Monthly Archives: October 2014

From Generation to Generation: Protecting Lower Manhattan

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The Times reports big plans to create a new ecosystem around the watery edges of Manhattan from W. 57th St. to E. 42nd St., a landscaped series of bulwarks that will protect the island from hurricanes like Sandy and worse. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/26/nyregion/after-hurricane-sandy-new-york-rebuilds-for-the-future.html?emc=eta1http:// The cost will be billions.  The project will take years.  All I can say is,  just do it.

We New Yorkers are the beneficiaries of the extraordinary foresight and selflessness of our predecessors.  Who remembers DeWitt Clinton (who has a nice park in the West 50s)?  Clinton, a mayor of New York and our 6th governor, was largely responsible for the construction of the Erie Canal, a brilliant bit of foresight without which New York’s preeminence as the financial and commercial capital of our nation (and the culture and amenities that accompany it) would have been unlikely.  Clinton would not of course live to see the consequences of what he worked so hard to achieve.  His work was an act of great generosity.

And then there’s Central Park.  Begun in 1858 when, as my grandmother liked to say, “Broadway was prairie,” it, too, was an act of incredible foresight.  William Cullen Bryant, editor of the Post, helped to promote it, and the city acquired the 843 acres of land– land that could have been used commercially and quite profitably — and financed the extraordinary and expensive undertaking, certainly for the benefit of contemporaries but also with the understanding that the great city they imagined we would become would require the kind of relief valve the park provides.

It’s easy to take things like these for granted (or, as in the case of the Erie Canal, even forget about its contribution to the city we now enjoy).  And, as I have written at length elsewhere, we live in a time when we tend to privilege the satisfaction of our own wants over the needs of the future.  (I’ve been at particular pains to show how this is true in the realms of business and finance.)  We all know that young people today do not anticipate living better than we do and, in most reports, not even as well.  And I suppose it’s worth pointing out the the climate changes that necessitate the barrier construction are the result of processes from which we have benefitted. We need to do what we can to make amends.

One way of doing that is to provide for the continuing safety and survival of our city by using current resources to accomplish that goal even if many, if not most, of us will not be around to be the ultimate beneficiaries.  That is what generations do for one another.  That is how humankind progresses.  I hope construction gets started soon.

Lawrence Mitchell

Come to the Cabaret

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Richard Holbrook is  an artist and a consummate showman.  He is also a dear old friend.  Last night I had the privilege of watching Richard’s new show at Don’t Tell Mama, along with 75 others, many gearing up for the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s 25th Annual New York Cabaret Convention (at which Richard will be performing).  So the audience was packed with connoisseurs of the form.  They were on their feet by the end of the show, as was I.

Richard presents an exploration of the songs of Fred Astaire.  (By the way, he is repeating the show next Sunday night at 8).   Most of us think of Fred Astaire primarily as a dancer.  But Richard, who is as good a music historian as he is a performer, tells us that Astaire debuted more songs in the American Songbook than any other singer, and that songwriters loved to write for him.  From the Gershwins to Irving Berlin to Burton Lane (in a real tribute to Richard, Mrs. Burton Lane was in the audience), some of our most-beloved songs were Astaire songs, even if we have come to know them by the covers of other artists.  (I, for one, was surprised by how many songs I associate with Sinatra that were premiered by Astaire.  I probably shouldn’t have been.  Richard tells us that a reason writers liked Astaire was that he sang songs the way they were meant to be sung.  Sinatra — despite his occasional lapses into bad taste – did the same.)

From the opening notes of one of the songs most associated with Astaire, “With a Shine on Your Shoes,”  Richard left no doubt that we were in a for a special evening.  I know Richard to be a kind, elegant, and classy guy.  But boy, can he belt out a tune!  Energy, power, and heart — real heart.  Richard put every bit of his into the show, a gesture of generosity to the audience that deeply appreciated it.  But I don’t want to leave the suggestion that Richard is just a powerful voice.  His singing is beautiful and clear, strongly reminiscent to me in timbre of Mel Torme’s (although probably about a major third in range below Torme, and with a tad more substance than the fog).  Richard’s phrasing is wonderful — he sings songs the way they were meant to be sung.  His respect for the music is a natural expression of his attractive humility.

