Category Archives: Personal – Education

The Diplomacy of Real Estate

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I believe I have found the explanation for a problem that has bedeviled Israel and  the so-called United Nations.

The problem — the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The solution. Real Estate!

It has nothing to do with all the bubbamayses about occupation, conquer, territory, whatever.  Any serious thinker knows that those arguments are non-starters.

It has nothing to do with the protection of Islam’s holy sites. I mean, the best argument the rest of the world has is that Jerusalem is Islam’s third holiest site. i mean really?  My third best friend doesn’t even talk to me.  I’ve got two who are better.

I haven’t even heard of hundreds of people being crushed to death on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. So how cool can it be?

It is Israel’s holiest site.  Doesn’t that count for something?  Maybe not if you hate Jews.  But at least note that  the Israeli government has a perfect record of protecting the Dome of the Rock. Those who call it holy?  A storehouse for Molotov Cocktails.

And I’m not going to get into war, conquest, and all of the other issues that world government’s throws up.

So I don’t have to.

The answer is simple.

It’s all about the real estate.

Let’s take a hypothetical.  Let’s say your job requires that you live in, oh, I don’t know, maybe Malibu. It’s only a short drive to your office in Santa Monica and, anyway, you don’t have to do the driving.  And so your employer insists on giving you an all-expense paid beachfront mansion in Malibu so you can be close to but not quite on top of the office.  All expenses.  Mansion.  Beachfront. Barbra’s your neighbor.

Really?

Sweet.

And let’s assume you come from kind of a lame country. Let’s call it Sweden.  Yeah, you’re rich, you’re European which makes you somehow superior to the rest of the world (except it doesn’t and you’re going bankrupt so you try to chase out the Jews whose fault it is) , blah blah blah.  It’s ok with you that nobody actually cares about you. But you spend half your time in darkness and cold.  And you have voting power at the UN. And now you get to a place where your shattered dark Strindbergian soul – the soul that hates Jews even though you don’t really have any — is in MALIBU!  Sunshine.  Light. Warmth. Turquoise seas.

Awesome hummus.

Barbra.

Yay!

Now let’s say you have to move your office to Palm Springs. That will add a few hours to your commute, assuming traffic is light (which it never is).  Now don’t get me wrong.  Palm Springs is lovely. And it might even be fun because maybe you’re cool enough (in an irrelevant second-rate European sort of way) to join the Norwegian Rat Pack.

Frank SinABBA?

But . . . Palm Springs is in the desert.  Sure, there are people who like desert more.  But who doesn’t love the beach? Especially a perfect, turquoise water white sand Mediterranean beach, where you have an actual mansion?

And awesome hummus.

And Barbra.

And now your employer is telling you that maybe you should move closer to the office and give up that beautiful beachfront mansion and live in a kind of cool but smallish faux-Neutra three bedroom near the swinging lights of the desert.

How would you feel?  Right. You don’t want to move.  Now how would you feel if you come from some loser developing country that could never even imagine a place like this and hates Jews even more than you do even though they don’t have any either because they’ve killed them all or chased them out or are so lame that even desperate refugees wouldn’t live there?

Right. You’re not moving, no matter how unfair or irrational your position on the capital is.

Location, location, location.  (By the way, I am very proud as a citizen of the populist republic of the United States to note that our ambassador’s mansion is waaaaay shabbier than others, at least as far as you can from the street behind the walls.   And if you take a look at India’s, you might have some idea why they are so friendly with Israel.  Just sayin’.)

So you demand that Tel Aviv be the recognized Israeli capital rather than Jerusalem.  It’s a short commute.  You can justify the mansion.  You can stay in Malibu  . . .um . . .Herzliya.  Same thing.

The solution to the problem is easy.  Any New Yorker could figure it out.

Let the ambassadors keep their real estate.  The commute to Jerusalem isn’t that bad.

Home

Well, it’s been  . . .um . . . a long time since I’ve last written.  Fortunately I know that none of my readers are sitting on the edge of their respective seats waiting for my next installment.

That said, and by way of explanation, not excuse, a lot of stuff has been happening in my world. Some of it I’ll mention — I finished writing my first novel and am looking for representation; more poems are being published; a few family things that have joyfully resolved — and some of it I’m not yet ready to talk about.  I will soon enough, from a venue perhaps unexpected.

But I feel compelled to write because I am, once again, in the only place that makes me happier than New York.  As readers do not have to guess, I am in Israel.

