My Day: Harriet Tubman and the Birds

My second visit to the Harriet Tubman museum outside of Cambridge, MD, took place yesterday.  Wrote about it once, and won’t again.  Except to say that it’s a wonderful, approachable museum that is well worth the visit, and a visit will make it clear to you why Tubman’s picture should be on the $20 bill.

After visiting the museum, we went to the nearby Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, 30,000 acres of marshland, home to teems of birds.  Even on a cloudy November afternoon, enormous flocks of blackbirds, and waterways filled with swans and ducks and egrets and herons, along with the occasional hawk and vulture could be seen.  Imagine it in season.


My Day: Lincoln and the Jews

Professor Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University spoke about his book, Lincoln and the Jews, at Congregation Ohr Kodesh two nights ago, with about 250 in attendance.  The sponsor of the talk was the Foundation of Jewish Studies, of which I am Vice-President.  The evening was a success.

Some highlights from memory:

1.  Lincoln was the first president to display a positive attitude towards Jews – his immediate predecessor and successor had very different ideas.

2.  Lincoln had over 100 Jewish friends and associates.

3.  He appointed the first federal Jewish official (Abraham Jonas of Quincy, IL who became Quincy’s postmaster, and who was succeeded by his wife).

4.  He overturned General Grant’s Order #11, expelling Jews from the Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi, even before the nation’s rabbis descended on Washington.

5.  Although the first federal act authorizing the appointment of chaplains in the military required the chaplains to be Christian, Lincoln orchestrated a statement in bill (where it was lost, apparently, during the legislative process) defining “Christian” in the bill as meaning “religious”.  The day he signed the new act, he appointed the first Jewish chaplain.

6.  In Israel, there are some Abrham Lincoln Streets.  The Israelis pronounce it “Lin-co-lin”.  In the Hebrew translation of his book, the second “L” was omitted, causing some controversy.

7.  Lincoln knew, and used, his bible quotes.  He was not a churchgoer, but became more religious as time went on.

8.  Lincoln had a significant amount of Jewish support during the 1864 election.



My Day: Eight Books

OK, not “my day”, perhaps, “my month”, and these mini-reviews are even minier than most of mine, but here goes:

  1.  Edna O’Brien’s biography, James Joyce (1999), part of the Weidenfeld & Nicolson Lives series.  All right, so maybe O’Brien’s writing is a little too much, a little too Joyce-y, but it’s enough to give you a good sense of James Joyce.  I had known that Joyce had lived most of his life abroad, in Paris.  I have read a lot of his writing (not Finnigans Wake), and recognize the extraordinary talent.  But I didn’t realize that he was a nut case, until I read this book.  How he treated his wife of so many years, and how he lived. And, if you haven’t read this book (it’s only 180 pages), and if you doubt me, read it, or read something else about Joyce.  Nut case.
  2. Carol Burnett’s memoir, This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection (2010).  Yes, not great literature, but (to compensate) an easy read.  Most of the reflections not worth remembering (as if I could), but one is.  Early in her career (before it started), she was playing at a night club and her first accompanist/partner wrote a song for her, which was a spoof on the Elvis craze, and made her out to have a crush on John Foster Dulles.  The spoof went 1950-style viral, and Dulles was actually asked about his relationship with Carol Burnett on Meet the Press (in a spoofy sort of way), and responded:  “I make it a policy never to discuss matters of the heart in public.”
  3. Carl T. Rowan’s The Pitiful and the Proud (1956).  Early in his career, African-American journalist Rowan was given a contract by USIA to travel around Asia, and expound on the virtues of the free press in America.  Half of the book outlines his experiences in India, then Pakistan and then briefly Burma, Thailand, Indochina, Indonesia and Hong Kong.  He learned a lot, but had a hard time:  the Communists were threatening all of these countries (and were prominent in journalistic, as well as academic circles), and he was constantly on defense about being black and living in a segregated country.  Not sure that his responses to these challenges were successful, nor could they be.  How the United States was looked at as a western country, invading – in various ways – Asia, and how deeply the Korean War was resented and viewed as the first of many future invasions. Very interesting book and picture of these times.
  4. The Decision to Drop the Bomb by Len Giovannitti and Fred Freed (1965).  What a little read, and what a fascinating, book this is.  The race to complete the development of the bomb, the changing views  of its use and necessity by the scientists involved, the death of Roosevelt and education of Truman, the different opinions of the politicians, and the international considerations.  Was the bomb necessary, or was the war won anyway?  What were the varying opinions of high level Japanese officials – end the war or fight on?  And what about the Russians, our allies in war:  should we keep the bomb secret from them, or let them in on the secret, or did they know everything already?  Did we want the USSR to enter the war against Japan to help close it out, or would that simply give them a say in the spoils.  So many interesting issues.
  5.  Richard Goldstone’s For Humanity: Reflections of a War Crimes Investigator (2000).  So Goldstone became controversial when he issued a report (later, pretty much rescinded by him, I believe) accusing Israel of using too much force in Gaza, but before that his career as a judge in his native South Africa, as a party to the early attempts to reconcile the white and black populations after the release of Nelson Mandela, and as a mediator in the Balkans and Rwanda are very interesting and impressive.  As well as his work towards the creation of an International Criminal Court (now a reality).
  6.  Alison Weir’s polemic Against Our Better Judgment (2014), an anti-Israel book by an anti-Israel activist that is, in one sense a one-sided embarrassment, and in another, quite dangerous.  I am glad my copy is away from public view.
  7. The Man Who Pushed America to War, a biography of Ahmad Chalabi by Aram Roston (2008).  I remember Chalabi as an Iraqi living in America and virulently anti-Saddam Hussein, and one who might have well have been post-Saddam Iraq’s first prime minister. Of course, it did not work out that way.  What I didn’t know was that Chalabi was a member of one of the middle east’s most prominent banking and business family, that he had run a bank in Jordan that was involved in much scandal before (and after) its bankruptcy, and that he had spent years as a CIA agent (and not a very productive one), and a man who developed his own private army to take over the country.  Whew.  Very interesting. Very detailed.
  8. The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah  (2018) by Adam Valen Levinson, a strange book by a young Jewish kid, who graduates from New York University and gets a gopher job at the University’s new branch in Abu Dhabi.  Learning that there was not much to his new job, he took to traveling (money never seemed to be a problem), and focused on the most dangerous spots he could find (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran) and on the most dangerous places in the  most dangerous spots.  Reckless, and stupid, and the book – considering the crazy places he went to and crazy things he did – not really that interesting for the most part.


My Day: “A Comedy of Errors” and “Aida”

Very quick:


1.  “A Comedy of Errors” at the Shakespeare Theatre is very well done.  They found two sets of actors who look enough like twins to be twins, and who can act, as well.  They’ve added some music, which fits in quite nicely, although there is nothing Elizabethan about it.  They have an ingenious revolving set with four stations, with each station having two faces.  The set works smoothly throughout, and adds to the chaos (in a good way, of course) of the mad-cap chase near the end of the show.  They have brought three older, well known character actors (Ted van Griethuysen, Sarah Marshall and Nancy Robinette) all on stage at the same time.  And they have done it all in about 90 minutes.  What more can you ask?

2.  “Aida”.  Equally good is Elton John’s version of “Aida”, playing at the Source Theater as a part of Constellation Stage’s current season.  Had never see the “musical” version of “Aida” before – it exceeded my expectations. The music, perhaps not shower-humming memorable, is ultimately listenable with a reliable beat the whole way through, and Elton John has taken Giuseppe Verdi’s too complex story and modified it, simplified it and improved upon it.  No elephants or camels, but an extraordinary all African-American cast.  It’s still there.  See it if you can.

My Day: “Actually” at Theater J

“Actually” is a new play (premiered last year) by Anna Ziegler, now playing at Theater J (or, rather, a Theater J play now playing at Arena, as the DCJCC is under renovation).  We saw it last night.

