My Day: Robinson Crusoe

I needed a change in my reading, so I picked up that well down, but probably not well read, book, Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe, written almost 300 years ago.

The plot is fairly well known – Crusoe found himself on an empty tropical island, came across a native whom he named Friday, made a life in the wilderness, and lived there a long time.

At least, that’s what I knew.

In fact, the plot is a little more complicated – Crusoe’s youth in England, his need to get away to the sea, his tough luck (a ship foundered in bad weather off the English coast, a ship is captured by Muslims off the north-west African coast, a boat runs aground further south in Atlantic Africa, a ship is blown off course and destroyed in a storm leaving Crusoe the sole survivor), the success Crusoe had fending for himself off the east coast of Africa, the success he had in Brazil as a plantation owner, and of course his ability not only to survive, but to create a two-home, multiple boat, agricultural society of one on a deserted island, where he lived (mainly prior to the arrival of Friday) for 35 years.  And there’s the visit to the island of natives from nearby, where they hold what seem to be military victory celebrations with dancing followed by the cooking and eating of prisoners of war (Friday was a POW, who was rescued by Crusoe).

The book is very well written, you can read it quickly, and you can marvel at how a book this old can be read so easily.  You can see how clever Crusoe was in creating his home on this island (it is almost a DIY instruction book – boy, would Crusoe have made a great handy man).  You can see how easily Friday adapted to Crusoe’s western ways, how he even adopted a religious view close to, if not exactly, that of Christian England.

And there are some surprising tidbits.  Did you know that Crusoe’s father was German and the family name was not Drumpf, but Kreutznaer?  Did you know that Crusoe had a pet parrot named Poll?  Did you know that after Crusoe returned to England at the age of about 60, he got married and had several children? Did you know that Crusoe’s island was located somewhere at or near the mouth of the Orinoco River, in today’s Venezuela, not far from the island of Trinidad?

It is not a long book.  In my Limited Edition edition, it runs just under 300 pages in a fairly large font.  I started it last night, and finished it this morning.  Like a taste of sorbet between courses, it was the perfect things to read between heavier volumes.


My Day: Arabistan

Yesterday, I watched a film on Netflix titled “6 Days”, based on the assault on the Iranian Embassy in London by the Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan in 1980.

What?  Don’t know what I’m talking about?  Neither did I, so I am glad I saw the film.  As they say, “another country heard from”.

Arabistan is another name for Khuzestan, which is a province in southwest Iran, which has a diverse population, including a large number of Iranian Arabs (Iran being a Persian, not an Arab country), who felt they were treated as second hand citizens after Iran’s 1979 revolution, and who wanted independence or autonomy.  Internal revolts let the Iranian government to imprison about 100 Iranian Arabs, many belonging to the Democratic Revolutionary Front, and – to get their compatriots freed and gain attention – a group of Front members staged an assault on the Iranian embassy in London in 1980. They took about 25 people hostage, and said that, unless Iran freed the Arabs in prison, they would execute the hostages one by one.

The UK had a new prime minister:  Margaret Thatcher, who made it be known that she was not going to give in to terrorists and hostage takers.  There was a question as to who was in charge of resolving the problem – was in the London police, or the British military. Coordination was apparently not in their vocabulary.

So the British response seemed to be two fold:  the locals were to try to negotiate an end to the attack, without giving any ground.  And a military SWAT team, which had practiced and practiced for such an event, but never had to operate in a real life situation, were to prepare for a defensive attack.  The orders to the negotiators were – promise them anything, but do nothing, and make sure none of the hostages get hurt.  Food was brought in, and communication took place through one open telephone line, between an English speaking member of the Front and a very professional British hostage negotiator, who was able to postpone and postpone any harm to the hostages, by promising to help the hostage takers in a number of ways:  get the Iranians to release the prisoners, get the Arab League to help, arrange for Arab ministers in London to get involved, provide safe passage out of the country for the hostage takers (a bus to Heathrow, and passage to the destination of their choice).