I might have written earlier — I arrived late Sunday — but for some reason I had a case of the kind of jet lag I haven’t had in years. (Note to self– never arrogantly believe that you have defeated jet lag — it doesn’t happen.)  And I had to teach on Monday.  And Tuesday. And tomorrow.  And tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow . . .

My reason for being here is very different than last summer when I was a Hebrew student.  This time I am the teacher, teaching a course at IDC Herzliya on The Pathologies of American Corporate Capitalism, based largely on my work. There are many differences this time, but one constant:  This remains the place I belong.  Project Aliyah has not ended.

And . . . this is the really exciting thing.  I have spoken English only to teach (and in a few more complicated situations).  I have otherwise negotiated everything — cabs, restaurants, shops, hotels, conversations with new people, etc — almost entirely in Hebrew.  Bravo to the teachers at Hebrew U Ulpan and to Haggai at JTS.  Even though it’s been some months since I engaged with the language, whatever they did managed to sink in.  And it is wonderful.  It’s to the point where my eyes first go to the Hebrew, not the English, on all of the signs, and I always use the Hebrew menu (and haven’t yet been shocked at the result).

But this trip is particularly special because it has put me in a very different context.  Last summer I was a student, with other foreign students.  Our teachers were Israeli, we encountered Israelis in Jerusalem, but it was relatively limited.  This time, I am engaging with 65 Israeli students, not to mention the 25 or so who attended my “Master Class on Legal Theory” on Monday.  I am talking with Israeli professors (including, delightfully, a couple of old friends) and staff — insisting on Hebrew until I think I’m going to get into real trouble — and of course the students.  In fact I spent the first five minutes or so of my introduction to the course speaking to them in Hebrew.  And nobody laughed.

So I don’t quite understand why everybody starts speaking English to me BEFORE I open my mouth.  Whereupon I insist on Hebrew and they are happy to oblige.

To engage with Israeli students is a revelation.  They are older.  All have served, or are serving, in the army.  They exude a confidence I generally don’t see in American students, which leads them actually to talk in class as if we were having a conversation.  Yes, by this I mean they interrupt, they don’t raise their hands, they are highly opinionated,yada yada yada.  I’m going to insist that part of this is ethno-cultural — it is quite familiar to this New York Jew — and part of it is as a result of the aforementioned.

They have shown themselves to be friendly and warm — no matter how rude I perceive their sidebar conversations in class to be (see above). They have shown themselves to be engaged with important world issues.  And they have been very sweet to me. Obviously not all of them — there hasn’t been time.  But enough to make me so proud that they are the future of my people, and so humble to know that they already have done more for the Jews than I will in my life.

Herzliya is not Jerusalem.  I am staying in the Industrial District of Herzliya Pituach, a collection of old factories and spanking new high-tech companies (the Apple building across the way from my hotel is an engineering marvel).  The temple here is dedicated to technology, innovation, and commerce.  The restaurants are almost as trendy — seriously –as any you’re likely to find in New York, although far cheaper and with beautiful food (I’ve eaten more vegetables in three days than I have eaten in three years).  And the beach is just a mile down the road, where resort Herzliya presents itself.  This is a town of the Israeli one percent, of beautiful houses behind protective walls and gates, of luxury beach hotels (I was fortunate to stay at the Dan Accadia the last time I was here), a town of trendy shops and fashionable bars. In these dimensions, of course, it is vital to the future of Start-Up Nation, vital to the normalcy of an almost-developed country, and vitally preserves the beauty of neighborhood hummus joints fast against restaurants that require reservations long in advance.

So, in a word, I’m home.  Having finally slept for more than an hour or two, I’m up for some significant exploration and, as is my nature, reflection.  I understand that this entry is a bit disjointed, perhaps not as elegant or thematic as I’d like. But I will continue to report as I observe.   Reveling in the joy of a land of milk and honey.

My Dybbuk and Me

I have a dybbuk. Don’t laugh. I’m serious. I hope those of you inclined to make fun of me will bear with me while I explain.

But first. For any of you who might actually care.   I apologize. I disappeared a few months ago after my summer in Jerusalem. What I disappeared into is the life of a graduate student.   I’ve never been one before. I now understand the immense gap between law school and real graduate school.  What I understand about graduate school – for me the Jewish Studies program at Jewish Theological Seminary – is reading.  Reading more than I have ever read in my life.  Reading from well before dawn to well after dusk, reading while waiting for the bus or train (ok, I walk, I don’t take the bus or train, but it’s a nice trope), reading while eating, reading while washing, reading while everything, from when I lieth down until I riseth up, and then all the hours between riseth and lieth and then back again. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had. It has kept me from writing (except in Hebrew). But I feel compelled to write. Because you might one day have a dybbuk too. And you should know how to deal with it. I didn’t.

