Of Weddings and Other Odd Circumstances

There are several weddings among my family and friends on the immediate horizon and the fact that we are living through a rather unusual set of circumstances which does affect weddings in a major way leads me to reflect on my own wedding, now some 37 years past.

At the time that I proposed to my beautiful bride I was 30 years old and serving as the Associate Director (AD) of the Hillel Foundation (a service organization for Jewish students) at the University of California at Berkeley. Terri was a post-Doc in Neuroscience at that same University.

Terri relaxing

Terri on the Day, How could I have been so lucky?

As everyone in the States knows, the custom here is that the bride’s family will bear most of the cost of a wedding, but that was not in the cards for us for several good reasons. Most importantly, Terri had been married before which generally releases the bride’s family from further financial obligations. In my case, there was never any possibility that my parents could have helped pay for a wedding. Both my parents lived day-by-day on meager Social Security checks. So we were on our own for figuring out how to do a wedding. Terri found a suitable dress in a local thrift shop. As the AD of Hillel, I had the option of using Hillel as both the chapel and location of the celebration. My boss, Rabbi Martin Ballonoff of blessed memory, happily agreed to perform the service. He, by the way, was getting married himself exactly one week before me, which had some interesting consequences for Terri and me. But more on that in due course.

Marty Ballonoff

Rabbi Martin Ballonoff

One of my Hebrew students, Ms. Cathy Citron, was learning how to be a caterer, so she offered to cook any food we  wanted as long as we covered the cost of the food. And the food she prepared was absolutely delicious! Wedding cakes are very expensive, but Rabbi Ballonoff offered to donate the second sheet of his wedding cake. A few of my students who played instruments added some live music to our event, and my life-long friend Marty Lehrner spent many hours putting together a music tape for us. I had (and still have) two huge Klipsch loudspeakers which we took to Hillel, so the music could be played at deafening levels. My dear friend Ed Starkie and his father John were excellent amateur photographers, and they snapped away throughout the event. No professional photographer needed!

As we all know if we’ve been down this road, there is always the thorny question of guests. My family is very small, Terri’s medium sized by her community’s standards (she has five siblings and untold numbers of cousins). My father was in Israel and couldn’t possibly afford the trip, my sister had just moved from Illinois to Long Island and a cross-country trip for her would have been a hardship. What that meant was that my family would be represented by my mother alone, whom we all loved, but who obviously suffered from severe bipolar disorder. But Stella could always be counted on to dance! Much to my surprise and great pleasure and gratitude, Terri’s parents both decided to make the trip along with one of her siblings and his wife. I first became involved in Hillel as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, and I was thrilled that the man who served as Associate Director (my title at Berkeley) and his wife would travel from Los Angeles for our marriage. Along with my close friends from the Berkeley community, we expected about 50 people.

The Saturday before a wedding is the occasion for the uffruff a tradition in which the groom rises to accept the honor of reading from the Torah scroll. As it happened, a huge storm had rolled in through the Bay Area knocking out power to the whole area. Our chapel was located in a part of the building where there was very little natural light, so I had to read from the scroll in darkness. Terri, who had completed the process of becoming a Jew-by-choice three weeks before, read the prophetic reading of the day in Biblical Hebrew with the appropriate melody (trope). Things were just getting back to normal on the Sunday of our wedding, but Terri decided to make breakfast for all our out of town guests. That means that just a couple of hours before the event, Terri, partially dressed for the wedding already, was running around cooking up a storm for 20 or so people.

And so at last the time arrived and Terri and I arrived at Hillel for our big day. The first thing that was obvious was that something had gone wrong with our guest count. The chapel was completely full and people were waiting outside. Fortunately, the chapel featured a folding wall which could be opened out to the auditorium, and that was done–then people started setting up folding chairs far out into the auditorium. By the time we were ready to get under way, there were about 500 people settled in. Terri noticed that a half dozen or so of my former girlfriends were in the crowd, but I have to say I was pretty oblivious to that. How could all this have happened?

We found out after the wedding that the rabbi had made a bit of an error. He had intended to invite the community to witness his own wedding, which you will remember occurred the week before ours. But he worded the invitation such that he invited everyone to our wedding as well! About 400 of the people crowding in were my current or former students. One of Terri’s few guests, Prof. Irving Zucker, asked her, “Do you know these people?” and Terri replied, “Almost none of them.” Fortunately for us, they understood that they were only there for the ceremony and not for the food and music afterwards–or we would have been wiped out.

The service ran without a hitch, and I’m pretty sure all our guests had a wonderful time. Fabulous food, except for that wedding cake sheet which was quite possibly as stale as actual concrete–but it’s the thought that counts! Great music, being lifted up on chairs for that now traditional Hassidic dance tradition, and all the trappings of a joyful Jewish wedding. It was, like so much of our lives, a bit on the crazy side (Terri prefers the term “unscripted”), but I wouldn’t trade one minute of that experience for anything else.

So my advice for my family and friends fretting through these unsettling times: make the best of whatever circumstances hand you–and the love you feel for the partner you are about to be joined with will carry you through all of it.

Leadership in the Age of the Virus

A friend often likes to compare what happened in New York to other states, and specifically blames Andrew Cuomo for the devastation that New York has experienced. This has now come up several times–and not just with this one friend. I’m suspicious that this is part of a disinformation campaign designed to deflect from the massive culpability of the Federal government for the now more than 2 million infections in the USA and 118,000 fatalities.

I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting that my friend is deliberately taking up a disinformation campaign. We know that the Trump re-election campaign and various allies periodically seed the news and social media with misinformation, people who like those sources (eg, Fox News) pick up on these things, and many of them simply don’t know that they have become the agents of tricksters.

We know that Trump and his administration received numerous warnings about the pandemic beginning in December 2019. We know that Trump not only ignored these warnings, but actively discouraged the agencies which are responsible for protecting our health–for example, by telling the CDC that they could not have any public news conferences. These are undeniable facts. The Trump administration took no public action on the virus until the drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average seems to have informed him that a problem did indeed exist. After that, for most of the month of March, the Administration committed blunder after blunder engendering chaos throughout the country, and completely failed in its most important obligation: to protect the citizens of the United States from this disease.

