things like pet rocks. Certainly it is possible to create a need for what is beneficial.

Most education takes place out of school, and most change starts not with a government mandate but with a change of heart. Michelle Obama has identified a real problem of youth who are obese. As an influential pubic figure, she may well be able to spur private enterprise to pick up the torch and run with it. As a child of the sixties, I marvel at the sight of my children drinking spring water instead of soda. Change can happen. It can even be pushed by public figures like Michelle Obama. But I question whether bad habits can be legislated out of existence.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Bloomberg For President?!


There have been a few articles in the paper speculating about whether or not Mike Bloomberg would run for President in 2012. There is even a web site called Run Mike Run. Despite the fawning coverage of Bloomberg's mayoralty, there is quite a different range of opinion on the street about Bloomberg as mayor and his prospects as President.

Bloomberg has made public health a signature issue. First, there was comprehensive smoking bans. Then there were punitive taxes on cigarettes that have made New York cigarettes the most expensive in the nation. Then there was the ban on trans fats in restaurants that reeked of nanny state meddling in personal health choices.

While Bloomberg has been mayor, the cost of traffic and sanitation tickets has skyrocketed. He comes across as a mayor for the wealthy who tries to maintain the fiction that New York is an ideal little village in which crime is enough under control that we can move on to making sure that every New Yorker finishes the veggies on his plate.

Bloomberg got his foot in the door by running as a Republican. In most parts of the country, he comes across as a liberal Democrat. It is doubtful that party affiliation means anything to him at all.

Bloomberg is a billionaire who made his fortune in the media. There is no law against having a heavy financial stake in the news media and running for higher office, but having such a stake in the news media has given Bloomberg an unfair advantage in controlling and influencing how he is portrayed.

Bloomberg is not charismatic. He does not inspire impassioned support. He would be a good subject for a sci fi movie in which an evil villain puts Gotham City to sleep and then takes over. His management style is notoriously abrasive, yet it is airbrushed from the portrait of him as a business and political leader. He is thin skinned and bristles at criticism. He is extremely aloof in his management of the city.

Unless he has the audacity to run for a fourth term, this should be Bloomberg's last term as mayor. It would be good for him to branch into creating a media outlet for public health that is as massive as his financial information empire. Millions of Americans want to safeguard their health of their own free will and not out of fear of some overreaching nanny state.

Part of any strategy to defeat Bloomberg if he ever runs for President can and should involve the voices of ordinary New Yorkers who endured his mayoralty. It is doubtful that the sort of nanny state measures pushed by Bloomberg would be welcomed in the South and the Midwest.

I would be eager to see Bloomberg News work on popularising public health. I would love to see him establish healthy fast food restaurant chains with low sodium burgers, low chloresterol and other offerings that are harmonised with good taste.

The possibilities for Bloomberg to make a positive impact on American life are virtually endless. I would probably vote with my wallet for any Bloomberg attempt to build a business empire on the issue of public health.Running for President is another matter entirely. The very thought of Mike Bloomberg as President raises my blood pressure, more than any of the salt that he wants banned from New York City restaurants. Now if he cares about my health, why would Mayor Mike want to do that?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Taking Chanukah Personally [Video]


There are several days, as well as a 3 week stretch on the Jewish calendar when we mourn the destruction of the Bet HaMikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, as well as pray for its eventual reconstruction. Most such observances also note the role played not only by idolatry in the destruction of the first Bet HaMikdash but the role of hatred within our community as well in the destruction of the second temple..

What is notable about Chanukah in contrast to the 9th of Av and the upcoming fast day of the 10th of Teves is that the Chanukah story starts when the Bet HaMikdash is still standing. When we go to Jerusalem today, the Temple Mount where our Holy Temple stood is occupied  by a mosque. The remnant to which Jews flock in prayer is the Western Wall.

By contrast, the sad backdrop of the Chanukah story is a Temple that had not been destroyed but had been occupied by the Greeks and filled with idols and idolatrous observance. Even though the Temple stood, its space was forcibly dedicated to idolatry, to ideas that were the antithesis of Judaism. The holiday revolves around a revolt which led to the purification and rededication of the Bet Hamikdash to its original objective.

In our own lives, how many times do personal, business and communal relationships get "off track"? How often do we find that acts of faith become hollow and perfunctory, and that estrangement creeps into marital and familial relationships? How often are we "married on paper", "on the payroll" and "sitting at the PTA" with an inner aloofness?

The good news is, we are still married, our kids still speak to us, and we're still employed. But something is missing. The freshness of love, the belief in an objective, the sense of connectedness are sometimes replaced with a lack of direction and misdirection.

Chanukah to me symbolises the awareness that we still have love that remains,  the glow beneath the ashes, and  a mission of which we remain aware and to which we can return. The social structures that remain in our lives can be purified, repaired and rededicated.

Everyone has a conceptual manner in which they connect to Hanukah. I know some people, children of a Jewish father and a non Jewish mother who returned to Judaism and restored the Jewishness to a family name that had become no longer Jewish. Others restored through education an understanding of Passsover, Rosh HaShanah and Chanukah itself. as well as Shabbos, which of course comes around every week.