OK. Back to the dybbuk. Here’s the story. A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my favorite chair – reading, if you haven’t yet figured that out – and using my highlighter and my favorite pen to make notes to myself. Absent-mindedly, I put the pen on the ottoman.   I went to pick it up a few minutes later. It was gone.

Stop thinking what you’re thinking. I didn’t misplace it. My tuchus never left the chair. But, after ten minutes or so of funfering around reaching for it, I slid to my knees and started searching the floor, under and around the few pieces of furniture in the corner where I sit. It’s a small apartment. I branched out. No pen.

Now I know a thing or two about dybbuks.  And I know a thing or two about pens.  And I know that a pen simply doesn’t go walking off without a dybbuk to accompany it.

I also know a thing or two about my own absent-mindedness and a thing or two about the memory of a man who is within sight of saying  adieu to middle age (according to the Federal government, but who cares about those apikorim.) I also know that I am sufficiently careful to put things where they belong, at least things I care about. I considered the possibility that I might have misplaced the pen. But after some serious thought, I realized it had to be a dybbuk. Perhaps it was the faint odor of herring in the air – I haven’t eaten herring in months. Perhaps it was the strange nusach that went through my head. Who knows? All I know is that I was pretty sure it was a dybbuk. I mean, everyone knows that the Upper West Side is full of them. It’s just that most people don’t have the guts to admit it for fear of angering their dybbukim.  I’m fearless.  And penless.

Anyway, a pen is a pen and a dybbuk is a dybbuk. Who had time to worry about either of them? I had reading to do. I could find another pen, and it is clear from that herring smell that the dybbuk had what to eat so it shouldn’t be hungry. (Don’t ask about how cranky dybbuks get when they’re hungry.) A reader without a pen is still a reader, and a dybbuk full of herring is still a dybbuk. What was I to do about it?

So there matters lay. A few more weeks passed. I half expected the dybbuk to return my pen, but it didn’t. For all I know it needed the pen to write essays on Mishna, and I probably could afford a new pen better than the dybbuk. (which I needed because I had to write essays on Mishna). I am a charitable man. Let the dybbuk have the pen.

But everybody knows that the thing about dybbuks is, if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.   I should have known somewhere between Rambam and Ramban that there would be more tsooris.

There was.  I remember it well – it was a Wednesday evening. I returned home from school at around 7, my normal time. Always I’m a mess when I walk in – hat on hatstand, scarf on scarfstand, coat on coatstand, tefillin bag on – well, you get the point. I went to my room to daven Mincha (it was before daylight savings time ended which I have to make a point of saying in case my rabbi should read this) and then put on my gatkes. I came out of my room. First I put my cellphone on the ottoman – yes, that ottoman. Then I put my headphones beside it.   I can see the picture even now. Order. Ready for anything. A German Jew would be proud.

I returned to my room for a moment. Really. A moment.

When I came back to my chair, I realized something. The headphones were gone!  From that same ottoman. In that very same place. I looked beneath it, beneath the chair, beneath the furniture, in the corner. I pulled up the rug. No headphones.

Now I was angry. Those headphones were expensive. I had to think in the store, what? – ten minutes maybe – to allow myself to spring for them in the first place. Headphones like that you don’t buy everyday, at least if you’re not Schiff. These headphones were special. I always knew where they were. I always put them carefully in their case. (And talmudically kept touching them to be sure they were there.) But not tonight. One night I forget. And they’re gone.

What could I have done with them? Suddenly, I remembered. The Dybbuk! It had been quiet for a couple of weeks. I learned to like my new pen. I forgot.

I should have known. I know enough about dybbuks that I should have known that the little mamzer wouldn’t be content only with a miserable pen. Now it went for my expensive headphones. Forget Rambam. And Ramban. And Buber. And Bubbie. My headphones were gone. And I didn’t even know the dybbuk’s name. I didn’t know if it was a he or a she. The thing had never been polite enough to introduce itself. But it had no problem taking my stuff.

I called to it. I pled with it. I begged it. I reasoned with it.

What a waste. Everybody knows that there is no reasoning with a dybbuk. So I tried to be nice. I ordered three pounds of kishkas from Fine and Schapiro. (I don’t care what its practices are – it’s not going to eat trayf in my house.) It gobbled it all up before I could even tip the delivery guy. And I was hoping maybe for a bite or two. Now the apartment smelled like schmaltz. And what did I have to show for it? Naked ears.