Richard understands well that each song is a story.  And, using his prodigious knowledge, he spun together the story of Astaire’s musical life (with moments of personal poignance included).  I’m not a big fan of medleys, but Richard managed to combine song fragments in creative and intelligent ways that actually gave me greater understanding of the individual songs.  The excellent Tom Nelson Trio provided great collaboration.  And Richard Barclay’s direction was right on the money, with just enough flash to meet cabaret standards but far more restraint that permitted the music to speak for itself. Go see the show if you have a chance.

Lawrence Mitchell

 

Neville Chamberlain Visits The New York Times

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The New York Times editorial this morning “explaining” the British Parliament’s recent vote to recognize a Palestinian state is striking for several reasons.  Perhaps first among them is the cowardly way the editorial board manages to signal its endorsement of that vote without the integrity to say so directly.  Appeasement comes in many varieties and forms.  Courage comes in one.  It is clear even to a casual reader of the Times over the course of the summer and fall that its editorial board is no friend of Israel.  Who do they think they’re fooling by this editorial?

So, I was going to rant, but I’d rather stick to facts.  Let me say at the outset that I don’t see any real solution to the problem without a two state solution, so I guess I endorse that idea.  And I have no intention of praising Israel’s sometimes bad behavior.  But to recognize a Palestinian state at this moment in time is effectively to endorse Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland, or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  In order to understand why, I am going to provide here some of the facts that the Times editorial board seems happy to overlook, and also try to show how empathy for both sides would lead to a different conclusion.

For the facts, I will draw not only on my own knowledge but also on the excellent Kol Nidre sermon delivered by Rabbi Laurence Groffman of Temple Sholom of West Essex.  (You can read the piece yourself, here:  http://http://www.sholom.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Rabbi-Groffman-RH.pdf.)  For empathy intellectualized, I will of course draw upon my blog’s eponym, David Hume.

First, as Rabbi Groffman points out, Israel is at war with Hamas — a terrorist organization sworn to destroy it — rather than the Palestinian people.  One in five Israelis is an Arab.  (Just by contrast, only one in 50 Americans is Jewish, and one in 500 people in the world is Jewish.)  Israeli Arabs serve as judges and in the Knesset, they own property and businesses, they work with Israeli Jews, their children play together.  Hamas is a terrorist organization — an entirely different story.  (And let’s remember that the recent unpleasantness began with the kidnapping and murder of 3 Israeli boys, an event celebrated by Hamas, where by contrast the awful retributive murder of a Palestinian boy was condemned in Israel).

As far as the conduct of the war is concerned, it is becoming tiresome to repeat to no avail that Israel takes precautions — that are extraordinary for any country at war — to avoid civilian casualties, while Hamas deliberately places military and strategic installations in civilian centers and encourages the civilians to remain while Hamas’ leaders hide.  Rabbi Groffman quotes one former high Hamas official as saying:  “Hamas wanted us butchered so it could win the media war against Israel showing our dead children on TV and then get money from Qatar.”  The Palestinian civilian causalities were horrible.  I don’t know how many could have been avoided had Israel been even more careful.  But a failure to defend itself and its people against Hamas rocket and terror attacks is not an option, nor is it reasonable for anybody to expect it to be.

Israel voluntarily left Gaza in 2005.  (Two state solution, anybody?)  What did Hamas do with the hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign aid it received? (Global aid to Gaza has been over a billion dollars.)  It bought missiles and built terror tunnels, spending $90 million on tunnels alone.  What was stopping it from investing in Gaza infrastructure and industry, education and commerce?  Israel wasn’t bombing Gaza or engaging in terror attacks but instead left it at peace.  Yes, Israel blockaded Gaza — two years after leaving, when Hamas was raining down rockets on Israel from Gaza.  If this is what Hamas did with its opportunities as an outlaw organization, imagine what it might do as a powerful player in a world-sanctioned state, knowing that it had already been rewarded for its bad behavior?

