Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Happy Purim!

Tomorrow evening is the holiday of Purim, a minor holiday on the Hebrew calendar, often described as the Jewish mardi gras. I wrote about it in a previous post, My Purim Spiel, so you can read more about it there, if you care to.

In that previous post, I also mentioned how one of the traditional ways of celebrating Purim is to put on a Purim spiel, a play based on the biblical Book of Esther, which in turn is the basis of the Purim holiday. Purim spiels usually are humorous, loose adaptations that might include parodies of popular songs, movies, TV, Broadway shows, etc.

And in that previous post, I mentioned that I had written a Purim spiel, my first, which was performed last year at Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia. The title of the spiel is The Schnook of Esther, and we have since made it available to read online. You can click on the link to see a PDF of the spiel. (There's also a note about how anyone wishing to perform the play can do so, all we ask for is a donation to the Adas Emuno Social Action Fund. Most congregations purchase their spiels in this way, although usually without the opportunity to read them first.)

So, in celebration of Purim, you can read the spiel, and also read along with the admittedly amateurish performance we put on last year, twice, actually. The first version was also included in my previous post, but I'll include it here as well:

And here's the second version:

And just in case you're in the neighborhood, you can stop by Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia to see my new spiel, Shalom Shushan, performed tomorrow night, Wednesday, March 23rd. Here's a link with all the info: Purim Time! And I hope to share the new spiel here on Blog Time Passing before too long. Until then, Happy Purim!

Monday, March 7, 2016

Sanders and the Yiddish Speaking Socialists

In my previous post, Grandpa Bernie and the Millennials, I made reference to another Sanders, Edward Sanders, no relation to Bernie, and not to be confused with the English movie star. The Ed Sanders I'm talking about is described on Wikipedia as, "an American poet, singer, social activist, environmentalist, author, publisher and longtime member of the band The Fugs. He has been called a bridge between the Beat and Hippie generations. Sanders is considered to have been active and 'present at the counterculture's creation'."

Originally from Kansas City, Sanders took up residence in Greenwich Village towards the end of the fifties, and among his many other activities, opened the Peace Eye Bookstore on the lower east side in the early sixties, an important center for the local counterculture. He also is the founder of the investigative poetry movement in the seventies. I pick out these points from his biography, which in truth are overshadowed by many other achievements, because they are relevant to the point at hand.

The point being one of his poems in particular, "The Yiddish Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side," which I quoted a few lines from in my op-ed. The poem tells the story of an important chapter in the history of the United States, New York City, American politics, and the Jewish-American experience. The focus is on the first two decades of the 20th century, and the rise and fall of a democratic socialist movement spearheaded by the Jewish immigrants living on the lower east side.

The poem concludes with the failure of that movement, but its influence was felt, in part through the participants that were still alive in the postwar period, in the protest and counterculture movements of the sixties, especially as one of the main centers of the movement, as it was called back then, was in Greenwich Village and New York's lower east side. Perhaps these things run in cycles, so we're seeing a revival of that sensibility from the turn of the 20th century and mid-20th century today in the teens of our new century.

Whether that's the case or not, the poem provides a quick and easy way to understand the milieu that Bernie Sanders come from, both the politics of his parents' generation and the political movement that he took part in as a young man.

The poem also communicates in a clear and stylish manner what democratic socialism is, and was, about. Not communism, socialist dictatorships, or totalitarianism. It was about human rights, many of them rights we take for granted today, rights denied to working people at the beginning of the century. In the spirit of general semantics, it is vital to avoid having knee-jerk reactions to particular words, and instead try to understand what people really mean by them, and that includes socialism. From that perspective, it is indeed heartening to see how that term has been rescued and resuscitated in Bernie's election campaign. In the words of that great socialist president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," and that is especially true when it comes to words.

So, now, I am pleased to give you two options for accessing "The Yiddish Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side" right here and now. You can read the poem on the online Woodstock Journal that Sanders maintains, here's the link: The Yiddish Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side.

Or you can listen to a semi-musical recording of Sanders reading the poem, accompanied by an electronic instrument of his own invention, the Bardic Pulse Lyre. The recording was originally put out on vinyl, but there is a nice YouTube version with the printed words as the visuals, so you can enjoy the best of both words worlds.

I would suggest that this poem is quite helpful in understanding where Sanders the candidate is coming from, and perhaps also why his campaign is not reducible to simply winning or losing caucuses and elections. As for Sanders the poet, over on the Woodstock Journal, as of this writing, his most recent post is a new poem entitled, One Reason Hillary Clinton Should not be President. I guess we can infer from that where he stands on the Democratic primaries...

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Grandpa Bernie and the Millennials

So, my most recent op-ed for the Jewish Standard came out on February 12th, under the title of Zayde for President, the link again going to the posting on my Times of Israel/Jewish Standard blog, just FYI and in case you want to see it in that context. Anyway, it was given the subtitle of, "Grumpy, cool, fun grandpa speaks to millennials," and here's the rest of it:

When Larry David hosted Saturday Night Live on February 6, Bernie Sanders made a surprise appearance during a skit about a sinking ship — an apt metaphor, some might say, for the state of the union.