Without question, New York State, and the New York Metro area has experienced the worst effects of the pandemic in the USA so far. I don’t have the expertise to judge whether State or local governments did everything that could have been done, but each time this issue has come up, I have tried to avoid the fog of the political cloud by asking a couple of simple questions. Every state in the USA is dependent on national resources. In this case, among the most important are the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and FEMA. And so my most basic question is: which recommendations issued by these organizations for the prevention of COVID did New York Metro Area governments fail to follow? Given that I have been asking this question for more than two weeks now, and I’ve received exactly zero replies, my conclusion has to be that Cuomo and the governors of NJ and Connecticut, as well as local authorities followed all guidelines and instructions they received from the relevant health authorities.

It is, of course, an understandable and rational question to wonder why New York suffered so much more intensely and with so many more fatalities than other areas of the country. Is that because governors in places like my state of Tennessee, Florida, Nebraska, etc were more competent than Cuomo? It’s going to take months and maybe years to get the complete story on this question, but the evidence is already pretty clear that New York’s fate was sealed a month earlier than Cuomo could possibly have acted. Genetic markers for COVID have demonstrated that the West Coast (California and Washington State) illness was brought into the country via Asia, while the source of the New York infections were from Europe. Without a Federal shutdown to all travelers from these places, the virus was going to hit the New York Metro area because it is the primary recipient of air traffic from Europe. No governor and no mayor had that authority. That was the responsibility of the US federal government, and for the months of January and February, no part of that federal government was actively considering preventative measures.

New York and the West Coast were hit the earliest, and the population density of New York, the reliance on mass transit (some quibbling over this, but I think it’s just basic logic), and the delay in shutting things down to control the spread of the virus meant that New York couldn’t avoid the worst any more than it could have if an atomic bomb had been detonated there. That delay is where a lot of the complaining is sourced, but it’s always great to be able to argue from 20-20 hindsight. Back when Cuomo and the other authorities were moving to get things shut down, there was significant reaction. We can talk about the strained relations with Hasidic Jews who were at first reluctant to abide by the restrictions some other time. The fact is that tens of millions of people were not going to give up their livings and their social lives overnight. As for the mortality rate, no secret there either. Because New York was the first, and because the virus was strong and concentrated there, it took a long time for medical authorities to develop protocols, triage, and treatment. The rest of the country is now benefitting from the knowledge developed in New York and Seattle.

The essence of the question of the culpability of actors like Trump and Cuomo is a variation on the theme that we heard over and over again during the Watergate era, first uttered by Tennessee Senator Howard Baker: “What did the president know and when did he know it?” The clear answer to this question is that Trump was told about the issues months before he chose to act but detractors cannot cite a single instance where Cuomo did not act in accordance with his executive duties.

Now we are in a different phase of the crisis. Those who would like to deflect from Trump’s culpability are pointing to and lauding states (mostly) led by Republicans where there have been far fewer infections and fatalities than New York. All over the world, the overwhelming majority of western democracies are beginning that same return to normal life—and every, single one of them has done immensely better than Trump’s feeble response to the crisis. Only the dictator of Brazil is giving Trump a run for his money.

As I write this, the virus is spreading with increasing speed through several Republican stronghold states. The worst case for the moment seems to be Arizona where the governor, Doug Ducey, lifted restrictions two weeks ago. Ducey is refusing to consider reimposing restrictions even as dozens of restaurants in Phoenix have voluntarily closed their doors because of the many cooks and staff who have become ill.

Meanwhile, in Florida, the state to which Trump is moving the Republican convention, the state is reporting its third consecutive >2,000 new cases per day. Governor Desantis is apparently unconvinced that this is any sort of a problem.

In Arkansas, a very small state, restrictions were never seriously imposed and have now been entirely lifted. I wouldn’t have expected a dramatic increase since things really haven’t changed that much there, but I would have been wrong. Apparently, people see the restriction easing as an excuse to go back to pre-virus behavior which I’m surmising because the cases in Arkansas have spiked up. There are now active cases in every Arkansas county (save one), and the state experienced its worst single-day increase (761) since the epidemic began.

After all this, which governors are doing their jobs and acting to safeguard the health of their citizens?

 

 

The Facebook Algorithm

We all get a little paranoid–that is if we care about whether anyone is reading the posts we labor over–about the Facebook algorithm. I thought I might share a little of what I know about this phenomenon so my friends can know what it’s about and why it’s worth anyone’s concern. My comments come from no secret corner of the Dark Net, they are just the musings of a person who had a pretty long career in Information Technology and who has been concerned about social media since about 1985.

Perhaps the first thing to understand about the algorithm is that it actually is necessary for all of us. That’s because of the way Facebook is structured. Older social media was structured by threads. Everyone would always see every post that was made to a given thread. For example, in the old UseNet there was a discussion group called soc.culture.jewish, and under that header there would be topics and everyone’s posts to those topics would be listed in chronological order.

Facebook has a different structure. Facebook wants each of us to display the variety of concerns we might have–family, profession, hobbies, politics–everything is under one header, namely our individual names (of course, organized as Facebook IDs). Each Facebook user has anywhere from several dozen to several hundred (or even more!) “friends.” If we saw every posting of every one of these when we logged in, finding what we care about would be hopeless.

Facebook gives each of us a bit of control over how things show up. You can choose to “follow” people or designate people or sites as “close” or “show first.” Of those, in my experience, only “show first” makes much of a difference. But if you follow many people, indicate many are close friends, or designate many as “show first” you’ll soon find your Facebook feed inundated with things you probably don’t want to see.

Enter the Facebook algorithm. Keep in mind that Facebook wants you to be happy. You haven’t paid a dime to use Facebook, right? So how does Facebook make money? And most of you probably know the answer is advertising. Facebook is an entertainment company much like TV stations, and it depends on revenue from advertisers. Facebook wants you to be happy for the same reason that CBS, NBC and ABC want you to be happy–they only receive money when ratings companies tell them that they have lots of viewers, and Facebook only receives money when advertisers know that there is some chance you are looking at their ads.

But Facebook has one huge advantage over those networks. You have to log in to Facebook, which means that Facebook knows every single thing you choose to look at. It knows what you’ve pressed “like” on, it knows what you think is important enough to comment on. If you put in a link to Amazon in a Facebook post or comment, that can signal to Amazon that you are worth their attention for ads. If you start talking about Grey’s Anatomy, you’ll probably notice ads from ABC or various sponsors of that show showing up in a panel on Facebook. If you complain about taxes, you just might find ads from anti-tax politicians showing up in your feed.