Lost in the debate, quite conveniently, is the manner in which the occupied territories came to Israel.  The united Arab states of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan attempted to annihilate Israel in 1967. Well, Israel won, and the territories were the result.  Israel promptly offered the territories back. The Arab states said “no,” until the 1979 — and enduring — Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty which returned the Sinai to Egypt.  I can’t think of any nation — certainly not our sanctimonious British friends — who acquired their territories in defensive war and voluntarily returned them.  (Indeed, as Rabbi Groffman points out, Israel has returned 90% of the territory it acquired in 1967. And, as he notes, Israel either returned or offered to return territory in 1993, 1994, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2005, and 2008.)   In 2000, you will recall, Prime Minister Barak made a breathtaking offer to Yasser Arafat which would have given the Palestinians almost everything they wanted.  Arafat walked away and began new terrorist assaults. Now, as I noted, I believe in a two-state solution.  But until Israel can be guaranteed the kind of relationship it has maintained with Egypt, it is unfair of the rest of the world, sitting securely at home, to press the matter.

There is so much more to say — so many more facts — that I haven’t the space here to elaborate. (Do read Rabbi Groffman’s piece.)  But I think the facts I’ve laid out are sufficient to call into question the idea that the world can impose a two state solution when the parties are not ready for it.  And, by the parties, I mean Hamas and the Palestinians.  Israel has already demonstrated its willingness to accept that solution in exchange for  adequate security, as the 2000 offer and the 2005 Gaza withdrawal proved.

Now, back to the Times.  Besides encouraging the editorial board to write with integrity and not cowardice, I want to commend to it some empathy.  It is easy to empathize with the Palestinians of Gaza after the last and terrible war.  And Israel has grown reasonably powerful, and has been reasonably effective in its own defense.  But Israel remains a tiny country, surrounded by large and powerful neighbors, most of whom are sworn to its destruction or at the very least would be happy to see it dead.  It is a country containing about 43% of the world’s decimated Jewish population of 13.75 million people, surrounded by much of the world’s Muslim population of 1.6 billion people.  In case there were any doubt about the need for a Jewish state, this summer’s disturbing resurgence of European anti-Semitism (including in Sweden which recently announced its recognition of a Palestinian state) is a potent reminder.  It is the only democracy in the Middle East, and the only country that not only is tolerant of difference and diversity but protects it.  (I suppose another way of saying this is that it is the only country in the Middle East with Western values.)  It remains a country in which parents sending their children off to school in the morning cannot be sure they will return.

I would invite the Times editorial board, before sanctimoniously opining on what others should do, to try to imagine themselves living in Israel.  Yes, Israel today, but also in 1948, 1967, 1973, 2000, etc.  Put yourself in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s place.  Put yourself in the place of kibbutzniks on the Syrian border, citizens of Haifa within easy rocket fire of Lebanon, of Jerusalem hard against the West Bank, of Ashdod and Tel Aviv.  Picture yourself as Israeli parents, whether of military-age children or younger.  (Ask your columnist, David Brooks, for help if you need it. http://http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/david_brooks_son_is_in_the_israeli_army_does_it_matter.)  Really engage in this exercise.  And then ask yourselves whether you would be so eager for a two-state solution without meaningful security guarantees and, for that matter, a little more assurance that the world would come to your aid if those guarantees failed.

Do that.  Then write your editorials.

Lawrence Mitchell

America Today

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Yesterday found me, where I so often am, in the Petrie Sculpture Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, working on some poetry.  Draft done, I wandered a bit and, serendipitously for Columbus Day weekend, walked right into the Met’s wonderful new exhibition of Thomas Hart Benton’s 1930 murals for The New School, America Today.  What a treat.

I’ve always liked Benton, despite his bad rap as being out-of-touch (proclaimed loudly by his student — and model for some figures in the murals — Jackson Pollock).  Regionalism has long appealed to me.  (My college-era copy of Appalachian Spring — which I played on the first day of each fall semester — features a cover by Grant Wood, living in the Berkshires gave me an appreciation for rural American beauty, etc., etc.)  I appreciate the regionalists’ efforts to ground their rapidly changing society in core American values.  And, as a Civil War buff, Benton’s provenance always appealed to me — his great-uncle, Thomas Hart Benton, was one of the first two senators from Missouri, a big booster of westward expansion, and the father-in-law of decent Civil War general but first-rate explorer, John Fremont (whom Lincoln relieved of command for insubordination when Fremont prematurely emancipated the slaves in the west).