We were familiar with Ziegler, because we had seen her wonderful “Photograph 51”, about Rosa Franklin and her role in the discovery of the Double Helix with Francis Crick and J.D. Watson, several years ago.

Actually, “Actually” is no “Photograph 51”.  It’s a one act, 90 minute show about date rape.  The two actors, both Princeton freshmen, one male, one female, sit on chairs facing the audience, generally communicating not with each other, but sometimes with the audience and sometimes with the panel (three professors) judging the case,  telling their story of what happened on the date where the rape may or may not have taken place.  The actors are terrific, the dialogue is fast paced and clever.

The question is: what’s the goal of the play?

The young man is African American; the girl white and Jewish.  They are in the first month of their freshman year.  You learn their backgrounds, how nervous they are, how they wonder if they do, or ever will, fit in at Princeton.  They eye each other, they meet, they have ice cream, they arrange to go to a party, they drink much too much, they wind up back at his dorm room, they spend the night, they have sex, she leaves in the morning.

She talks to one of her new friends and tells her that he “sort of ” raped me, or “almost” raped me, or something like that. He friend pressures her to talk to the RA, who seems to convince her to file a charge.  She does and he is called before a faculty representative.  He is shocked.

Did she consent? She didn’t say “no”; she seemed to be enjoying herself; she didn’t specifically say “yes”, but “who does?” in such circumstances. Yes, she was drunk.

Well, what makes for rape?  Their stories are very different; how do you believe one over the other? And who are these faculty advisors who get to run a hearing and decide, if they feel it appropriate, a “punishment”? And what could that punishment be?

At the end of the 90 minutes, you don’t know any more than when you got to the theater.  You don’t know what really happened, and you don’t know how it turned out. You have heard an interesting story; you have seen two very good actors play two interesting characters.  But no more.

Do I recommend you see it?  I don’t want you to think I am telling you not to see it.  But don’t set your expectations too high.



My Day: Israeli Emigration (conf. at AU)

The American University Israel Studies Center hosted a day and a half long conference on the Israeli diaspora.  I only went to one session – this morning’s, but picked up a couple of interesting thoughts from the panel, which included two Israeli professors (Haifa and The Hebrew University), one Canadian (Toronto) and one from AU.

1. Although it is difficult, both to define various terms and to document all comings and goings, Israeli emigration is not that different from emigration elsewhere.  Countries which have the largest amount of emigration tend to be the lowest on a Human Development Index, which demographers world wide seem to use.  If you plot countries by HDI, you see that the number of Israeli emigrants is just where you expect it to be.

2.  But Israeli emigrants tend to be well educated, and therefore do connote a brain drain.  That is true about all Israeli diaspora communities, except for Latin America, where less education Israelis tend to go.

3.  About half of Israeli emigrants come to the US – others are pretty evenly divided between Canada, Britain, France and Germany, followed by the former Soviet Union.  If, though, you look only at emigrants who have been born in Israel, between 2/3 and 3/4 come to the U.S.

4.  The number/proportion of Israeli emigrants was the highest in the 1990s.

5.  Israel is country #11 on the happiness index.

6.  But the emigration statistics do not distinguish between individuals and families, and what happens after emigration.  Do the individual emigrants marry, and if so to whom?  With regard to families, what happens to their children – do they go to Israel or stay abroad.

7.  The German community is the newest.  It also seems to be the least religious in terms of synagogue attendance or observance in general.

8.  During the Ottoman period, there was a greater percentage of immigrants to Israel who left than now.  During the mandate period, this number went down.

9.  Some emigrants in the 1940s and early 1950s went to Europe and wanted HIAS and the Joint to take care of them.  This was a matter of controversy – although the numbers were small.