Quite a few people know and understand this and don’t like it. They obviously might choose to abandon Facebook entirely, or limit their posts, never “like” anything, that sort of thing. That does deprive Facebook of information, but it also means Facebook’s algorithm doesn’t have what it needs to try to show you things you might like. Perhaps more importantly, it won’t know which of your friends’ posts you might like to see.

Those who have studied this tell me that the actual algorithm is fiendishly complicated and for good reason. If others can figure out how it works, they can game it to make their posts more popular than others. Nevertheless, a few things are clear. Again, Facebook wants you to be happy because they know that will keep you tuned in longer. So they do pay close attention to what you press “like” on, what you comment on, that sort of thing. One of the subtleties is whether pressing “sad” or “happy” or “angry” makes it more likely or less likely to see things which Facebook deems comparable. And that’s the sort of thing Facebook can change up to disrupt those that are trying to game the system.

The algorithm is definitely smart enough to spot trends. For example, I recently posted a birthday photo of myself that quickly drew a dozen “likes.” Facebook sees that this is likely to be a popular post of mine and shares it out to many of my friends–and even people it decides might want to become my friends. I would also hazard a guess that the algorithm is clever enough to spot congratulatory responses. In other words, it figures that if some folks are saying “Congrats” or “Mazel Tov” that other friends likely want to see it as well. So it quickly snowballs into a hundred or more “likes” and many comments. Other posts of mine–ones that I might think are more important–only garner a couple of likes or comments after an hour or two, and Facebook deprecates them and doesn’t bother showing them to the vast majority of my friends. Even though may of them would probably prefer them over the birthday photo.

One of the most infuriating aspects of the algorithm is that people with whom you feel a close connection–even people you know in “real life” not just online–can suddenly drop out of view. It is possible to combat some of this by the simple approach of searching for and clicking on their name. Facebook will then show you most if not all of your friend’s posts. And if you “like” or “comment” and the friend responds, the Facebook algorithm will usually return to showing  most of that friend’s posts.

One technique to make sure targeted friends will see your post is to actually refer to their Facebook ID , either in the post or in a comment below. If you’ve been around Facebook for awhile, you’ve probably seen comments that look like @friend1, @friend2, @friend3. From time to time, bringing a post to a specific person’s attention might make sense. But overusing this technique can be annoying to your friends, and Facebook doesn’t always cooperate by sending the post their way.

The one approach that I think does not work unless you just don’t care to read the posts of your friends is to ignore things you see that you actually do like. Many people think this is a great way to frustrate Facebook, but  it’s the proverbial cutting off your nose to spite your face. As I mentioned at the beginning, Facebook wants you to be happy, and it will try to show you things that will keep your attention on Facebook. If you don’t provide that feedback, then you won’t be seeing most of your friends’ posts either.

You might be wondering why I say that no one understands the algorithm since most of what I’ve surmised is considered pretty likely among those who discuss it. The answer is that the actual algorithm is fiendishly complex. It has all sorts of traps designed to foil attempts to game it. It has ways of deciding how long to wait to show you a post–which is why I often hear from my readers, “You posted this a week ago, but Facebook just showed it to me now.”

And we should acknowledge one more thing. Sometimes it is not Facebook, it’s us. You might think that someone is your good friend, but if you could look at their side of the Facebook ledger, you just might find that they’ve “unfollowed” you or otherwise told Facebook they don’t care much to interact with you.

I’m looking forward to seeing comments about this article below, or on Facebook where I will also be linking this. I’ll try to update it with thoughts and suggestions as they arise.

Of Cuomo, Trump and Trolls

This weekend I saw a topic mentioned on Facebook several times and it looks suspiciously like the work of Trolls to me. The basic notion is that President Trump handled the Corona virus situation very well for the United States as a whole, but incompetent Democrats like Andrew Cuomo caused most of the epidemic and fatalities because of failings local to their states.The tactic is devilishly clever because New York is obviously lost to Trump, but he can take advantage of the prejudices against New Yorkers which remain pervasive in other parts of the country. I doubt that Trump is aware of this, but the origin of most of those prejudices is some sense that New York is a place for Blacks and Jews. And ironically enough, because some Jews, particularly in the Orthodox community, have misgivings about both Cuomo and New York City Mayor de Blasio, they can be counted upon to help spread these kinds of falsehoods.

The notion that Andrew Cuomo is somehow more culpable in allowing the worst outbreak of COVID-19 in the world spread in the USA than Donald Trump is an absurdity. It is undoubtedly true that Cuomo might have taken steps that would have prevented things from getting as bad as they did–if he had the kind of intelligence that we know was being given to Trump. There is not a scintilla of evidence that that is true.

Here is what I would suggest asking anyone peddling this story.

      • Please show me Andrew Cuomo ignoring a single recommendation of the CDC or the NY State health authorities at any time or failing to promote any such recommendations.
      • Please show me Andrew Cuomo dismissing any public official in the State for disagreeing with some point Cuomo was making.
      • Please show me a single instance of Cuomo castigating a health department official for attempting to do their duty.
      • Please show me a case where Cuomo has walked off the podium rather than reply in full to a reporter’s question.
      • Please tell me if the press in New York State has had anything less than full access to State medical authorities.
      • Please show me a case where Cuomo touted unproven medical treatments for COVID-19.
      • Has Andrew Cuomo advised, against competent medical authority, an early return to pre-virus behavior?

I’m guessing it would be pretty easy to add to this list. And I think you all know that Trump has done every single thing I’ve listed above. So my point is this: while it is certainly true that Andrew Cuomo is the governor located where the epidemic in the USA has been the fiercest (along with others in the NY Metropolitan Area), and while I’m sure he and the others might have managed things better, there is not a shred of evidence that he did not try his best to protect the citizenry. Donald Trump was told in January about the virus, and he denied it was important. He refused to take any notice of it even as the CDC was warning him that it could be serious. You can watch him say that it’s only one “Chinaman” and “believe me” “we’ve got it completely under control.” The most scathing criticism I think you can make against Andrew Cuomo is that he did take Trump at his word for too long a time.