I also have a soft spot for The New School, for the board room of which the murals were painted.  As a somewhat intellectually precocious child growing up in the metropolitan area, I was fascinated by The New School’s bold progressivism (Thorstein Veblen, Charles Beard, John Dewey, and Horace Kallen were among its founders)  and its history as a refuge for Jewish and other European scholars escaping tyranny.  (The University in Exile was created in 1933.) So I guess what I’m saying is that I was predisposed to like the exhibition.

The Met does a lot of really smart things (like building a replica of a medieval monastery in Fort Tryon Park to house much of the medieval religious collection, recreating an entire Zen garden, housing an entire Egyptian temple, etc., etc.).  So, no surprise here, the murals are displayed in a room that is the scale of the original room in which they were painted, complete with false, backlit windows to create the aura of sunlight.  Before arriving, though, you pass through several well-curated rooms providing the context for America Today – Berenice Abbott photos, work by John Steuart Curry and Jackson Pollock, and lots of Benton’s sketches from his travels around the country prior to The New School commission.

There is no subtlety to the mural’s messages, but then again, there was no real subtlety to the often outspoken Benton.  It is America at a crossroads, vibrant and powerful following The Great War and the Roaring Twenties, but at the cusp of the Depression, having just suffered the 1929 Crash (a future Benton hints at with a transom panel over the entry door depicting raised hands, money, and bread).  Rural life is changing, although clearly less-so in Benton’s panel on the South. Money becomes dominant, traditions break apart.  Farm machinery begins to dominate the Midwest.  Coal’s dominion spreads from mountain to city, broken workers bent with picks held low.  Muscular steel mills manned by muscular men (with the Pollock-modelled figure).  Ominous clouds of black smoke rising above Texas oil wells.  And several tawdry gardens of urban delights, from flappers to strippers to preachers to Salvation Army soldiers to musicians and bar tenders and, in a corner toasting the completion of the murals, Benton himself, with New School President, Alvin Johnson.

It really is Benton at his best.  The motion and rhythms of the murals are entrancing, even overwhelming.  The relatively small scale of the room intensifies the mural’s power.  I had to go around several times, and take a break before returning.  The human figures are touchingly  expressive, from the chain-ganged African Americans, to the aforementioned miners, to the absolutely laugh-out-loud hilariously wonderful figure of the burlesque dancer.  The power, the despair, the dignity, and the riotous rebellion against traditional strictures, are clear, powerful, and undeniable.  The colors are vibrant.   Even the dull silver framing (which very cleverly helps to separate scenes and direct one’s viewing) has a subtle motion as well as an Art-Deco elegance.

The exhibition concludes (just outside the visual respite of the Frank Lloyd Wright Little House living room which, trust me, you’re going to need to walk in to), with a brief film on the history of the murals and the Met’s acquisition of them.  I, for one, am quite grateful to AXA Equitable for keeping them together after The New School sold them, and for the Met’s acquisition.  It would have been a tragic loss for them to have been separated.  As it turns out, the Met does justice to Benton’s work.  I encourage you to go see it.

Lawrence Mitchell

Training Wheels

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When we think about Abraham Lincoln, we think about the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, the great speeches like the Gettysburgh Address and the Second Inaugural,  the tragic assassination.  But among that great railroad lawyer’s  great legacies to us was the first transcontinental railroad, begun during the Civil War and completed by the end of the decade.  While war may have kept the Union together, it was the railroad that unified a continent.   It was the railroad that motivated the development of American corporate capitalism, indeed the railroad that created the modern American corporation and its managerial class, as developed by the historian, Alfred Chandler.