I needed headphones. Hebrew class required them. But who had the money to replace such nice headphones that you had to take at least ten minutes in the store to decide to buy? The next day I bought a (relatively) cheap pair. I didn’t open the box for a while because I was hoping that when I walked through the door with new headphones the dybbuk would have had it’s laugh and would return mine. No such luck. (Did I say that my dybbuk was a bit of a mamzer?) So I opened them and sacrificed the possible return of thirty bucks.

By this point, I had come to terms with the fact that the dybbuk was here to stay. I don’t know much about the care and feeding of a dybbuk except to realize that this one had more than a healthy appetite – and a bit of a gas problem. I wanted to name it, but without knowing its gender that was hard (and a little embarrassing when I went to the shower). I tried to come up with a gender neutral name, although I kept coming back for some reason to Moishele – which should have told me something to begin with.

And so it was. I had a new roommate. Who, by the way, was not only stealing things but not paying its share of the rent. Other people have their tsooris. This was mine.

Yesterday I decided to clean my apartment. I hate to admit it, but it was filthy. That’s what happens when your nose is buried in the wit and wisdom of the Vilna Gaon.   I mean, I didn’t mind it so much, and I was pretty sure that the dybbuk hadn’t exactly come from a palace, but what did I know? I was cleaning the bedroom. My sweatshirt was on the floor. I picked it up.

My headphones fell from the pocket.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that the memory of an alter kokher led me to put it in the pocket, imagine that I had put it on the ottoman, and that was that. Not true. First, I’m not that alter of a kokher. Second, my memory is pretty good. Third. I am positive – I swear by the name of You Know Hu – that I heard gigging coming from the general direction of the ottoman.

But I am a rational man. Perhaps it is possible that I was forgetful and put the headphones in the pocket myself? Perhaps.

But what about the pen?

I’m hoping my dybbuk will introduce itself. I’m pretty sure it’s here to stay. Perhaps I can drag it to minyan.

Veterans Day

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Viet Nam.  I remember when I first saw those words.  Our second grade teacher had written them on the blackboard, on the upper left side.  Sitting on the right, I saw them at a bit of an angle.  But I saw them clear.  Memory then fails.

As I look back, it seems rather early to have been teaching second graders about Vietnam.  This was, after all, 1964, when the conflict was still relatively small scale.  Perhaps my teacher had a son or brother or cousin in the military and the war assumed greater importance to her.  Perhaps not.  I didn’t think about that then, because nobody at that age thinks about the lives of their teachers.  They just are.

Seven years later, a young Boy Scout, I took part in a ceremony conducted by my troop around a flagpole.  One of our troop’s alumni had been killed in Vietnam.  We were commemorating his life.  I have vague recollections of the event itself.  I remember his name.  Larry Rose.  Same first name as mine.  I didn’t know the young man.  But I do recall puzzlement that somebody so close in age to me could have been killed in a war.   Very strange.

Three years later.  I am to turn 18.  Nixon has officially ended the draft, but the lottery takes place anyway, because he has asked for extensions of the draft law in case he needed it to resume.  My number was 152.  Had the draft continued, or had it resumed, I would likely have been drafted.  There but for the grace of G-d.

I kept my draft card for several decades thereafter, until it had disintegrated in my wallet.

I tend to think about these things on Veterans Day.  Whatever it meant before Vietnam, I think the holiday has particularly poignancy now.  Before Vietnam we celebrated our veterans.  Without qualification.  After Vietnam, we tended to blame them.  Veterans Day is a day to stop and reflect upon precisely what it is that they have given us.

Theirs is not to determine whether, when, and where we go to war.  Theirs is to fight it.  Military service does not absolve one of moral agency, but it carries with it a special kind of role morality, one in which obedience to orders is, almost always, the right thing to do.  For that obedience, our soldiers pay an awful price.  They kill, or be killed.  Or survive, scarred emotionally or crippled physically.  Some of course emerge fine, but those that do witness horrors that none of us gladly would see, and of course have taken the risk of worse.  There is nothing good about war.

And yet war happens.  And our veterans serve to preserve an idea, an idea that we translate into a way of life.  It is because of our veterans that I can sit and write whatever I choose, live where I like, associate with whom I like.  It is because of our veterans that I don’t fear foreign invasion, for they have established our power if not complete invincibility.  It is because of our veterans that I am free to live, and free to choose.