But let me conclude where I began–Trump and his minions will be attempting to use Cuomo and other Democrats as punching bags for his own failings. Watch for Trolls spreading this kind of propaganda–and just ask a few questions as I did above. You’ll find out soon enough how much truth there is in any of their claims.

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Life Since WUJS

Received word from some of my old friends from the program I attended in 1973 in Arad, Israel that we are going to attempt a class reunion. They asked for an update on what we’ve done since graduating. This will likely be repetitive for many of my friends and family, but here goes…

The reason I enrolled in WUJS was that I had been accepted to Graduate School in History at Tel Aviv University, but at that point knew only the Hebrew that was taught in two semesters at my undergrad institution, the University of Wisconsin (Madison). It was a terrific way to build my Hebrew and also participate in a program designed to introduce college graduates to the entire country. Almost a half century later I still treasure the memories of our visits from Rosh HaNikra in the far north to Beersheva and the agricultural settlements south of Arad.

The indelible memory of that year was seared in place by a major conflict known to most people as the Yom Kippur War which effectively ended WUJS instruction for me. Despite offers of repatriation from the US embassy, along with many others in WUJS, I signed up to do what I could. It wasn’t much–one of my memories from that experience was a kibbutznik too old to bear arms who would lean over and tell me in the dining hall, “You eat more than you’re worth.” And friends, I was skinny in those days!

When the war ended, some students remained at WUJS, but it was time for me to begin my studies at Tel Aviv U. My favorite class was elementary Latin (“You mean you want to study ancient history, but you have no Latin?!”). We were the first class at Tel Aviv U. which enjoyed learning Latin via a textbook written in Hebrew. Before that, students had to use a teaching book written in English. Lucky me! But really, it was a huge boost in my Hebrew comprehension.

At the end of that school year, I accepted an offer from the U of California (Berkeley) and began studying for an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies in the Fall of 1974. I completed that degree in December, 1976 and received “permission to proceed” to the Ph.D. But first, I felt that I still needed more coursework, and there was nothing left to take, so I applied to and was accepted as graduate fellow at Hebrew University of Jerusalem beginning in the Fall of 1977.

That academic year, Anwar Sadat stunned the world by coming to Jerusalem. I sometimes quip that my two years in Israel were, “War and Peace.”

I took as many course as I could at Hebrew U, and then it was time to return to the States. But my graduate advisor at Berkeley told me that given that only 4 PhDs in History at UCB had managed to find positions, I ought to consider other alternatives. So I applied to the Rabbinical program at HUC – Cincinnati. Oddly enough, they advised me to join the History PhD program there because I would receive a much better fellowship that way. And so I went from Jerusalem to Cincinnati. The most important scholar there for my interests was Samuel Sandmel. When I got to Cincinnati, I was his only student. During the semester he informed me that he had accepted a position at the U of Chicago and asked me to consider joining him. But the chancellor pulled me aside and cautioned me that Sandmel might not be alive much longer, so I declined his offer and indeed he passed away in February having made the move to Chicago just a month before.

Without Sandmel, staying in Cincinnati didn’t seem worthwhile although I did very much enjoy my studies in Talmud with Ben Zion Wacholder. Life intervened and I received word that my mother was in dire straits and needed my help. So I returned to Berkeley, made arrangements to settle my life down a bit, and then went to New York City to see how I might help my mother. She had had a severe episode of her long standing bipolar disorder and as a result lost her job. She was in danger of running out of money for the rent. My father, her husband, had abandoned us years before–ironically perhaps to move to Israel. I was an only child to her (my sister was born to a different mother) so it was me or no one. I packed her up and took her to California.

Continuing with the PhD program was now out of the question. I took a job as the Assistant Director of the Berkeley Hillel Foundation which involved leading religious services, teaching Hebrew courses and running the rather extensive Hebrew language program of the Lehrhaus Judaica which was co-housed in the Hillel building, and being responsible for the financial part of the foundation. To do that effectively I enrolled in Accounting classes at a local community college.

This was supposed to be a stop-gap until I got my mother settled, but we all know how that goes. I enjoyed my job, I enjoyed having the stability of a real income. In 1979 I purchased my first house in Oakland with the help of the Lehrhaus director. A couple of years later I met the woman who would become my wife of now 36 years.

We sold that first house to buy a house in Berkeley (this time together with our Hillel office manager who went on to be the leader of the Unitarian Universalists west of the Mississippi). And 1985 saw the birth of our first child, Shoshana. In 1987 the University of Michigan offered Terri a tenured position in their Psychology Department, and as much as I loved our lives in the fabled San Francisco Bay Area, we both agreed that moving to Ann Arbor was the sensible thing to do. So in 1988, Terri’s mom came out and helped Terri, Shoshana and our pet rabbits move to Michigan. I came a couple of months later with our dog. And a couple of months after that I moved Momma to Michigan.

Of course I was hoping for a job teaching Hebrew, but Hillel was staffed up and my mere M.A. wasn’t good enough for the U, so I was unemployed for awhile. I had learned a considerable amount about both accounting and database management, and a friend mailed me–quite out of the blue–a T-Shirt emblazoned with the word “Oracle.” One day, I felt a tap on my shoulder as I was picking Sho up from day care, and the father of one of the other kids asked me, “Do you know anything about Oracle?” I replied that “Yes, I had successfully deployed an Oracle database at my former employer in California.” He hired me on the spot to do a training session for his group at the University’s IT department because they had just paid $600k to license Oracle, but no one knew how to use it. After the session, he hired me as an external consultant to help them design databases, and after three years of that they decided it would be cheaper just to give me a job. That’s how I became an employee of the U of Michigan in 1992. In 1995 Ephraim joined our family, and shortly thereafter the College of Engineering hired me away from the IT department. I rose through those ranks and eventually was leading three departments within the College.

I decided to retire from the University when I turned 58 because I was qualified for benefits, they were running an early retirement program, my investments had done well, and really, I didn’t need the headaches any longer. I accepted a voluntary position as the first Executive Director (unpaid) of the County’s NAMI program.

2011 was a momentous year for our family. Ephraim had decided to make aliyah and complete his education in Israel. My mother sadly left us that year. And Terri received an offer to become the Dean of Arts and Sciences at the U of Tennessee, Knoxville. After a visit to check it out, we decided to take the offer. We sold our Ann Arbor house at which point Ephraim changed his mind and decided he would stay in Ann Arbor, but we held to our plan and we went to Knoxville while he remained in Ann Arbor.