It appears that we are now in something of a railroad boom, albeit one for which the industry is unprepared.  The New York Times reports that the shale oil boom in North Dakota and Montana have pretty severely strained the nation’s rail capacity, and that the railroads are scrambling to catch up. http://http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/09/us/as-trains-move-oil-bonanza-delays-mount-for-other-goods-and-passengers.html?ref=us.  And it’s not just the freight-moving industry that’s struggling.   Amtrak — our only surviving passenger line — shares its long-distance tracks with the freight lines, and its long-distance trains now are late 60% of the time (70% of the time on the Portland-Chicago Empire Builder).  Crops are stockpiled, awaiting shipment behind oil tankers, and evidently 200,000 automobiles have yet to reach their destinations. The Times reports substantial new and planned investment by the major rail carriers.

This report got me thinking.  First, let me confess — I love trains.  They are, to me, about as perfect a form of machinery as exists.  They are — or can be — beautiful.  Even the most humble freight car has to my eye a certain aesthetic elegance.  They are powerful.  If you haven’t stood next to a locomotive lately, please do.  Their history is the history of modern commerce, of modern finance, of modern communication.  (I confess that, in doing the research for my book, The Speculation Economy, I allowed myself to be sidetracked for several months just reading about nineteenth and twentieth century railroad finance.)  They have spawned many of the most colorful chapters in American history.   (For a brilliant, hilarious, contemporaneous  account of perhaps the greatest American train robbery — the battle for control of the Erie among Cornelius Vanderbilt, Daniel Drew, Jim Fisk, and Jay Gould, you must read Charles Francis Adams and Henry Adams account, Chapters of Erie.http://https://openlibrary.org/books/OL7052679M/Chapters_of_Erie)

OK, so I’m out.  I love trains.  And I am a regular on the Washington-New York line, half of the Northeast Corridor between DC and Boston.  Its less-than-perfect time record can’t be blamed on the freights so much, since Amtrak owns much of the track.  But, standardized and sterilized from the days when one could leave NY from temples of architecture created by McKim, Mead, and White and Warren and Whetmore on the New York Central, the Pennsy, the New Haven, or the Hudson River line, without having to cross to Jersey City for the the Erie or the B&O., it remains a comfortable and even sophisticated form of travel.  There remains something charming in the conductors’ announcement of stations, something stately if not elegiac in the slowing arrival into Baltimore, Philadelphia, heck, even Newark.  And something sad about how much has been lost.  (Kevin Baker’s excellent piece in the July 2014 Harpers is quite good reading.  http://http://harpers.org/archive/2014/07/21st-century-limited/)

Given my priors, the news is good news/bad news.  The good news is that our most efficient form of transportation, long edged out by interstate highways, teamster union pressure, congressional ennui, etc. (although trains do still carry 40% of the nation’s freight), not to mention airplanes which, along with the highways, helped to bury intercity train travel, is enjoying a growth spurt.  And this growth spurt creates the opportunity for those of us who advocate expanded rail travel to make the point again.

It’s a bit dangerous in this political environment.  Trains are expensive.  (Just ask Jerry Brown whose high speed dreams between LA and San Francisco have their own troubles.)  And evidently Republicans in Congress associate train travel with liberals. (I assume this is because the most travelled passenger line runs pretty much all through blue states.)  But train travel is environmentally efficient. It can be fast (you really cannot beat an on-time Acela between DC and New York by bus or plane). It’s safe.  What’s not to like?

I realize that in this, as in many things, I was probably born in the wrong century.  But why not, at a time that we need our railroads, revisit the case for expanded (and high speed) passenger service like that which exists in most of the rest of the world?

Lawrence Mitchell

Cry Me A River: Hank Greenberg vs. The American Taxpayer

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Pretty much everyone knows the story of the boy who murdered his parents and then threw himself upon the mercy of the court because he was an orphan.  Some of that same ethic is taking place in the lawsuit headed up by Hank Greenberg, AIG’s largest shareholder who was thrown out in 2005, alleging that the government — well, we, the taxpayers — cheated AIG’s shareholders out of $40 billion dollars as a result of the bailout terms that saved that company from failing during the 2008 financial crisis.  (The Wall Street Journal’s story today is here: http://http://online.wsj.com/articles/trio-of-officials-key-to-aig-bailout-face-grilling-1412549345?tesla=y&mod=WSJ_business_IndustryNews_DLW&mg=reno64-wsj)