The film portrays the strain on the British negotiator, and on the negotiator for the Front, who swung back and forth between belief and disbelief, and who had to hold some of the more radical of his group (of course, they were all pretty radical) at bay.  Meanwhile, although the London civilians didn’t know it, the SWAT team was being transported to London, had developed a plan based on detailed knowledge of the embassy building, and – six days after the assault began – detonated explosives on the roof of the embassy (a large historic townhouse), entered the building and were miraculously able to free the hostages without death or injury, yet kill all but one of the hostage takers.  The assault was over – as was the life of the Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan.

An interesting, but not relevant, aside:  As we approach Purim at the end of the month, it may be interesting to learn that Khuzestan (Arabistan) is a province of historical import in the Persian empire, and the site of Susan, the home of Esther, Mordecai, and the infamous Haman [noise].  Again….who knew?



My Day: Oral or Written?

A very interesting presentation this afternoon by Associate Professor Talya Fishman of the University of Pennsylvania.  The venue:  Adas Israel.  The topic:  How did the Talmud become the central feature of Jewish life in medieval Europe?

The hour long talk was scholarly, but admittedly speculative.  And I must admit that, although I was intrigued by everything she said, and although at times I thought I had reached a new understanding of her subject matter, I was again and again confronted by confusion and doubt.  Therefore, I don’t know what to think about what she said, am afraid I didn’t understand a lot of it, and would really like to discuss it with her further, or learn more about it from her.  (OK, I understand I could do that if I read her 2011 award winning book, “Becoming the People of the Talmud”.)

As simply as I can put it:

The first five books of the Hebrew Bible constitute the written Torah, and everything else (mishnah, midrash, responsa, everything) constitute the Oral Torah.  But why is it the Oral Torah, since all of these things are written?  Because these teachings were transmitted for generations orally, before they were written down.  (Is this really true?)

Presumably, this is true of the early compilations which were composed in Tiberias and other parts of present day Israel, as well as later in Babylon and Baghdad.  Like in other religious and literary traditions, these  compositions were handed down master to disciple, generation to generation. (Interesting aside: she said that in Baghdad, the Sultan [is that the correct title?] would bring together Jewish, Muslim and Christian intellectual and religious leaders to discuss philosophical tenets of their respective faiths, and that they spoke openly with each other – I had not heard that before.)

It wasn’t until the development of  Ashkenazic Jewry in the Rhineland and Sephardic Jewry in Spain that things began to change.  Within these communities, the master-disciple relationships began to weaken, and more began to be written down and taught at yeshivot which seemed to sprout up all over.

Then, in the 11th century, Rashi wrote his commentary on the Talmud, and his sons and their cohorts (the tosafists) wrote their commentaries on his commentary, things changed more, as these writings became major items of study throughout the Diaspora.   At first, through handwritten manuscripts and later through printed copies, the Oral Torah became a written Torah but remained the Oral Torah.

I think I am being a little simplistic, but this is what I heard. Clearly interesting – but Prof. Fishman said that her conclusions were speculative.  So is it good speculation?  Is there really this history of oral transmission?  Of the entire Babylonian Talmud? Who am I to say?

SIDEBAR:  Overheard this afternoon at Adas.  Man and woman talking.

He:  Nice talking to you; I have to get to the mincha service.

She:  Let’s finish what we’re talking about first.

He:  No, really can’t.

She:  It really won’t hurt if you miss the service one time.

He:  Yes, it would.

She:  No.  Why are you saying that?

He:  Because I’m leading the service.










My Day: Russia, Russia, Russia

The pundits are spending their time tonight trying to determine what today’s indictment of 13 Russians and 3 organizations really means – what it says, and what can be read between the lines, and I am following them as closely as I can.  Although you can’t say with 100 percent assurance that an indictment will result in a conviction (especially where those indicted may never be brought to trial in the this country), you can assume (just based on percentages, if nothing else) that the conclusions contained in the indictments accurately reflect reality.

So although we may have not doubted it earlier, we can now be more sure that the Russians attempted to get Donald Trump elected president.  Whether they did that because they wanted Trump to become our chief executive, or whether they just didn’t want Hillary Clinton in that role, we aren’t yet sure.  But we know that they put millions into her defeat, that they concentrated on those cost blue states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, etc), and that they engaged in the proverbial dirty tricks.  It brings us closer to the ultimate constitutional question – is Donald Trump a legitimately elected president?  And if illegal activity by Russians (presumably under the direction of the Kremlin – the campaign was too big not to be) convinced 75,000 or so voters in these close states to change their votes, does that delegitimize the election?  Or do we not look behind the votes themselves?  That’s a question we have never had to deal with before.