A few months after our arrival, the Religious Studies Department was notified that faculty members they had hired to teach Hebrew had elected not to come and the director of Judaic Studies and the Head of the Religious Studies department asked me if would teach Biblical Hebrew for the year. And after that first year, they have hired me ever since, seven years now.

Of course they really wanted me to have a PhD, so I was approached by someone who offered to be my mentor for completing that project. She averred that given all my prior course work, it would probably only take me a year to start writing my dissertation. But the Grad School had other ideas about whether they were going to accept decades-old courses. I stuck with it and earned my PhD in History in December 2019.

Our daughter Shoshana now lives in Albuquerque, NM with her husband Karl and our two grandchildren, Clara and Alexander. My son Ephraim joined us in Knoxville after completing his BA at U of Michigan. He’s now in the later stages of a PhD in social geography and spatial statistics, and he is engaged to a woman who is also working on a PhD in the biological sciences.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Added 4/13/20:

My father was a child of the beginning of the Soviet Union, his father was a highly educated Orthodox Jew (musmah Kishinev). My grandfather came to the States first and established a business selling second hand steel in Cleveland, OH. Then he was busted for selling stolen property and after spending everything to avoid jail moved to Detroit. Meanwhile, my great-grandfather, my grandmother’s father, found the cash to ship my Bubby and her three surviving children (three others seem to have died of Tay-Sachs) to Detroit. It’s not entirely clear that my grandfather, the Grand Rabbi, was all that happy to see them.
 
My mother of blessed memory was born in Brooklyn. Her mother had five children of whom my mother was the youngest. She passed when my mother was 14 and my maternal grandfather (who was a Sanitation Dept employee) fostered her out to people who were cousins of ours. Through Facebook I have been able to make contact with that branch of the family and they are all wonderful folks. In those days there was no healthcare and no real pension for city employees, so when my grandfather couldn’t work owing to a savaged back, he eked out a living as fortune teller setting up on the street. He passed the year before I was born. My middle name, Francis is for my mother’s next-in-line sister Frances  who was electrocuted in shock therapy at a Brooklyn hospital, also the year before I was born. I know, many of you don’t want to hear details like this, but if you want to be honest about life, these are the kinds of things that happen.
 
After my pretty typically Orthodox bar-mitzvah, I didn’t want to have anything to do with Judaism. Like Perry, I was impressed with the events of the 6-Day-War. My father decided to make Aliyah–I think as a way of getting away from us as we were not invited to accompany him–and that was the last I saw of him until I got to WUJS (he was in Tel Aviv). In 1971  I had a serious health emergency and my life was literally saved by the invention of colon fiberscope. I was only the 3rd person to undergo that procedure. The doctors found the polyps that were the cause of my issue and extracted them. I’m telling you this because when I woke up the town (Madison, WI) hazzan was waiting by my bedside. A doctor had asked him to come because he recognized that I was reciting the Sh’ma in my delirium.
 
After my recovery, I started hanging out at Hillel and discovered that the rabbi there was both brilliant and not crazy. It was the first time I think I realized that one could be intelligent and religious at the same time. We became lifetime friends–just spoke with him last week–and I’ve been part of Conservative Judaism ever since. It was at this Hillel that I met the “shaliah” who recommended that I go to WUJS. Not to say that “I got religion”–I was agnostic before, during, and after all this. But I found great comfort in being part of a community, and I discovered that I love ritual even if I don’t think it’s going to save any possible soul I might have.

Passover 2020

As most of us will doing this year, Terri and I will be celebrating a limited Seder. There may only be four (or two) of us, but we hope that many of our friends will be joining us via this marvelous technology (Zoom).

Please note that there have been security concerns with Zoom. We are using the zoom server provided by the University of Tennessee; we can therefore say we are safe at our end of things. This cannot guarantee that your own computers are completely safe from hackers.

If you would like to follow along with us, you can find this year’s version of my Haggadah here:

https://www.dropbox.com/sh/3rt0g8tay87r9kq/AACgIyAbQJUp5TpyuxYgCvXja?dl=0

In addition to the Haggadah, there is a short document which explains the people mentioned in memoriam on page 2 of the Haggadah.

If you would like a printed copy of this Haggadah, you’ll need either a laser printer or an inkjet printer, preferably one that can print “duplex” (both sides of the page). You will also need either the full Adobe PDF program, or a good clone of it. In the print menu, use the setting for “booklet.” If you don’t have that setting, your printer might not be able to handle this job. But ideally, that’s all you’ll have to do. Printing duplex, you only need 10 sheets of paper which will then become the 40 pages of the booklet.

If you would like to join us for Passover, here is the Zoom information you will need. If you have access to via the Internet:

https://tennessee.zoom.us/j/760146144

If you live in an area with no Internet, or poor Internet, you might be able to dial-in with your phone. These are the numbers for that, but be aware that your phone company might charge you for this connection:

Telephone:
Dial:
+1 312 626 6799 (US Toll)
+1 646 876 9923 (US Toll)
+1 253 215 8782 (US Toll)
+1 301 715 8592 (US Toll)
+1 346 248 7799 (US Toll)
+1 669 900 6833 (US Toll)
Meeting ID: 760 146 144

The link should become active about 6:45pm both evenings and we are planning to begin at 7pm.

Have a Happy and Kosher Passover!

Jack and Terri

Antisemitism and Politics

A good friend chastised me for declaring President Trump to be a racist and antisemite recently.That he is a racist need not detain us long here, he not only participated in his father’s discriminatory business decisions, but publicly railed against his father when his father decided to accede to Federal anti-discrimination statutes. Later, he famously put up billboards demanding the executions of five Black children who ultimately turned out to be innocent of the crime for which they had been convicted–sexually assaulting a white woman. And later yet there was his obsession with declaring Barack Obama’s USA citizenship to be false. The citizenship issue leads to the manner in which has obsessed over Hispanic undocumented workers while ignoring the fact that his current wife was exactly that. Trump’s supporters raise obfuscatory claims such as his dating a woman of color, as if it is somehow odd that a racist might have a sexual interest in a woman of color. Really, the evidence that this man is a racist is deep, long, and incontrovertible.