There are so many things wrong with this action that one hardly knows where to begin.  Let’s start with the fact that shareholders elect the board of directors who hire the executives and determine the company’s policy.  Indeed, since the financial crisis, calls for greater shareholder activism have been heard from Congress, academia, and Main Street as a counterbalance to perceived executive malfeasance.  So it may be.  But you cannot insist on the power of control — as shareholders have –and then complain when you don’t like what you voted for.  Put differently, AIG’s shareholders put the board in place.  And they reaped the benefits of all of that aggressive and unwise gambling until the market collapsed.  Why should they have any part of the rewards of a taxpayer bailout? As former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulsen testified, of course the terms of the bailout were harsh.  Anything less would have created moral hazard, the notion that shareholders could in fact gamble with the firm and still be rewarded if their gamble failed.  Now, Mr. Greenberg may not have been happy with the new board.  But under the rules of corporate law, the shareholders voted for the board, and so it goes.  Mr. Greenberg’s appropriate complaint is with his fellow shareholders (a very large number of whom have joined him in the suit), not with the US government.

Let’s also remember that it is we, the taxpaying public, that bailed AIG out.  We didn’t have to do so.  For that matter, AIG didn’t actually have to take the bailout.  It could have failed, and we could have let it.   Monday morning quarterbacking since the crisis generally holds that the bailout saved us from a lot more pain.  But I think — as I did then — that letting the company fail (along with the others that were bailed out) would have had several benefits.  First, we might have gotten a far more effective set of financial regulations than the fairly thin gruel of Dodd-Frank, which more or less left the system that crashed in place.  Second, failure would have demonstrated the flaws of the system that allowed it to occur.  As in the wake of any failure, the assets of the collapsed financial institutions would have been bought up by others, and repackaged in more sustainable business models.  That, after all, is what capitalism is about.  The bailouts prevented the creative part of creative destruction from taking place.  Finally, the hundreds of billions of dollars used in the bailout would have helped an awful lot of innocent Americans harmed by the crash to get back on their feet.

In any event, I’m going to follow this trial, risible though the claim is, and may write about it from time to time.  But the next time anybody tells you that shareholders should have greater rights, please remind them that with those rights — that power –comes responsibility and accountability.  Whining in federal court when the chickens come home to roost is just bad business.

Lawrence Mitchell

Kol Nidre

 

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So, allow me one more essay on the holidays.  With Yom Kippur approaching, I have been thinking a lot about the opening “prayer,” Kol Nidre, which, after the Shema, is probably the prayer best known by all Jews.  Opening Yom Kippur (actually recited just before sundown), it is deeply moving, at least as much for its thrice-repitition before the open Ark in an increasing crescendo, and its almost magical melody, as for its actual content.  (I highly recommend Jacqueline du Pre’s recording of Max Bruch’s version of Kol Nidre.  For that matter I highly recommend Jacqueline du Pre’s recording of anything.)  I also recommend this very interesting piece on Kol Nidre from a 1968 issue of Commentaryhttp://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/the-curious-case-of-kol-nidre/

Kol Nidre is a peculiar prayer.  It asks that all vows that we will make in the coming year be forgiven if we cannot fulfill them.  A strange introduction to atonement indeed, to ask forgiveness for mistakes you haven’t yet made.  And what an incentive to make them!  Do we really treat our vows so casually?

No, of course not.  That’s not what’s going on at all.  In the first place, Kol Nidre isn’t even a prayer.  It is a statement of legal intent. (Please do remember that Judaism is deeply grounded in law.)  It is a statement that ordinarily would be made before a Bet Din, a three member rabbinical court, which is the authority with the power to absolve the vow-breaker.  (G-d of course has the sole authority to forgive vows made to Him, but more on that below.)  Because Kol Nidre is a legal action, it actually is recited before sundown, before Yom Kippur actually begins, because we do not do business on the holiday.  It is an odd combination of Aramaic (the pre-Yiddish and pre-Ladino lingua franca of Jews in the Talmudic period) and Hebrew.  And it is an odd combination of past, present, and future tenses.

