Monthly Archives: May 2021

We Remember

General John A. Logan, commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, declared that “the 30th day of May 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion [the Civil War], and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet in the land. In this observance, no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.” The holiday would first become known as Decoration Day. Memorial Day became its official title in the 1880s. After World War I, Memorial Day was officially designated to honor Americans who died in all wars.

Wars are vicious. They scar a nation’s soul and the souls of those who fought in them. Like Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who coined the phrase, “War is hell,” those who have fought in war know it better than those who merely write the stories of war and those of us who read or view their analyses. To know war as a soldier is to know that it is horrific. Hell can be defined simply as the furthest away you can get from what is good and right, the furthest away you can get from God; war is hell because whether we succeed or fail in our military objective, everybody finally loses a lot, even those who live through it.

Post-traumatic stress disorder can derail the best efforts of veterans when they get home. Depression, substance abuse, and homelessness are plagues that afflict far too many men and women who chose to serve their country. Since 2006, there has been an 86% increase in the suicide rate among 18-to-34-year-old male veterans. Veterans are at 50% higher risk for suicide than their peers who did not serve in the military.

No one has any cogent theories that adequately explain the shocking, staggering numbers. But we do know that there is something desperately wrong with this picture. These statistics are a signal, a bright red warning flag.

It’s essential on this Shabbat of Memorial Day weekend that we remember the veterans who have died in all wars. They deserve our attention. They deserve to be acknowledged, as do their families.

Those veterans who committed suicide and their families: parents, siblings, partners, kids – all deserve recognition and rachmones [empathy]. On this Memorial Day weekend, filled with sales and races and beer, take a moment. Acknowledge the tremendous loss of life in the wake of war. Consider the pain and the loss. We remember them.


It’s all quiet on the western front – for now. Tonight, Israelis had a Shabbat Shalom – a Shabbat of peace. They came out of their safe rooms, hopeful that they will sleep through the night in their beds.

Palestinians in Gaza are taking stock of their situation. Some are seeking temporary shelter, their homes reduced to rubble. They are figuring out how to get water and food.  

There is, at last, a ceasefire, one we hope is durable. History suggests that it will inevitably be breached a few times before it’s accepted as the latest law of the land. But at least, for the time being, the sounds of warfare are not heard.

This latest war, the acting out of chronic political and ideological conflicts between Israel and Palestine, has created an ominous trend. “… We are witnessing a dangerous and drastic surge in anti-Jewish hate right here at home,” says ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt in a statement released shortly before the ceasefire was reached. “It’s happening around the world— from London to Los Angeles, from France to Florida, in big cities like New York and in small towns, and across every social media platform.”

It’s always frightening to read of a marked uptick in antisemitic statements and crimes. Whenever we hear a story of a Jew being accosted – or worse, we feel the vulnerability and draw on memories of persecution that are centuries old. The sordid story of antisemitism is a horrible, ongoing tale of ignorance and malevolence. Yet, no matter how many times we’ve heard about it or experienced it ourselves, it still shocks us.  

It’s also shocking that, throughout history, we’ve often found ourselves alone with our anxiety and fear over antisemitism. We didn’t see any immediate indignation in the media over Jews being singled out and attacked at a restaurant in Los Angeles. Had the attackers been neo-Nazis and the victims people of color, would there be more coverage, more outrage?

Is antisemitism just so de rigueur, deeply rooted in Western civilization, that people take it for granted? It just seems so easy to take figurative and literal potshots at Jews.

The hope is that moving forward, the ceasefire will cool things down in the Middle East and here at home, too. But then, what next? Will the end of hostilities drop Palestine back into the stasis of status quo, where it’s been ignored by the world for years now? And won’t that perpetuate this endless cycle of violence? A ceasefire isn’t peace.

Both Israelis and Palestinians deserve dignity and security. A two state solution is  the only way to make this happen. A Jewish and democratic state for Israel, and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza for Palestinians. For those that wish to replace or destroy Israel, it is not going to happen. For those that want to ignore Palestinians hoping they will go away, that will not happen.

I don’t have any answers right now, just a fragile sense of hope that I pray we all can share.

Od Yavo Shalom – Peace May Come Maiyin Yavo Ezri –Where Will It Come From:

When I read about terrible events happening in foreign countries every day, whether caused by war or sickness, or climate catastrophes, we react with empathy and sadness. We may wonder what charity we can click on to send money. But it’s so far away.

I don’t know what it’s like to be in India now, where the air is thick with the ashes from countless funeral pyres. I don’t have any experience being hunted by my government like rebels in Syria. I could add endlessly to all the experiences I have not – and will never have. I don’t know the streets of Kabul or the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, or the alleys of Lagos.

But over the past week, I’ve been reading about the current war – and it is a war – in Israel. The fish restaurant that marauding Arab rioters torched? I’ve eaten there. I know the guy who owns it. The loud demonstrations in Yafo? I’ve stayed at my friends’ apartment there and walked in the flea market and bought ice cream at the best ice cream shop in Israel from the Israeli Arab owners. I’ve spent time hanging out on the beach in Bat Yam, where a bunch of Israeli thugs pulled an Arab from his car, beating and kicking him.

I’ve been there. I know the cities and the towns and the people. I have friends whom I love and visit. I’m a Jew. Israel is a part of me, which is why the current situation cuts so close to my soul.

I’m swiping back and forth between the Haaretz website and the Times of Israel. I toss and turn, checking the news at midnight, 4 am, and then all day. I wonder what may happen next. It surely seems that a ceasefire is not at hand. The possibility that the war might expand from Gaza to the streets of Israeli cities feels perilously close.