The evidence for Trump’s antisemitism is more difficult to explain, but within that explanation some profound truths may be discovered. During his first three years in office, Trump has been seen as a staunch supporter of Israel. The two most fiercely supportive segments of America’s religious population have been white, Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews (which is not to imply unanimity, both of those populations also have significant numbers of opponents to his policies and personality). Within his family, his daughter converted to Judaism and married a man who professes a commitment to traditional Judaism and is raising their children, Trump’s grandchildren, as Jews. The chief operating officer of Trump’s business is Jewish, and his legal interests represented until recently by an obviously Jewish attorney.

One reason, and perhaps the most important reason, that people have lost the meaning of the word antisemitism lies in the person of Adolf Hitler and the historical fact of the Holocaust. Thanks to the copious, and often excellent, media exposure of the destruction of European Jewry almost everyone (at least in the cultures of Europe and the USA) understands that Hitler was the embodiment of evil and the Holocaust the incontrovertible evidence of where that evil leads.

The problem with this is that it also results in the logically fallacious notion that one cannot be an antisemite if one agrees that Hitler was evil and the Holocaust awful. The bibliography of writings, both scholarly and popular, describing the history of antisemitism over two thousand years is immense. And despite the ready availability of good information about the topic, most people are convinced that if they do not favor burning Jews alive, they cannot be called antisemites no matter how many other stereotypical ideas they might express about Jews and Judaism.

My father was not a deeply educated man, at least not in academic western civ, but he did have a thorough understanding of the nature of antisemitism as it is expressed in America. He owned a small shop in mid-town Manhattan and several of his most important customers were among the business and cultural elite of New York City. He was dependent on them directly for their business, but more importantly because they also referred their friends telling those friends that they could trust him, that he was an honest Jew.

At home, my father would comment bitterly on such things. I can vividly recall him saying, “These people think they can say things like ‘Some of my best friends are Jews’ as if that means anything.” He understood that many if not most of these people did not really care if Jews lived or died, didn’t want them as neighbors or as members of their private clubs. In the early ’70s I was introduced to the world of business clubs when a good friend took me to the Concordia Argonauts Club in San Francisco. The membership was almost entirely composed of Jews of political importance and wealth, but the raison d’être of the club was that the wealthiest club in the city, where the most important business was transacted, did not accept Jews.

Long before WWII, waves of antisemitism swept through the USA. In a blog post I can’t provide lengthy descriptions, but let me just mention the curious case of Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger of Temple Emanu-El (San Francisco), himself an immigrant to the USA, who supported legislation barring additional immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe because he feared that enlightened Reform Jews might be overwhelmed by the primitives arriving from the East. That too is antisemitism. 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt demonstrates some important aspects of this issue. Regarded as a great savior because he led America out of the Depression and during the most important conflict of the era, and through his efforts millions of Jews did indeed live to celebrate anew. Nevertheless, he was also an antisemite. He was steeped in stereotypical beliefs such as that Jews are “good with money.” This is, of course, an echo of tropes made famous by Shakespeare’s depiction of Shylock. More recently, there has been significant conversation about whether Roosevelt’s antisemitism contributed to a lack of actions which might have ameliorated the Holocaust. That is, in my opinion, overstating the evidence. Roosevelt did not hate Jews, and I believe if he understood that he could have chosen to save lives, he would have.

But let’s look at one piece of direct evidence. In 1939 there was the (in)famous incident of the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying almost 1,000 Jewish refugees. The vessel was bound for Cuba, and the passengers had legal visas to disembark there, but most were refused because Cuba had abruptly changed its laws. The ship next tried to dock in Miami, and frantic efforts ensued to allow them to enter the U.S. Some of the passengers sent cables directly to Roosevelt begging him to allow them to enter, but no reply was heard. High level officials including Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau (himself a well known Jew) made efforts to find a place for the refugees. Ultimately a large number of the passengers did find refuge, but more than 250 were killed in German death camps.

This brings me back to the point I would like to make in this essay. Antisemitism of this “kinder and gentler” sort, just the notion that “we don’t hate Jews, but they’re really not us” can lead to a deadening of the senses. It is easier to allow Jews to die in death camps if you don’t think of them as being of your own tribe.

And that brings me full circle back to our current president. Ultimately, the problem with his various forms of expressed racism is that his sensibilities are deadened towards large numbers of people who are suffering. All this talk and wasting of resources on the “wall” is simply a manifestation of racism, in this case directed at perceived “brown” people. No one is claiming that the USA can serve as a refuge for everyone who might want to come here, but we can certainly find ways to admit more people than we have, and we can certainly avoid the harsh and hostile rhetoric and awful treatment meted out to those who do arrive.

 

American Healthcare Cost Drivers: Explaining the Technology Money Pit

Let’s begin with a simple illustration that probably resembles what you have encountered if you’ve entered a medical office anywhere in the USA in recent years. That is, if you are lucky enough to have health insurance. But then again, if you don’t, you probably haven’t entered any medical offices.

 

The receptionist probably handed you a clipboard asking for your basic information including family health history and of course your insurance details. In recent years, I’ve been handed an electronic tablet instead of a clipboard. Interestingly (to me, at least) on my most recent rounds the tablets have vanished, and the clipboards have returned. Something rotten in the state of technology, perhaps?

 

One way or another, all that information will become part of an electronic record-keeping system. And the financial part will likely be interlinked with the data systems of your health insurer.

 

At my physician’s office, the practice accepts a bewildering variety of health plans. These include several local, state, and federal systems. Medicare, Tenncare (Medicaid), different plans for Knoxville City employees, County employees, University of Tennessee employees, of which I am one. As it turns out, because the University of Tennessee is part of the State government, I actually have the same coverage as the governor and legislators. That’s how I know I have a terrific plan―the Republicans in charge of our Tennessee legislature may do a lousy job governing the State, but you can bet your bottom dollar they’ve taken excellent care of themselves.

 

But wait, there’s more! Many large employers allow their employees to choose among a smorgasbord of different plans. Different deductibles, allowable services, service companies, on and on. But take a step back from all that and ask yourself the question, what does any of it have to do with my own health care requirements? I mean, suppose your appendix bursts, or you have a heart attack, or it turns out you have diabetes. Don’t you just want to go to a doctor or hospital and have the problem addressed? Are you going to say, gee, I have an agonizing pain in my side, so let me figure out whether I need to go to this hospital system over here, or that one over there? That’s the right way to deliver and receive healthcare?