My Day: Restaurant Disappointments

I have been to a number of Washington restaurants over the past week.  Usually, that’s a source of satisfaction.  This week – not so much.  Quick examples:

1.  Mayflower Chinese Carryout.  I have been many times to the Spring Garden Chinese carryout restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue and never been disappointed.  This time, I decided to go a few blocks down the street and try the Mayflower, another informal Chinese carryout that has been there as long as I remember.  I had the kung pau chicken, and it was pretty bad.  The picture on the wall made it look good, with a variety of vegetables and a generous number of peanuts.  But the reality was diced and undercooked celery and carrots, along with the chicken, very little pepper, and virtually not taste.  Boo.

2.  Masala Art Indian.  We had been years ago to the Tenelytown Masala Art. This time, we tried the new Southwest branch.  Pea/broccoli patties were good (but is this really an Indian recipe?), the spinach and corn was fine, but the baby eggplant was a major disappointment.  Only three small baby eggplants, two jalapeno peppers, and a lot of sauce.  You can get their dishes in half size, too.  What would you get,1 1/2 eggplants?

3.  Jaleo.  We have been to the 7th Street Jaleo so many times, and the food is always good.  This time was no exception.  So what was the problem?  Well, the menu changes often, and this menu seems to have a bunch of mismatches.  This is a tapas restaurant, small plates.  You need two or three to make a meal.  And you’d like them to complement each other.  So, you decide on one, and then you look for something that goes with the first.  With this menu, it’s hard to find the matches, so we had a bunch of things that really didn’t belong in the same meal.  Each individually was good, but the ordering was tough, and the meal not quite satisfying.

4.  Ecensias Panamanas.  I had seen good reviews of this casual restaurant on Georgia Avenue, and stopped in for lunch.  Had the fish (corvina) and chips.  The chips turned out not to be potato, but simply yucca strips, raw.  Disappointing, of course.  Fish was not so bad.

That’s it.


My Day: Some Tidbits on German Jews from Prof. Michael Brenner

Last night, Professor Michael Brenner of American University (Director of the school’s Israel Studies Center) addressed the Foundation for Jewish Studies at Adas Israel Congregation.  The name of his presentation was:  “What Can Jewish Culture of Pre-War Germany Teach Us Today?”

I didn’t take notes during his presentation, but I did glean a number of tidbits that I think are helpful to remember.  Here goes:

  1.  The German Jews of the 19th century were very different from those of the 20th century.  In the 19th century, most Jews lived in small towns, and were in the timber or transport business, etc.  In the early 20th century, there was an enormous movement of Jews into the big cities – especially Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt.
  2. Once in the cities, many Jews turned away from a more traditional life and religious practice, and became very secular – cultural Jews.  During the years of the Weimar Republic, some of their children (or grandchildren or great-grandchildren) rebelled against this secularization and began to immerse themselves in Jewish study.  Look at Franz Rosenzweig, who almost converted to Christianity, and Gershon (Gerhard Scholem).  Their parents (especially their fathers) were very disappointed.
  3. In Germany, Jewish authors wrote in German.  This is different from Eastern Europe, where they wrote in Yiddish.  So there was a barrier in Eastern Europe – non-Jewish Poles, for example, had no access to Jewish literature.  Same was true of film and theater.
  4. Certain aspects of Weimar culture was primarily Jewish.  As in the U.S., comedy and acting were Jewish professions, etc.  Jews were supporting and creating museums.  All this abruptly changed in 1933, but in January 1933, there was a new Jewish museum that opened in Berlin, one month before Hitler became Chancellor.
  5. When Jews were kicked out of cultural organizations, the Kulturbund was formed and for a while was very active.  Now, the Germans were like the Eastern Europeans, not party to Jewish culture.
  6. Berlin became the center of publishing between the wars, including Yiddish publishing, even though the market was elsewhere.
  7. Intermarriage was between 25 and 50 percent in the large cities.  Hamburg had the most intermarriage.  There was not that much conversion during this period of time.
  8. A lot of Hebrew and Yiddish crept into German slang – some is still there.  Similar to here.
  9. Reform and Conservative Judaism started in Germany.  Then came here.  The pattern is German.