Trump has said that the indictments don’t say that his campaign knowingly worked with the Russians, and that he is therefore (once again) exonerated.  Of course, that makes no sense.  And he says that the Russian effort started before he announced for president – but he didn’t say (as Rachel Maddow did tonight) that the Russian effort started right after Trump returned from Moscow and the Miss Universe contest.

Trump’s attitude and actions towards the Russia and Putin have been hard to fathom, unless you think that he, himself, is working with the Russians.  Or that he is afraid of the Russians.  Why would he be afraid?  Well, first, it’s possible that they have threatened him or his family directly.  Or that the Russians have the power to hurt, or destroy, Trump’s business empire.  Or that they have personal information about him (think sleazy business deals, or a large collection of Stormy Daniels’, or who knows what?) and have the power to blackmail him.  It could be any of these things.  Or it could be that he was simply duped, and defeat of Clinton was the only Russian goal, although this makes it difficult to explain Trump’s attitude towards Russia and its President.

We are in dangerous times here in this country.  The right wing media (increasingly mainstream) will stand up for Mr. Trump, of course, even if only to save face.  But more and more Trump voters will wonder what they have done, and we expect a lot more is going to come out of the Special Counsel’s office.  Keep tuned.

My Day: The Wolves

“The Wolves” is a one act play by Sarah Delappe that we saw last night at the Studio Theatre. I think you’d enjoy it.  With one exception, each of the characters is a teen age girl, a high school junior who plays on a winter indoor soccer team (the Wolves).  Most of these girls have played together since middle school, but there is one new girl, a home-schooled teenager who lives with her Armenian mother., and who turns out to be a star.  Each of these girls has a unique personality – the shy one, the foul mouthed one, the follower, the frightened one, the ditzy one and, of course the new one.  There are nine altogether, and you see them practicing, stretching, conversing, laughing screaming, and dealing with unanticipated tragedy.

The play is performed in Studio’s Stage 4, a bigger than average black box on the top floor of this busy theater.  My first time up there. Not bad.

It was one of those days where I ate three meals out.  Breakfast at my regular Thursday morning breakfast meeting.  Boy, I wish they’d change their menu.  Lunch at the China Gourmet in Kensington MD, where I had brought together people from two of the organizations that I am involved with (The Foundation for Jewish Studies and American Associates, Ben Gurion University), to bring them together to plan some joint programming.  The meeting was better than my kung pao chicken (and the restaurant should know better than to give me a funeral home’s pen to sign my check).  And before the theater, we dropped into Estadia, and had a typically nice meal – two small plates each, plus two Spanish wines.

Home in time to watch a little of the men’s short figure skating program, and the last period of the Caps game against the Minnesota Wild (Caps 5, Wild 2).


My Day: Florida Destroyed My Mood

As I write this, the death toll at the high school in Broward County is at 17, and the shooter is in custody.  From what I have heard, this is approximately the 20th gun episode at a school in the United States, and it is the 25th with a fatality since the gunman (or gunkid) at Columbine killed over 20.  They say that, to give him a chance to kill as many as possible, the shooter pulled a fire alarm which induced students to crowd into the hallways where they were easy targets, rather than sheltering in place in their classrooms, as they have been taught in their shooter defense training.

Their what?  Apparently, in many (most?) school districts in the country, children from a very early age are giving training on how to act and what to do in case there is an active shooter in their school.  The trauma of an actual shooting for surviving students is, I am sure, very difficult for many of them.  But even the trauma of being required to take this type of training must have a terrible affect on this generation of American students.

When I was in school, in the 1940s and 1950s, we didn’t need shooter response training – the idea that someone would come into a school and start firing a gun (the type of automatic weapons, or semi-automatic, used today of course didn’t even exist then) was unthinkable.  So no one thought about it.

Everything was different then.  We didn’t worry about any sort of crime, really.  At least I don’t think we did.  From kindergarten on, I could walk to and from school, and when I was in the 4th grade, I was allowed to roam all over Clayton MO, through the business section, Shaw Park, neighbors’ back yards – really anywhere I wanted to go.  As long as I was home by dinner.  And I didn’t carry a cell phone in case I needed help.

