Potpourri (4 cents)

Here we go – the last few weeks of events I attended:

1. The Washington Auto Show. A large show, but I thought it disappointing in that there were very few of the concept cars I wanted to see. It was a fine show for those who were actually looking for a new car, and who wanted the opportunity to compare everything now on the road ( you could do everything but test drive, obviously), but not for the casual observer. Although some of the newer American cars looked competitive, the average American car still looks to be larger than the average foreign-made car, and too many of them (such as the very attractive new Cadillac CTS) have embarrassingly poor gasoline usage statistics. The new Chevy Curve is my choice as the best looking, relatively inexpensive car. And, at the foreign car level, it was sad to see that the Toyota Prius (mine is three years old) continues to witness less appealing interior and dashboard design features year to year.

2. Last week saw the 68th anniversary of the sinking of the “Dorchester”, the military ship which was hit and sunk by a German U-Boat in the North Atlantic – a casualty of World War II. There were four clergymen on the ship – one Catholic, two Protestants and a Jew (who happened to have been married to my second cousin), among a total of 900 members of the military, more than 600 of whom lost their lives. Known as the Four Chaplains, these four young military chaplains chose to go down with the ship, and to use their remaining time to help others get into life boats, obtain life jackets, and be comforted as best as possible. in memory of the sinking of the Dorchester, a program was held at the U.S. Navy Memorial, on Pennsylvania Avenue NW in DC, which featured former Navy Chaplain Arnold Reznicoff, speaking not only about the Dorchester, but about the unique roles and successes of chaplains in the United States military, how they not on;y lead religious services and rituals for members of their own faiths, but how they are given the task of making sure that troops of other faiths have an opportunity to get their religious needs met, and how they counsel men and women of all faiths. A very interesting and moving address, filled with Rabbi Reznicoff’s personal recollections (including how he was encouraged to apply to rabbinical school by an Episcopal priest with whom he served (as a line officer) in Vietnam, and his role in getting the military to agree to provide religiously proper food for Jewish and for Muslim troops.

3. “I’m Speaking to You in Chinese” by Savyon Liebrecht. It had to happen. After four wonderful readings at Theater J as a part of its Voices from a Changing Middle East festival, each of which I wrote about very positively, I found that the most recent reading on Monday night left a lot to be desired. Focusing on a woman, born to a Polish born couple in Tel Aviv, where they lived in poor economic straits and not in a desirable neighborhood, who left home abruptly and had minimal contact until she inherited the apartment after the death of her angry, bitter mother. In the process of deciding to sell the apartment, working with a real estate agent who was a neighbor in the old days (a contemporary of hers, of Iraqi background), and through a series of flashbacks involving her mother, her father (whom she loved and pitied) and her aunt, whose flashy, flirtatious personality was so different from her sister’s, she learned some things that she had never imagined. I thought the play started off nicely, but that things deteriorated greatly in the second act, as credibility decreased and decreased. And the meaning of the title?

4. Busboys and Poets. In the shadow of the first few days of the demonstrations in Cairo, DC restaurant Busboys and Poets did what might have been expected of them – they had two TV anchors from Al-Jazeera English, and Phyllis Bennis, a representative of the left wing Institute for Policy Studies, coupled with a live telephone hook-up from a journalist in Cairo (where it was the middle of the night) to discuss the situation and give some prognostications as to what was going to happen next. A very interesting, and up to date, discussion not only of the situation in Egypt, but also of the role of al-Jazeera, and the news-gathering policy of al-Jazeera. The two representatives of the network were able to give their own opinions, but to separate it from the neutral policies being followed by the network itself, which clearly hopes that its English coverage of the current problems in the middle east will vastly increase its visibility in the United States. As to Phyllis Bennis, it’s a different story. A highly opinionated individual, the impression she gave to me was: “My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with the facts.” I wouldn’t recommend her as someone worth listening to.

5. The International Spy Museum/Smithsonian Resident Associate Program. I signed up for four separate lectures at the Spy Museum. The first one, held last week, was a lecture by Ivian C. Smith, former FBI official, who was deeply involved in identifying and investigating long time CIA analyst and linguist, Larry Chin, who had been spying for China for over 30 years. The story itself is, of course, fascinating (and I must admit totally unknown to me) – how a senior CIA employee, with top secret clearance, could have working with a Chinese handler for over thirty years, secreted documents out of his office, copying them at home and returning them, and through a rather complicated process delivering them to Chinese agents in Toronto. An anonymous call said there was a Chinese agent at the CIA – those at the FBI charged with investigating this claim were bound to (a) decide whether the caller was legitimate and credible, (b) identify the spy, both to the satisfaction of the investigators, but also with sufficient evidence to convince others, (c) to try to identify others involved, and (d) to capture the spy, (e) to convince Chin to confess, and of course (f) to deal with the rivalry between the CIA and the FBI. Chin was convicted and jailed – but before much more could be learned, he, apparently surprisingly, committed suicide.

The second program, yesterday, was about convicted and still held spy Jonathan Pollard, convicted of spying for Israel. I heard that the program was fascinating, but I was not able to attend – my wife went in my place.

6. Programs connected with winter meeting of American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. This is an organization with which I am closely connected. For the first time, they had their winter board meeting in DC. In addition to the official business, there are usually associated educational programs led by BGU faculty members who happen to be in the states. I attended three such sessions.

a. Prof. Katrin Kogman-Appel, Department of the Arts, led a discussion of the “Washington Haggadah”, a 15th century Haggadah from southern Germany, which is in the possession of the Library of Congress. A beautifully illustrated, hand written, small book on parchment, the Haggadah is normally not on display. It is rare for anyone other than researchers to see it (although it is going to be on display at the Metropolitan Museum of New York for a few months this spring/summer). We were privileged to hear from the Library’s conservator on how the volume is held and protected, and from Prof. Kogman-Appel, who has studied the Haggadah and written a scholarly introduction to a new book, being published next month by the Harvard University Press. It was very, very interesting. (Prior to this program, which was limited to about 12 of us, we were equally privileged to have an extraordinary tour of the Jefferson building of the LOC, led by Ed King, docent extraordinaire.)

b. Professor Dov Chernichovsky of the Department of Health Care Administration and former World Bank official, led a discussion comparison the American, Israeli, European and Canadian Health Care systems. Not surprisingly, the US came in last in virtually all aspects, from cost to equality to efficiency – Prof. Chernichovsky’s concern is that recent changes in the Israeli system are bringing that country closer to the United States, while the Canadian and most European systems do a much better job meeting the cost, coverage and efficiency goals. Again, quite interesting, with power point charts to back up his points.

c. The third presentation by Dr. Asher Moser of the University’s Medical School for International Health (operated in partnership with Columbia University) was equally interesting – this English language program (as distinct from the Hebrew language medical school at BGU) gears its graduates to work in cross cultural situations, particular in low income countries, now with programs directed at India, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Peru, and Nepal. Dr. Moser’s presentation concentrated on the way students for the program are selected, and how the training program differs from conventional medical school programs without omitting any needed medical training.

7. Whew.

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