At least as important as religious observances are our human relationships. Bringing back love and enthusiasm, loyalty and caring to marriage, family and friendship is also an idea of rededication. Rediscovering a dedication to work also involves a network of human relationships, and a multitude of opportunities to make people's lives better.

I know a plumber who goes home from unstopping a toilet or installing a stove happy in the knowledge that he has lightened the burden of his customers. I have gone to salesmen who are happy to sell a piece of electronics that is exactly what the customer needs. In my personal life, a good librarian or book seller is almost on the level of clergy. There is something reassuring in knowing that the things we get paid by the hour to do are things that touch people's lives after the job is done.

Chanukah for me is the time that I think of relationships that have drifted onto "automatic pilot" and the fact that the commitment is there, the love and idealism ready to be reinvigorated. The holiday speaks not only of miracles, of help from Above but of seizing the day, of standing up and fighting. It is a reminder that we are not passive spectators waiting only for miracles, but that we are given a role to usher in the miraculous as well.

Jewish holidays have their historical aspect. But there is also a level in which they recur in each generation. The rededication of the Holy Temple that took place is not buried in the past. It is a theme that can and should be brought back to life today.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Thank You Jiri Trnka

      Lately, I have been in one of those moods that we all experience sooner or later, when I have country songs in Czech that keep playing in my head. Wanting to put a stop to this annoying feeling, I did what any thinking person would do, and looked for some Czech rock music to listen to instead. I looked for Jiri Schelinger, and found a soulful song about feeding pigeons called Holubi Dum. 

In the list of videos brought up in my search for Jiri Schelinger's music, I found a short documentary about Jiri Trnka, a man who I had never heard of. Wondering how a last name so exotically short of vowels was being discussed in English, I watched the documentary. It solved a mystery for me. Years ago I had a book of fables according to the French author La Fontaine that I unfortunately lost.

The illustrations were of stellar quality, and exponentially increased the value of the book to me. During the documentary, which had a second part,I found out that the La Fontaine collection of fables, as well as other children's books illustrated by Jiri Trnka are also readily available. The Czechs, to their credit have always taken animation and children's books seriously.

Born in 1912, Trnka spent the war years designing stage sets and illustrating children's books. When the communists came to power, they subsidized his work, but did not interfere with his creative processes.

Despite this, Trnka managed to produce an allegorical cartoon, "The Hand" about a simple potter who only wanted to make a flower pot and was chased by an ominous hand that ordered the potter to instead make a likeness of itself. The film was banned by the communist authorities, despite winning international acclaim. In 1969 after the chill following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, "The Hand" was banned by the communist authorities. In that year in December, Jiri Trnka passed away from heart problems. Despite having his film banned, Trnka was buried with state honours.

Having "The Hand" banned was probably Trnka's greatest honour of all, a token of recognition that he struggled as an artist and a human being with the tension between conscience and artistic creativity under a totalitarian regime.

From illustration to animated film making, Jiri Trnka made earth shaking contributions to art and entertainment. I am grateful for having discovered Trnka's life and work in the course of my musical wanderings through You Tube. I hope my readers will appreciate him as well.


Here are parts 1 and 2 of "The Hand" I also recommend "The Cybernetic Grandma" which is described as follows on You Tube.

Trnka's sci-fi "The Cybernetic Grandma" was a vision of the future in which machines and robots try to substitute themselves into the most beautiful human relationships. A cybernetic robot is supposed to substitute for the loving grandmother of a little girl. The wise grandmother, however, comes back and the girl finds the warmth of her grandmother's loving arms again.

I feel priveleged to have discovered the life and work of Trnka.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Israel Fire: Was It Arson?


Israel is now battling the worst forest fire in its 62 year history as a modern state. There are already an estimated 40 people dead, a considerable number of them cadets from Israel's prison system.

 The Israeli government has already appealed for help from abroad in containing the raging blaze. In the appeal, foreign nations were asked to send planes that are able to dump chemicals on the fire. Arutz Sheva News has confirmed that Greece and Cyprus have sent firefighting helicopters to fight the blaze.  There are unconfirmed reports that Egypt and Turkey have also rendered assistance in fighting the inferno.

A prison as well as some towns and villages believed to be in danger from the fire are being  instructed to evacuate the danger area. There have been conflicting reports about whether the fire has been contained.

Suspicions of arson are being voiced with increasing frequency. The Virtual Jerusalem web site has reported that the fire started in three different places,making arson a plausible cause of the fires. If this proves to be the case, it would make the latest fire the worst act of terrorism in Israel's history as a state.

If this latest fire proves to be arson, it would not be the first time that Israel has faced this threat in its history as a state. The Jewish National Fund has, on its web site openly discussed this possibility in the aftermath of past fires.

Reforestation has been a critical part of Israel's development strategy during its modern history. If arson was involved in the latest fire, Israel needs to confront it openly and to inform its own people and the world. Ignoring this grim possibility will not make it go away or prevent further attempts in the future.

Virtual Jerusalem

Israel National News

Article on Ecological Terrorism