This is not something always on my mind, although perhaps it should be.  As a member of the class that Spiro Agnew called, with some justification, “effete intellectual snobs,”  I have always eschewed things military, certainly in my youth in which I confused being a liberal and being a jackass.  I am still, more or less, a liberal.  I hope I am no longer a jackass.

In any event, I for one thank all of our veterans for all that they have done, I thank our soldiers serving for what they do, and those who will serve for what they will do.  I am American because of our veterans.

Thank you.

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

 

Rejection Slips

I’m not somebody who saves things.  I don’t collect objects, I don’t stockpile memorabilia.  I don’t keep copies of things that can easily be reproduced, like research and papers.

But there is one category of object I sort of wish I’d kept.  Rejection slips.  I know, this sounds really peculiar.  But allow me to explain.

I am a writer.  More than thirty years ago, I started publishing scholarly articles.  And op-eds.  And books.  And now, as readers of this blog know, I have begun publishing poetry, some of which I wrote long ago, some of more recent vintage.  It is this last enterprise which puts me in mind of rejection slips.

You see, I’ve been getting them.  For each poem offered publication, I get at least four or five rejections (and I’ve heard from only a small proportion of the journals to which I’ve submitted, so I expect many more).  And the funny thing is, they still hurt.  It’s not like rejection slips are new to me.  Had I saved all that I’ve received over the course of my career, they’d probably stretch to the moon.  But I haven’t tried to publish poetry before.  So this is a new sort of rejection, even if the form is the same.  And, given what poetry is, this time it’s personal.

So why would I want to have saved these things?  Well, in a sense, the aggregate of my rejections is the backbone of my career.  Of course had I received only rejections, I wouldn’t have a career at all.  But all of those rejections are reminders of imperfection, teachers of humility, groundings in grace, and epistles of perseverance.  Had I succumbed to the first rejections (which I hasten to assure you I received before any promise of success), my entire body of work would not have come into being.  Had I taken refuge in that last of scoundrelly writers — “they just don’t understand me” — I would have skulked off and eschewed responsibility for the fate of my work.  Had I taken them as a refutation of talent, I would have given up long ago.

How should one take a rejection slip?  As just that.  A single rejection.  A decision that a publication outlet doesn’t want the piece.  There probably are dozens of reasons why this might be so.   Perhaps the work doesn’t fit what the editors need.  Perhaps they didn’t like the topic.  Perhaps it wasn’t to their taste.  Only one reason is the following:  the work is no good.  There are too many more for that to be the default assumption.

I’ve been thinking about this perhaps more than usual, not only because, as noted, I have just begun to publish in a new medium, but also because of an unusually kind and thoughtful rejection slip I recently received.  The editor praised my poetic “instincts,” and then went on to admonish me to read more “contemporary poetry,” to let my images speak for themselves and — in that most common of writing critiques, to “show, not tell.”

I was taken aback.  “Instinct?”  I’m pretty sure I have some talent.  “Images?”  I’ve got plenty.  “Show, not tell?”  What is that about?

I was hurt.  A younger me would have become very discouraged, and then reluctantly begun to read and rather more immediately start to change my style.  But then I thought about it.  The editor certainly was right.  Assuming a particular aesthetic.  But what is my aesthetic? I know that my poetry is romantic.  I know that my influences are not contemporary, although they are modern.  Whitman. Frost.  Dickinson.  Thomas. Williams.  cummings.  And, going back- Dante. Shakespeare.  Etcetera, etcetera, and so forth.  There are narrative traditions in poetry.  There are philosophical traditions.  There is the Bard, weaving images with declarations of love.  This is the poetry I like to read.  This is the poetry I like to write.  I philosophize.  Sometimes I suppose I preach.  I weave images.  I tell stories.

And there it is — my ultimate response.  I consider each poem I write to tell a story.  A story that may be emotionally intense.  A story that is always short.  A story with significant imagery.  But a story, nonetheless.  And that story can be told in a variety of aesthetic settings.

So I shall keep to my own knitting, and be lucky to find publishers (as I have) who share my aesthetic.  And I shall be grateful to that editor for, by writing thoughtfully as he did, he evoked a thoughtful response on my part, one that pushed me to think through what I do and why I do it.  And, in doing so, in this case to affirm my own approach, and to take pleasure in a mature confidence I lacked when the first rejection slips appeared so long ago.

Would that every rejection slip were so expressly thoughtful.  But each, in their own way, can teach, and all, as an aggregate, can help to form the backdrop of a literary life.

Lawrence Mitchell