Amusements and Diversions From a Relentless Swamp

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published September 12, 2007, issue of September 14, 2007.
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Let’s change the subject, as befits the season of renewal. We know too well the dreadful aspects of the year just ended: the violence in Iraq, Darfur, Afghanistan, Gaza, Virginia Tech and countless others just below our horizon; the deadly hurricanes and the coal mine disasters, the floods and fires and all the rest. Goodbye, finally, Gonzales; good riddance, 5758.

Let’s turn, instead, to the good stuff, the amusements and diversions, the acts of wisdom and kindness. Let’s remember those as respite from the otherwise relentless swamp.

Amusement: My vote for strangest statement of the year comes from Robert Draper’s new book on President Bush, “Dead Certain.” In one of Draper’s six interviews of the president, Bush mentioned that he’s so far in 2006 — which was nearing its end — read 87 books.

As it happens, on the long shelf that’s attached to and runs the length of my bed — I’ve just counted — there are exactly 87 books, my “must read” collection. With luck, I’ll manage about two a month, and yes, I know that during the year, I’ll acquire more than 24 new “must reads,” which will displace some of the current titles, render them to the several shelves for “wish I had the time to read” volumes.

Eighty-seven books in, say, 11 months? Eight books a month? Two books a week? My sister-in-law, who is the most avid reader I know, and who is not the president of the United States, reads on average two books a week. Professional book reviewers average about the same.

The president’s assertion that he reads as voraciously as they is, well, “weird” is the word that comes first to mind. And he keeps precise count, since he and Karl Rove have a contest going. (Rove was at 102 when Bush was at 87.) Oh well, perhaps that’s what the Decider does instead of reading even the executive summaries of the memos he’s given, another of his peculiar habits.

While I find the report on the president’s reading habits a laugh-out-loud, I realize that there are those who will not find it amusing, who get such a rush of antipathy at even the slightest brush with Bush that they are well beyond laughter, even at his expense. I have days like that, too, and sometimes even nights. You know we’re in trouble when you feel a touch of nostalgia for Richard Nixon. So let’s move on.

Diversion: Careful with this one, it could end up costing you real time. I’ve lately been dabbling with YouTube, very likely the most mixed bag of a medium there’s ever been. Type in the word “Jewish,” and there goes your schedule — and likely your blood pressure, too.

There is a mountain of garbage — antisemitic rants of every imaginable (and some quite unimaginable) kind, Jews for Jesus propaganda, offensive (I mean really offensive) comedy shtick — and mixed in, there are endless pastures well worth visiting.

Twenty-seven versions of “Adon Olam” (my favorite is “Adon Olam: Follow the Lyrics,” a gospel rendition); there’s a Hebrew version of the Lion King (start with The “Lion King 2: We Are One — Hebrew”); there are several of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the father of Jewish Renewal; there are scads on Jewish life in diverse European and North African cities; there are some thrilling cantorial videos. And there’s my current favorite, “Veretzki Pass Plays Yankee Doodle Dandy With A Jewish Accent.”

Wisdom: Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in a speech that drew a standing ovation at the convention of the Islamic Society of North America, called for an end to discrimination against Muslims, for more dialogue between religions, and for Jews and Muslims to unite in support of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Predictably, his readiness to appear before that audience elicited a critical response from sundry others, including David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

You know you’re
in trouble when you
feel a touch of
nostalgia for
Richard Nixon.

But ISNA, America’s largest Muslim umbrella organization, with 100,000 members and 300 constituent groups, has condemned terrorism, including that conducted by Hezbollah and Hamas, and has endorsed a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. Must Muslims convert to Judaism before we talk frankly and even amicably with them? Bravo, Yoffie.

And the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Arnold Eisen, gave so compelling a speech at the ceremony of his installation that I would not dare choose just a few lines to cite here. It is a speech that restores hope in the future of the Conservative movement, both by virtue of its substance and by virtue of the wisdom and eloquence of its author. I commend it to you.

Grace: Last week, my long-ago wife, mother of my children, died. We’d been friendly these last years, so I was part of the vigil that marked her last days. She’d very much hoped to make it to our granddaughter’s bat mitzvah, next month, but it was sadly clear she would not.

So, a week before her death, Liat, our granddaughter, came to visit her grandmother, who by then was unresponsive. And there, in the living room that had been transformed into a hospital room, Liat chanted her Torah portion.

The nurses had told us that hearing is the last of the senses to go, and we all believe that Zelda at some level heard the chanting.

The grace and sweetness of that moment will forever be a blessing; honey and thorn, so often intertwined. May this year have an abundance of honey for all who engage in acts of kindness.

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