With David playing the part of a rich man arguing that his wealth earned him a spot in the lifeboat along with the women and children, Sanders was given the opportunity to deliver a few lines about the one percent “getting preferential treatment,” and the “need to unite and work together.” A brief exchange regarding democratic socialism followed, leading David to ask, “Who are you?” Sanders replied, “I am Bernie Sanderswitzky — but we’re gonna change it when we get to America, so it doesn’t sound quite so Jewish.” “Yeah, that’ll trick ’em,” David shot back sarcastically.

And certainly there is no disguising the fact that Sanders is Jewish, although this was one of the rare moments in media coverage of his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination that any mention has been made of his ethnic and religious identity. And that arguably is odd, given how much emphasis was placed on the fact that Barack Obama became the first African-American president, and on Hillary Clinton potentially becoming the first woman to be president.

Maybe it seems that by contrast with African-Americans and women, Sanders becoming the first Jewish president would be less of a monumental breakthrough for the nation. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that some Americans believe that we already have a non-Christian president — that Obama is a secret Muslim. Or maybe it’s a matter of longstanding Jewish reticence, as reflected in the name change mentioned in the skit. Sanders is a traditional Anglo-Saxon name; interestingly enough, it originated in the same impulse that was prevalent among the Jews of antiquity, to name their children after Alexander the Great.

Of course, Sanders’ self-identification as a “democratic socialist” often is referenced by the news media, as it was on the Saturday Night Live skit, but would that make him the first socialist president of the United States if he is elected? Not according to Republican rhetoric, given that most Democrats have been accused of promoting socialist policies. More significantly, not according to Sanders himself, who positions himself in the tradition of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and policies, as extended by John F. Kennedy and, significantly, by Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society initiatives. Those presidents avoided the label of socialist, however, given American opposition, from the Russian Revolution on, to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, even during the brief period we fought together to defeat Nazi Germany.

To get a sense of the brief moment in our history when socialism first represented a serious political movement, we might turn to another Sanders, Edward Sanders. Perhaps best known as one of the founders of the 1960s rock band The Fugs, Ed Sanders also has distinguished himself as an activist, author, and award-winning poet. And his extended poem, called Yiddish-Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side, stands as a tribute to the likes of Meyer London, Morris Hillquit, Scott Nearing, Eugene Debs, and Emma Goldman:

To make a New World
inside the New World
at Century’s turn
the Yiddish speaking socialists
of the Lower East Side.

As the poem explains, they had, “a passion for Justice that never fades away,” although they failed in their efforts to translate their ideals into a successful political revolution. Ed Sanders, who is just two years older than Bernie, was an icon and leader of the counterculture of the ’60s and early ’70s. Although he was not Jewish, he took inspiration from the social justice activism of these early 20th century pioneers.

Movements like these seem to run in cycles, so it may well be that the socialism that arose at the turn of the 20th century and returned in the form of the counterculture over half a century ago is due to make a comeback now. Without a doubt, the counterculture movement also was a youth movement, and not surprisingly, Bernie Sanders has enjoyed widespread support among the youngest of our eligible voters, the generation referred to as Millennials. Indeed, this has been a frequently invoked theme in news coverage of the campaign, with the pundits often seeming at a loss as to why twenty-somethings would support a 74-year-old candidate.

The expectation that young people automatically should favor the youngest candidate perhaps has its roots in the fact that baby boomers venerated John F. Kennedy, who was the youngest person ever elected president, but this overlooks the fact that no one from that generation was old enough to vote in the 1960 election. As much as JFK’s appearance of youth and vigor seemed to resonate with the ascendancy of the boomers, we have no way of knowing how that generation would have regarded him had his career and life not been cut short by an assassin’s bullet. We do know that his successor, LBJ, was vilified for his escalation of the Vietnam War, and that happened despite his progressive domestic initiatives.

In the same sense that political movements may be cyclical in nature, so too are filial relationships. That’s why we often speak of traits and qualities skipping a generation. Millennial support for Sanders therefore should come as no surprise, as he easily fits into the role of America’s grandpa, or more accurately, America’s zayde. Often he comes across as a grumpy grandpa, as Amber Phillips of the Washington Post suggested last July. But Emma Roller of the New York Times labeled him “your cool socialist grandpa” in December, and just a few weeks ago, People profiled him as a “fun grandpa,” according to his own grandchildren.

Jeb Bush, who had been struggling to gain the slightest bit of traction, recently had his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, venture out into the New Hampshire snow to help him in his primary campaign. The news media has made frequent reference to her enormous popularity, referring to her as “America’s grandmother.” And there is no question that she fits the image, and did so even back when her husband was president. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has included the fact that she recently became a grandmother as part of her campaign rhetoric, but she has not been able to come across as particularly grandmotherly, drawing criticism this past December for comparing herself to an abuela (Latina grandmother).

Grumpy, cool, and fun are not mutually exclusive traits, and there is something about the image of older Jewish men that plays well in contemporary American culture, and especially on television. It is indeed a mixture of idealism and humor, impatience with injustice, and infinite patience with the young. Whether this is a wining formula for the Democratic primaries remains to be seen, but the source of his appeal to Millennials, as a socialist zayde, should not be a mystery.