There is so much fear in my heart: for my dear friends. For the Yad b’Yad schools we’ve visited. For all the innocent adults and children, Arab and Israeli, caught in a cycle of hatred and anger.

Palestinian irridentism, Israeli political ineptitude, feckless leadership in Israel and Palestine, long-simmering Palestinian rage after 50 years of occupation, the blind hatred of Hamas – all of these and so many other factors created the perfect storm of war. But casting blame is never helpful. If there’s anything I’ve learned over the past year in our country’s political history, blame needs nowhere. It must be about action and amelioration.

I have a long list of grievances and bitter commentary about the situation. There is so much that is so toxic that just keeps playing out, over and over. When will it stop? “I lift my eyes to the mountains and wonder from where will my help arrive?” While there may or may not be a spiritual answer, there must be a political answer – and I don’t know how that will come to be.

In the meantime, I worry. I read. And then worry some more. And yet… I saw a news piece, easy to lose in the endless barrage of missiles and the rain of bombs. And it touched me. Now maybe this is just another manifestation of my babyboomer antiwar marching days. You can call it naivete or projecting a privileged white guy’s conception of hope. I almost didn’t mention it at all. But I must be hopeful, even while I am not an optimist. There was a gathering at a major traffic junction in Israel today before Shabbat. Hundreds of Israelis and Arabs held signs that said: “Jews and Arabs Together Against Violence.”

I know. A small crowd. A far-fetched motto. A tiny speck of calm amid shocking brutality. But it’s something, some hook upon which to hang a vague sense of possibility. “Od yavo shalom aleinu.” Peace may yet come to all of us.

PS Over the next couple of weeks, I plan to Zoom some conversations with folks in Israel. The first one will be with Yonatan Shimshoni . He knows so much about every aspect of the current conflict. I’ll also be connecting with Adele Raemer, a wonderful woman who lives miles from Gaza. Our temple teens Israel trip visited with her last year. We’ll hear from what it’s like to be in an active war zone. That conversation and some others in the works will be announced soon.

PPS Read this piece to get a sense of all the moving parts in this terrible fight.

Shabbat Shalom

The Girls

My mother, may she rest in peace, had a red faux lizard skin case. Inside it was a bunch of tiles embossed with Chinese letters and designs, with pictures and numbers and who knows what else. There were also little plastic chips with the centers cut out to fit on spindles. Additionally, there were stands upon which to set up the tiles.

It may be that there were only two things my mother owned that were off-limits to us kids: her purse, and that case with the tiles and stuff. Along with the case, there was a blue card that apparently changed once in a while. My mother always got excited when “the new card” arrived in the mail. I remember looking at it from time to time as my mother studied it. Even after I learned how to read, I could never decode the cryptic lines of differently colored numbers.

Of course, it was all about mahjongg. Every 4th Wednesday night of the month, Faith and Anne and Lila and Gert would come over the house and engage in this strange ritual of clacking tiles and groans and odd utterances like, “5 Bam”, “2 Dots,” and so on. It was for women only – Jewish women , I assumed.

There was always coffee steaming in the Pyrex percolator, a coffee cake, and something called “bridge mix.” The ‘girls’ would laugh and laugh all night. I had no idea what they were doing, and I still don’t. But whatever it was they were doing, it looked and sounded great.

Children were categorically banned from the dining room when the girls were over for mahjongg. We could come to say good night, but that was all. None of us ever sought to test that law.

No one seems to know why or how Jewish women picked up the Chinese game of mahjongg in the ’20s and ’30s. I don’t know what the analog was for American women of different faiths. But for Jewish women, it was a mainstay, an important outlet for our mothers to relax, take time out, and enjoy adult female company.

The babyboomer generation of Jewish women has not, as a rule, followed in their mothers’ footsteps. Some do know how to play the game. Many have their mother’s mahjongg sets. But time has become so precious. Jewish women professionals are now expected to show up for their kids’ various practices and recitals and games, not to mention work full-time. Discretionary time hardly exists.

It was a mahjongg night the day my father died. I didn’t even think to call Anne or Faith or Gert or Lila. What did I know?  I was 14, with three younger siblings and a rotary phone. Of course, they came over.  I met them by the front door and awkwardly told them how my mother left the house in the ambulance and that father had had what looked like a heart attack. They wanted to know if we were ok. I reassured them that I had it under control, though, of course, I didn’t. They hugged me and left.

Years later, I found out that The Girls went to Middlesex Memorial Hospital to sit with my mother as she waited for the dire results. I remember being so touched that this circle of women existed for my mother, that she had friends who supported her, just as she had stood by them in their times of crisis.

My mother became a widow at age 38. She had four kids, all of whom would come to act out in various ways following our father’s death. She was a housewife who suddenly became a single mother whose husband died without an insurance policy or a will.

The Girls looked out for my mother. The entire Middletown Jewish community – a couple hundred families as I recall – looked out for her. People in the synagogue lent her money, helped pay tuitions, hired her for their stores, hired me for their stores. It was a quiet, loving, menschlich form of tzedakah that allowed my mother dignity as she received assistance without ever having to ask for it.

I never learned to play mahjongg, but the sounds of the tiles and the talking, and the smell of the coffee on a game night remain deep in the folds of my brain. So does my mother’s smile and her anticipation as she brought her faux-lizard case out of her closet. My mom, Shirley – one of The Girls – has been gone now for 12 years. But I still hear her voice: “One Bam, no Crak.”

Happy Mothers Day