 

Supposedly this is a great free market opportunity for me. Why, I can decide which plan will best serve me. But that turns out to be a con man’s pipe dream. Consider: in my service area we have a few major hospital providers, including Tennova and the University of Tennessee Med Center. Every October, I can decide which of the several providers will best serve my needs. But how exactly do I figure out whether I might need a given medical treatment in May that previous October? Most people can’t predict when they might have a serious accident or come down with a grave illness. Guess wrong, and you get the inferior service, right? That’s the American way!

 

Medical profiteers have even introduced all sorts of complexity into Medicare. Do you have parts A, B, C, D or F–I give the whole system an F. Do you have standard Medicare or Medicare Advantage? Getting back to all those plans, it turns out that the necessity for dealing with it all has pretty much driven single-physician offices and smaller practices out of business. You might recall that that was the impetus for many a healthcare slogan: “You like your doctor? You can keep your doctor!” Except that most people can’t any longer. The doctors have thrown in the towel and surrendered their businesses to larger and larger aggregates of providers who can afford the technology required to process these multitudes of insurance forms and claims. It’s gotten to the point where my physician’s group office doesn’t even try to tell me what my bill is when I come in for service. They take my information, send it off for processing, and a few weeks later I get a bill. I’m supposed to be able to figure out whether the bill is correct, but I gave up on that years ago.

 

The insurance companies employ thousands of clerks, claims adjusters, and the like whose primary purpose has nothing to do with getting you healthcare. They are there to see if they can save the company money by figuring out a way to force you to pay more or outright deny your coverage. I’ve written elsewhere about the multi-year struggle we had with our insurer to get them to cover an injury and surgery for our son who sustained that injury while away for the summer. But that’s peanuts compared to what happens daily to others in this fair land of ours.

 

I introduced this topic because of technology, and here is how that fits in. Because a patient who enters a practice might have insurance provided by a dozen different providers each with their own bureaucratic requirements, physicians have to buy into expensive systems to determine who gets billed for what. Hospitals require those same systems, as well as their own for amping up their bills. This is how a one-cent aspirin gets charged at $10 or more on your hospital bill. The aspirin is only worth that one cent, but the hospital figures in a charge for their pharmacist to dispense the aspirin, someone to cart the aspirin up to your room, the orderly or nurse who serves it up to you, and the labor it takes to track that aspirin through each stage of the process. And all of that is tracked by huge, costly billing systems which are completely unnecessary in most other countries of the world.

 

All this is a major part of the cost drivers of American healthcare, and none of it exists in most other places. If you’re Canadian and come down with appendicitis, you go to the local hospital, they accept the exactly one form of health insurance they have, and they attend to your issue. Live in Alberta but have the problem in Montreal? No problem, it’s all covered! The same is true in Finland, Switzerland, Norway, Scotland, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand. Those are just a few of the countries who spend far less than we do and show better outcomes.

 

Now this is a very important point: as you read the back-and-forth of the political games that are unfolding and will continue to unfold through the next election (and beyond), you will hear the frequent and persistent claim that the forms of socialized medicine being proposed will somehow increase costs. This claim is predicated on the false premise that there are no cost savings to be obtained from simplifying the process. Therefore you must keep in mind that what I am describing here—enormous costs associated with tracking and billing the stages of healthcare—can be eliminated under many of those proposals. I’m not claiming that we can save all the funds currently being invested in healthcare tracking. Some of that is necessary for the actual needs of providing healthcare. But the billing component is unnecessary, and all the costs associated with billing can be eliminated under most of the proposals we are discussing. Don’t get me wrong—technology is great. Medical technology can save lives—I know because I was the third person in the world to have a colonoscopy back in 1971. But you know what? I don’t think I ever met anyone whose life was saved by a billing system.

 

 

 

Hanukkah Message 2019

It’s time for a personal long-standing tradition, a Hanukkah message. I wrote the first one in 1972 for the University of Wisconsin Jewish student newspaper. In it I explained that in reality, Hanukkah celebrates not a victory of a small band of Jewish partisans over the hated Syrian government, but rather commemorates a civil war in which various Jewish factions were pitted against one another.That Hanukkah, I entered the Hillel Foundation intending to celebrate with my fellow students only to find a “guest” had been invited to light the Hanukkah candelabra: Rabbi Schmudken who had recently assumed the job of creating a Chabad House in Madison. R. Schmudken saw me (we had previously met), arched his eyebrows and intoned, “Jack Love has joined us. Jack, perhaps you’d like to excuse yourself as we celebrate the Hasmoneans.” I just chuckled as I knew he was just kibbitzing (kidding), but it does suggest a bit of tension between religious sensibility and historical reality.

The greatest irony, however, is that the rabbinate represents in essence the very opposite of Hasmonean culture. Notice that I used the word “Jewish” to describe the partisans who were striking against the Syrian overlords and their “Jewish” allies. But what does that word “Jewish” mean in the context of these times? These were people struggling for territory they regarded as theirs by Divine right, and above all a place where they believed God is somehow manifest. They believed in sacrificing animals and offering grain for the sustenance of God. For them, all authority was vested in the Priesthood. When they did assume power, for many years they took the role of High Priest and only later that of King.

Contrast that with the religion that both I and R. Schmudken participate in. For us, the priests (cohanim) have a greatly diminished role–and virtually no authority whatsoever. Instead we place authority in the hands of educated people we call rabbis who have not the slightest necessity to be related to the kings, prophets or priests of old. We seek our religious center not in the Temple of Jerusalem, but in synagogues which we can build anywhere we live. We honor the requirements of sacrifice by a system of virtual replacements–for example, when we slaughter animals for meat, we use the symbolism of the priesthood and the Temple in pouring out the blood and then drawing out even more with salt. When we bake bread we tear off a bit of dough and burn it as a symbolic acknowledgment of the grain offerings.