High school was crime free, and even bully free.  College the same.  I never worried about crime.  I have never seen a crime committed, much less been the victim of one. I have never taken drugs – I have never been offered drugs.  I have never been sexually assaulted or propositioned.  Nothing bad, nothing frightening, ever has happened to me.

Now, I am not bragging, and I understand that something horrendous could happen tomorrow.  But my lack of any sort of crime-related trauma must affect how I look at life, and how I look at life in the United States.  How different it must be for kids today – kids who have to always be, consciously or subconsciously, aware that something bad is actually quite likely to occur.  At any time.

I cannot put myself in their place.  I cannot imagine what these different views towards their lives would be.  But I am sure there are big differences, and that they are not positive ones.

I don’t have any solutions.  There may be none.  I am sure there won’t be any without extensive gun controls (legislative and enforcement), and we all know how likely they are.  So I expect we will see instances like today’s again and again until the politics of this country undergo a radical change.

I am watching the Olympic couples figure skating as I write this.  They are so talented.  They look like they don’t have a care in the world.  But, wait……I did see “I, Tonya”.

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

My Day: Why Do I Do It?

An organization with which I am involved is having a board meeting today. The meeting is in FL and I am in DC, but I am listening on the telephone. The meeting is scheduled for three hours. But I already know that I’m not going to really learn anything significant while I am listening. This is partially because I am pretty much up to date about what goes on, partially because some of the speakers aren’t coming in too clearly, and partly because our home internet went out (FIOS coming in the morning) and I can’t see the slides. So do I really need to hang on the phone? 

So I am trying to do a few things while I have te phone on mute.  Like moving some things around in my home office.

One of those things is a book called The Superpwer Myth: the Use and Misuse of American Might. It was written by Nancy Soderberg, who worked in the Clinton administration. I read this book fairly recently, and thought it was excellent. Well written, relevant, right thinking. An important book, I remember thinking.

But….today I don’t remember anything about the book. Not the important points she made. Not even the subjects she covered. Vaguely, I remember some of it had to do with problems we made worse in spite of our good intentions. But I don’t remember any of the details. But I know I read the book, and didn’t think I would forget everything so soon.  Did I waste my time reading it? Does this happen to everyone? Or just me? And what should I do – read it again, or just move on?

My Day: The Holocaust Museum and Gaza.

So why is it so difficult to post every day (or almost every day)?  The posts don’t have to be long or complicated…..but wouldn’t it be helpful to the world at large if I set down at least something I saw or did or heard or thought?

Like today, I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  Why today of all days?  Because I was part of a group who had been told that they would have a guide who would take us through the exhibits and tell us some things we might otherwise not know.  Sounded good.  But, in fact, our guide was apparently not well versed in the Holocaust, was unable to communicate to our large group of 20 (he said he could), and had little sense of time (our 90 minute event was over when we were less than half way through the museum – he had assumed we would go through it all).

OK, the end of my complaint – and it’s not a big complaint, because I really didn’t need a guide, and was glad enough to be able to wander through the museum, although I can’t say that I learned anything new.  After all, I have spent a lot of time reading and hearing about the Holocaust.  But the photographic exhibits are extensive and interesting, and the videos worth a trip just to watch them.  As you probably know, this is a large museum, and I think does a good job telling half the story.

What do I mean by that?  In my humble opinion, as they say, the museum does a great job telling what happened during the Holocaust – and this is its stated mission.  It’s a museum to tell you what happened in Europe from the time Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933 until the Germans unconditionally surrendered 12 years later.  And it shows what happened in significant detail – probably much more than anyone unfamiliar with the story could absorb in a single visit.

So what is missing?  I don’t think that the museum does a good job of putting the Holocaust, or Hitler himself, in context.  Why did he gain power in Germany in 1933?  What was the attitude of Europe towards the Jews before 1933, and how did this play into Hitler’s program? And so forth. Of course, this may be too much to expect.  The museum has too much in it already to be comprehended – more would perhaps would confusing these too much.  And, while the Holocaust museum shows “facts”, shows “what happened”, a contextual addition would add “opinion”, and perhaps politically this would be impossible.