It is all of these anomalies that finally drove me to do some research on the prayer (which is what I will call it even if technically incorrect).  It turns out that Kol Nidre has had rather a tumultuous history, not coming into common usage until about three hundred years or so ago (although it had existed long before), and for a while dropped entirely from the Reform liturgy.  It has played a role in facilitating anti-Semitism.  Gentiles in places like England and Russia pointed to Kol Nidre as evidence that Jews could not be trusted to keep their bargains.  And yet it persisted, according to some commentators at least as much because of its solemnity, its haunting melody, and some degree of superstition, as because of its actual meaning.

So what does it mean?  Can Jews really not be trusted to keep our bargains?  Of course not.  In the first place, Kol Nidre responds to an ancient habit disliked by the rabbis of promiscuous vow-making.  That sounds really odd to modern ears, at least to mine. But evidently there was a history of making these quite solemn and binding promises in times of stress that were beyond the capacity of the vowers to fulfill.  Kol Nidre helped by reminding vow makers of the seriousness of their practice and to make vows, if at all, very carefully and thoughtfully.

It is also not an absolution of vows to other people.  Only the Bet Din can grant that. Actually, as interpreted modernly, it is not even an absolution of vows to G-d, because we are taught that when we make a vow to G-d, he expects us to fulfill it.  Rather, it is an absolution of vows we make to ourselves.

And this perhaps is the strangest aspect of Kol Nidre.  Why do we need to forgive ourselves?  Who’s going to know whether we kept our vows to ourselves or not, and who’s going to care? And, if we do need to forgive ourselves, why can’t we do it any time, why on Yom Kippur?   My take on it, for what it’s worth, is that we do need to forgive ourselves. Most of us hold ourselves to very high standards of behavior in all aspects of our lives. (I promise I’m not going to go into the vicissitudes of being an eldest male Jewish child of a certain age– really), and I’m pretty sure that all of us, at some point or another, fail to meet those standards.  That’s only human.  So, by forgiving ourselves, we allow ourselves to be human, recognize that we are human, and remind ourselves that even to hold ourselves to the highest standards that humans can attain is, well, still to be only human.  We are not G-d. (I suppose I risk blasphemy here in observing that G-d’s behavior is not exactly perfect all the time, either.  I will post my poem on the subject, Kol Nidre, when it is published this fall in Poetica.)

This is an important reminder.  Just as it is important to reach high, it is important to acknowledge the essential humanity in our failings.  For me, at least, this is the beauty of Kol Nidre and its power.  (I have to confess that I rarely am dry-eyed after the third recitation — unless, that is, the chazzan is really bad.)  And why on Yom Kippur?  Why not?  After all, we ask forgiveness of everybody else.  Why not then of ourselves?  That, to me, is the meaning and power of Kol Nidre.

G’mar Chatima Tovah.

Lawrence Mitchell

Poetry

As I’ve noted, I will post my poems here as they are published.  Sympathy for a Suicide, which began as an attempt to make sense of Robin Williams’ death, has just been published in the October-December issue of the journal, The Cat’s Meow.

Sympathy for a Suicide

The shattered heart that drains my peace away,

and drives the life force deeper into black,

displace despair to loose my thoughts to play,

the bargain of my life begs this attack.

 

Far from the depths in which I often lie,

and sometimes wallow with a bit of glee,

the slowly roiling muck lofts vision high,

and lets us share our strange integrity.

 

We only know the things that we can see,

can understand what we identify,

and that is how this sorrow makes us free,

for it creates the course of empathy.

 

The gift we share is one that we can give,

the need for love bestows it in return,

while it sustains it gives us cause to live,

when it abates, our sorrows inward turn.

 

So I embrace you even as for me,

the stark aloneness of my mind despairs,

holy blessing, vulnerability,

the beauty of this gift is what we share.

 

And so, although, I know that you are gone,

and understand the horror that you knew,

I celebrate the courage of your life,

for only through that end could you be true.

Lawrence Mitchell