The institution of the rabbinate did not exist in the days of Judah the Maccabee, and Josephus reports that members of the Hasmonean dynasty persecuted the Pharisees who are often imagined to be the ancestors of the rabbis. Once the Temple was gone, the landscape was cleared for people other than the priests to claim authority. By the time two centuries had passed without a Temple, the rabbis were growing in number and authority–simply because people were persuaded that the rabbis knew the right way to do things. Eventually these rabbis set their principles down in a series of books: their interpretations of Scripture and most importantly the various building blocks of the vast library called the Talmud. All of this became the rabbinic claim to supersede the priesthood. And it is the religious practice first established in the Talmud, adjudicated by rabbis, that remains the dominant form of Judaism today. In a very substantial sense, rabbinic Judaism is Judaism, and there really was something else before the rabbis assumed their authoritative roles.

The institution of the holiday of Hanukkah perfectly illustrates what happened. When the Maccabees had their victory and retook the Temple of Jerusalem, they instituted a coronation ceremony for their priest-kings. These Hasmoneans, as the family dynasty became known, felt a need to justify their claim to power. The dedication holiday they held for the Temple lasted for eight days most likely to emulate the Temple dedication festival of Solomon described in 2 Chronicles 7:8ff.

When the rabbis fixed the celebration of Hanukkah, they did so with a tale of a miracle: a candelabra which had enough oil for one day but which lasted for the eight necessary for re-dedicating the Temple. They said not a word about Hasmoneans, this holiday had nothing to with them but everything to do asserting their own authority over the religion. The rabbis also fixed the time for Hanukkah very close to the Winter Solstice, perhaps to divert attention away from Pagan and later Christian adoptions of celebrations of that event.

Today, of course, every Jewish child learns about the heroic Hasmoneans. If the rabbis buried the history of the Hasmoneans, how did this come to be? Therein lies a great irony. While the rabbis made no effort to preserve the historical works of Josephus, and likewise had no use for the books of the Maccabees, Christians did. Christians even regarded the Maccabees 1 and 2 as Scripture. About a thousand years after the time of the Maccabees, Jews living as minorities both in Christian and Muslim lands felt great pressure to justify their historical glories. The victories of the Hasmoneans which they learned about through Christian copyists became a useful tool for asserting the great military prowess of ancient Jews. One Jewish author, probably living in Italy in the 10th century, created a mash-up of Josephus with various legendary materials and called his book Sefer Yossipon. Yossipon was a different general than Josephus, one who could not be tarred with the label of traitor to the Jews. But of course, essentially all the historical material in the book is plagiarized from Josephus.

And so we came full circle. The rabbis who initially suppressed the Hasmoneans recreated them and the modern holiday of Hanukkah emerged: a solstice festival which combines both the original myth of the eight days of oil with the military gallantry of the Hasmoneans.

But you see, by the 10th century, the rabbis knew they had won. No priests or royals existed to threaten their authority. So let the good times roll!

Of Trolls and the History of the Internet

In recent days several of my friends have urged me to block a contributor to my Facebook page arguing that he is a troll. That was a catalyst to my thinking about the meaning of the term troll. The phenomenon of trolls is as old as the earliest posts on the Internet, in fact they go back to a period before the Internet as we now know it did existed. I owe my first exposure to social media to my dear friend Ari Davidow who urged me to participate in conversations on a network called The Well which I believed was a computer housed in Sausalito. At the time I was the Associate Director of Berkeley Hillel Foundation and I had recently purchased my first personal computer, a Kaypro “lunchbox.”To reach The Well I needed to use something called a “dial-up modem” which younger folks might only know by watching now ancient movies about the dawn of the computer age. But using this device, I could connect to the computer owned by the Well community and converse with folks about all sorts of things. Truly revolutionary!

A few years later we moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, one of the cradles of the Internet and I was soon using much larger social networks and in particular something that was called in the style of the Unix computer community simply “News.” These “news” groups are still around today, but they have been subsumed by Google. When you search or contribute to a group on Google News, you are actually interacting with these old Usenet group conversations.

Usenet news groups, like The Well, struggled to cope with the specific issue of what had become known as “trolls” from the earliest days of these communication media. So what exactly is a troll?

Since there are no guardians of the English language empowered to enforce definitions, I can’t claim to have the authoritative control of terminology. I can only speak to the way we used (and still use) the term in the context of social media groups.

At the core, a Troll is a person who obtains self-gratification by introducing chaos into group discussions. The Troll is a disruptor, an instigator whose mission is not to contribute to the discussion, but rather to stop it. Trolls get pleasure from the discomfort of others in the group. One important characteristic of a Troll is that they don’t really care what the issue at hand might be. They might personally favor or oppose a given political stance or some opinion, but they will write whatever they feel will most divert the conversation. Again, their purpose is disruption rather than  convincing anyone of a particular case.

To accomplish their goals, Trolls must preserve their anonymity. They register for the group under pseudonyms (which can be part of an elaborate charade creating a fake persona) or just outright false IDs invented for the current moment. In the oldest period of UseNet there was no effective way to limit or ban Trolls, but eventually UseNet introduced the concept of a moderated group. If a Troll managed to infiltrate the group, a moderator could delete their posts and revoke their permission to add comments. In current Social Media such as Facebook, Trolls will often steal someone’s identity and post under the name of someone who has died or left Facebook until someone reports them to moderators.

Trolls often amass large libraries of Internet links to materials which they insert into their posts. Then they watch as participants waste time going through the links. They are especially delighted when those participants start side-arguments based on some issue raised in these links. There are, of course, reasonable people who also collect links and materials which they can use to support their arguments, but the difference is that they will post materials that are precisely on point. Trolls aim to disrupt, not to clarify.

To summarize, an Internet Troll is a fictional character invented for the purpose of creating emotional, angry conversation which minimizes the ability of a group to have productive conversation. The Troll is entertained by the chaos they create, and when identified as a Troll, they will move on to some other group to continue their behavior.

Returning to my opening paragraph, the person who engendered this conversation fails to conform to the definition in several critical ways. First, he contributes under some form of his genuine identity. Anyone can click on his Facebook name and see that he has been posting for years and has a known community of his own. Second, he has a single consistent agenda in the offending posts: supporting Donald Trump. In almost every other way he is a reasonable and often jovial person. He posts videos of himself, for example, blasting the Shofar at the Jerusalem Wall on the holidays. No Troll would sacrifice his anonymity this way.

The very specific message he conveys about Trump leads me to guess a different cause of his behavior. I think he may be a paid or perhaps even volunteer operative for some sort of Trump-supporting group. A Republican local group chairman or a representative of a Trump business would operate in precisely this fashion.