So, perhaps visitors to the museum will get more out of the museum if they spend a little time looking at the history of the first part of the 20th century in Europe, so that they can put the rise of Hitler into a larger picture.  Whether the majority of them do so, especially the large number of school groups that come through the museum, I don’t know.

I’ve been in a fair number of Holocaust museums, in this country, in Europe, and in Israel.  With all of the photographic evidence you find in these museums (as well as in light of all of the memoirs that have been written), it’s hard to believe that Holocaust deniers believe what they spout, at least that those who have looked into the subject at all.  But maybe I am wrong.

The same is true regarding countries, like Poland, which have passed legislation that prohibits or controls the public conclusions that can be reached about the Holocaust.  the Poles, as you have read, have recently adopted legislation that makes it illegal to state that the Polish state or the Polish people participated in the Holocaust. The idea is that the Holocaust was a German escapade, and can’t be blamed on the Poles.  Now, I am not an expert on this law, but it is clever.  For example, how could the Polish state be involved in the Holocaust when, after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Polish state ceased to exist.  And how could the Polish people been involved, if there was no Polish state – the people are the state, after all.  And it is true that the law doesn’t make it illegal to conclude that a particular Pole or two did assist the Germans.

But, boy…..this is really threading a very small needle, and it will have an effect not only on historical research, but on what the next generation of Poles learn.

This law has created a lot of controversy.  It has been all over the media.  What’s surprising is that it is not the first law like this, and the other laws have not received this attention.  Laws in the Ukraine, and Lithuania and Latvia and Croatia and others exist, some I believe even harsher than the Polish law.  Of course, Polish had more Jewish victims than any other country by a large amount – so it’s not surprising that so many survivors and their families focus on Poland. Yet, Poland also had the largest number of rescuers (according to Yad Vashem) and there were other places (think Ukraine, Croatia and Lithuania, to name a few) where the local populace seems to have been more actively involved in atrocities.  So the Poles understandably feel picked on.  But…..too bad.  This does not excuse the legislation.

OK, that’s my post for today, I guess.  If I were going to add something, it would be to suggest that everyone read the article in this morning’s New York Times on the increasing economic and social problems in Gaza.  What it shows is that it isn’t just Israel that is making life in Gaza so tough.  The Egyptians, (by closing the Gaza border) the other Arab nations (by doing nothing), and even the Palestinian Authority (by stopping to pay government worker salaries among other things) are all involved in tightening the screws to put additional pressure on Hamas.  So sad for the 2 million who live in Gaza, especially those innocent ones who have to pay the price of their government’s policies.

January Books

January is a cold month, and for a week of January I was on vacation, so that does give more time than otherwise for reading.  Add to that a resolution for the New Year to read consistently throughout the year, and the list of books read in January is relatively long.  Here goes, with short reviews attached:

