Joshua Stein
Writing a column can be a dangerous venture PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 30 September 2011 00:00
Joshua SteinJoshua Stein

The ways of the U.S. Postal Service are sometimes beyond human comprehension; but if things work out as they should you’ll receive this on Friday, Sept. 30, just in time for an après Rosh Hashanah lunch sit-down in your favorite easy chair.

So, what is this essay about? Will it rail against the inefficiencies of a privatized government bureau? Is it about Rosh Hashanah? Or perhaps about lunch? Or easy chairs? Answer: None of the above.  Instead it’s time for a redaction of Essay Writing 101 (a course I never took in college).

In the last issue, I took a swipe at a letter-writer who asked why Jews continue to vote for very liberal politicians when one would think that our values would be more in line with those of conservative candidates. I found this patronizing, because it implied that Jews should act more like the author, or more like the majority of Americans, the subtext being (here’s the disingenuous part) why haven’t we become Christians? Surely this would be to our advantage and – like being conservative – it would, after all, only require us to give up the past few centuries of our development in order to join the wider community.

So I wrote a strong rejoinder.  To temper it a bit, I added what I thought was a dollop of humor by teasing my editor (whom I nevertheless described as “terrific”) for publishing a letter that (so it seemed to me) verged on anti-Semitic. In the essay-writing business, this technique is called “misdirection” – sometimes it’s described in dance terms as a “lateral arabesque” – i.e., starting with something that you don’t intend to pursue but that sets up your real target and concludes with the initial misdirection – either for emphasis or as humor. This technique has been around since at least the time of Homer’s “Iliad.”

Columnist annoyed by editor’s decision to publish letter PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 20 September 2011 02:25

Joshua SteinJoshua SteinSometimes the ways of editors are strange to behold, beyond human comprehension. At The Jewish Voice & Herald, we have a terrific editor; but why she chose to print a patronizing letter to the editor from a self-proclaimed practicing Catholic who asks, “Why do most American Jews still support and vote for very liberal politicians when you would think that their values would be more in line with more conservative candidates?” is beyond me. You’ve got to wonder how desperate she is to have a letter to the editor.

Dear self-proclaimed practicing Catholic: I don’t know if most American Jews vote for very liberal candidates for office. I hope we do, but I cannot testify to that as I’ve not taken a poll. In fact, I know several Jews who would take offense at your generalization pointing to themselves as George W. Bush conservatives.

But if it’s true that we vote liberal, it’s because of our history and our values. We have been at the noose end of the rope, the saber’s edge of the Cossack, victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire,  inhalers of Zyklon B.

Camille Pissarro’s work earns an A+ from professor PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 02 September 2011 13:23

Joshua SteinJoshua SteinI have many heroes, but today I add a new one to the list. In literature, my hero is Hector of the Shining Helmet, defender of idyllic Troy from the barbarians at the gate. The Bible has a slew of heroes to choose from but I’ll stick with Joshua bin Nun, for obvious reasons. In science, Galileo, who refused to back down from his research even knowing the fate of those who preceded him, tops my list, though modest Isaac Newton is close behind. Of American presidents, I’ll stick with Kennedy, hero of my youth. In sports, Gil Hodges wins the prize. He was denied entrance to the Hall of Fame – a modern day equivalent of Hector being defeated outside the walls of Troy by Achilles and Athena.

Except for Joshua, none of these fellows was actually Jewish, except in my mind. But the new guy is. One rainy day we drove to the Clark Museum in Williamstown, Mass., to see the special exhibition called “Pissarro’s People.” (It’s there for another month if you have the inclination to make the drive.) I didn’t know much about Camille (since he’s my new hero we are now on a first-name basis) other than vaguely remembering that he was an early exemplar of the Impressionist school of French painting. What I didn’t know was that he was a Sephardic Jew. In fact, that morsel might be a clue to his personality and world outlook. Now, the world outlook of which I speak is not exclusively Jewish (it was shared by his exact contemporary Leo Tolstoy – 1828-1910) – but Jews of his time, 1830-1903 and later, or some Jews, hold a similar perspective.

Modern day distribution of wealth might appall ancient sages PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 19 August 2011 16:13

Joshua SteinJoshua SteinTish’a B’av, the Jewish day of mourning, has come and gone. Tradition claims (though tradition and reality are not always congruent) that both Temples were destroyed on the 9th day of Av, the first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the second by the Romans in 70 CE.

A rabbinic midrash teaches that the spies Moses sent to scout the Promised Land reported on its milk-and-honeyness but also on the gigantic stature of its inhabitants. The people wept at the prospect of entering a land populated by giants, and God declared, “You wept without cause; I will therefore make this an eternal day of mourning for you.” That day, of course, was Tish’a B’av. Other historical events later associated with Tish’a B’av, include the crushing of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 CE, the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, the expulsion from Spain in 1492, the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, and the first deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka in 1943.

This being planet Earth, a new reason to mourn is always at hand. What arouses our grief this time? The abandonment of basic Jewish principles by the Thatcherite State of Israel! As the “Iron Maiden” (Margaret Thatcher) once famously said, “the problem with Socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.” Alas, the corollary is also true; after a while, the poor will run out of money for the rich to cheat them out of.

In Israel, as you may have read in the last issue of The Jewish Voice & Herald, Tish’a B’av was a day of mourning for the lost idealism of the early days of the new state and of the Yishuv that had preceded it – the Israel of David Ben-Gurion, the Histadrut and the kibbutzim. The prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, has drunk the Reagan/Thatcherite Kool-Aid to its last dregs, believing with them that it is a good thing for the rich to get richer and for the poor to shut up.

Norway and the Jewish problem PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 05 August 2011 17:07

Joshua SteinJoshua SteinTime has made the joke acceptable. Frequent usage has made it unnecessary to tell the whole thing, short enough as it already is:  “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

On a recent Friday my wife, third son and I drove down to Scarborough Beach. It was a glorious day. We arrived a few minutes before high tide. The waves were crashing in, rolling one after another to the shouts of children and adults who threw themselves headlong into cresting waters or turned their backs, trying to time perfectly when to jump towards land so that the water would catch and propel them forward. Over and over and over again we did one or the other in the great ocean that had seemed so frigid when first we entered but after moments, was merely cool against our skin. Eventually, we returned to our blanket and chairs and soaked up those rays capable of penetrating the slathering of SPF 70 sun block my wife insisted we wear while we read, raided the food locker and talked and laughed and enjoyed each other and the day.

On the ride home we listened to the news on the radio and heard the shocking reports out of Oslo and Utoya Island. The joy was sucked out of the car as the grim reports came through   – more and more and more dead, most of them children, the Oslo bombing probably merely a diversion so that Anders Behring Breivik could operate his death machine uninterrupted on the island.  “Other than that, Josh, how was the day at the beach?” It loses something in the immediacy, doesn’t it?

Breivik, his lawyer tells the world, is insane. This is either a legal strategy or statement of belief, possibly both. I’m sure that future historians will wade through Breivik’s 1,500 page on-line manifesto, which announced his intentions and provided his motivation. I’ve not yet begun the task, leaving it to others for the moment; but it has become apparent that there are elements in it that smack of pro-Zionist sentiments.

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