  1.  Churchill and the Jews by Martin Gilbert.  It is well known, I think, that Winston Churchill was a friend of many Jews, including Chaim Weitzman, the first president of Israel and resident of Manchester, England.  But how many know that Churchill a number of times let it be known that he was a Zionist, and a strong supporter of the State of Israel.  This was a consistent position and one that put Churchill often at odds with his political allies. Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer, does not ignore the criticism of Churchill – that he did not cancel the infamous 1939 White Paper keeping down Jewish immigration to Palestine during the period of World War II, and that he didn’t push for the bombing of the tracks to Auschwitz.  But overall, it is clear – Churchill felt very positively towards the Jews and argued with those who did not share his views, and that he felt implementation of the Balfour Declaration was a continuing obligation of his country.  A very interesting book.  Should be read.
  2. All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren.  For some reason, I had not read this Pulitzer Prize winning novel earlier.  The central character, Willie Stark, was based on the populist Lousiana governor Huey Long, who clearly had dictatorial tendencies.  The book highlights Stark’s rise and especially his fall, based on a series of complicated personal interconnections.  It is absolutely beautifully written.  And, in the Trump era, it seems closer to reality than it otherwise would.  Definitely should be read.
  3. William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness.  I had hoped this would be as good as All the King’s Men, but it isn’t.  I felt it was a very shallow and silly story, one that did not foreshadow Styron’s later books.  It was well thought of when it was first published – it obviously did not age well. A family torn apart – husband who migrated elsewhere, wife who was crazy, young mentally impaired daughter who died young, and beautiful, talented and neurotic daughter who took her own life. Yuck.  Don’t bother.
  4. Farewell, Aleppo by Claudette Sutton.  A daughter’s biography of her father, who died a few weeks ago at age 92.  Born into a Jewish family in Aleppo, convinced by his father to leave Syria during the Second World War, when he went to work for an uncle in Shanghai and eventually getting to the United States and to Washington DC, where he married and wound up owning a small group of children’s clothing stores. I met the author who gave me her book.  It is an interesting story of a unique life, filled with exotic influences, ups and downs, and eventual success.
  5. The Iron Road by James Mawdsley.  Mawdsley was a young, idealistic Englishman (now a priest) who decided that the Burmese open government movement needed outside support, so he went to Burma, first living Kearen tribal villages and finally making his way to Rangoon (twice) where he put on his own demonstrations and was arrested (twice) and held in Burmese prisons.  What he really expected to accomplish is unclear, and why he went about things the way he did is unclear.  But the book has an interesting perspective on Burma and the Burmese, and on this odd-ball demonstrator (who turned out to be a courageous prisoner).  It is worth reading for these reasons.
  6. Jack Kennedy, Elusive Hero by Chris Matthews.  Fascinating book, I thought, by this TV journalist – not the most detailed biography of Kennedy, but a book that focuses on certain aspects of Kennedy and thus puts together a very interesting picture of a very unusual man.  His upbringing in the shadow of his older brother, his long lasting friendships, his college years, his recurrent illnesses, his relationship to his wife and his continual dalliances with others, his decision to go into politics and his turn into being a ruthless politician, his unexpected relationship to Richard Nixon, and the crises of his presidency.  Definitely worth reading.
  7. Familiar Letters by Cornelius Felton.  Another out-of-the-mainstream book.  Felton was president of Harvard for two years during the Civil War, before dying of a heart attack in 1982 in his early 50s.  About 10 years earlier, he had taking his first and only extensive trip to Europe – across the Atlantic in 16 days, times in London, Paris, various places in Germany and Switzerland, Northern Italy and Rome, and finally an extensive tour of Greece.  Felton’s letters (to whom were they written?) were both folksy and informative.  And they give a wonderful portrait of Europe at this time, when England and France and Germany seem relatively civilized, but Switzerland was impoverished and hard to maneuver about in, Italy was as much ruin as anything else, and Greece (at least outside of Athens) was unbelievably primitive.  Hard to find – but really worth reading.


Driving in Mexico

In the five days we had s car in Yucatan,we drove it about 1000 kilometers. A lot, you might say, but there was a lot of ground to cover. From our perch in Puerto Aventuras, we ventured to Chichen Itsa, Tulum, Coba, and to Playa del Carmen and beyond. We had a Dodge Caravan that could seat our six comfortably.

What did I see? There was a considerable amount of traffic. Cars seemed to be in good shape. People seemed to drive carefully. Although most cars were from the local states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan, there were cars from all over the country as well as 8 or 9 American states, as well as Quebec and Ontario.  No one seemed to drive a Prius. Modern gas stations were everywhere, mainly Pemex.

The main highway in the area, 4 or 6 divided lanes, highway 307, was well maintained as were the secondary roads we took. There were bike lanes at places and marked pedestrian crossings. Speed limits varied, and changed from time to time – the highest I saw was 100 kmh, or about 60 mph.

So why am I writing this? Because there were some differences from standard American roads. First, there were ubiquitous speed bumps, not only on residential streets but on Highway 307. You’d be driving at 100, and see an upcoming speed bump sign, and have to slow down fast. Good for speed control, but quite unnerving. Second, there would be slowdowns at spots on 307 where there would be a police outpost in the median strip. The road might go to one lane each way at those spots. Third, there manned police towers along the roads – it was unclear what their job was. And of course, I don’t know if Yucatan is like the rest of the country. 

That’s is. No more to say on the subject. Maybe not worth mentioning.