On the Term Shiktza Goddess

Two of my Facebook friends raised some issues related to the joke I posted on that platform and focused on the issue of the term “shiktsa* goddess” used in the joke. The first thing I want to say is that I am glad and grateful that my friends would indicate sensitivity to the issue. It is good to reflect on language and the nuance of words, and the fact that words can be painful or harmful. Others of my friends will take the other side–presumably most of them since the joke seemed to work for them–and most of them would take offense at being labeled something like a misogynist for using that term.

*Note: there is no standard English spelling for the Yiddish word shiktza and I have no intention of making my own practice standard. OCD folks will just need to grin and bear it.

Both of my friends demonstrated their point by looking at another Yiddishism, namely the word “shvartze” which can be the rough equivalent of what we call these days, “the N word.” Let me start with that term. Jews from Eastern Europe referred to people of color by the term “Shvartze” in their Yiddish language. In that language, it simply means “black.” In normal Yiddish usage, it is not a pejorative and carries no more hateful intent than the English word “black.” But–and this is a big but–when that term is used by an English-speaking Jew, at least in my experience it is always used as a racial epithet. If one of my Facebook friends referred to a person of color by this term, I would first ask that they edit their post, then if they did not, delete the post and privately ask that person to refrain from using racial epithets on my page. If they repeated the language, I would block them. There is no place on my page for racism.

Now, I said this could get complicated. What happens if the person using that word is actually a native speaker of Yiddish? They might very well refer to someone as a “shvartze” with no pejorative intent–no more than if an English speaker used the term “Black.” In that case I’d have to look at the context, and I might have to add a note of my own explaining the issues. But I might not censor the comment (and let’s face it, we are talking about censorship here) if I believed the intent to be innocent.

With that background, let’s turn to the issue of the word shiktza. There is not even the slightest doubt that the term began as a pejorative, and a nasty one at that. It is Yiddish, but derives from the Hebrew which means “insect” or “vermin.” At some point in the long history of ethnic conflict and hatred, Jews began referring to “gentiles” or non-Jews with this sobriquet.

My attitude to this word when used by an English-speaking Jew is precisely the same as my attitude towards the term shvartze. I would never use it, and if someone used it on my page, I would first ask them to rewrite the post, if they did not I would delete it, and if they persisted with such offensive language, I would block them. And this is not just an intellectual exercise–I have in fact blocked at least half a dozen people for this behavior.

But the word used in the joke was not “shiktza.” It was the term “shiktza goddess.” This is a term whose origin we know and understand. It was coined by Lenny Bruce, a man who literally went to jail to defend the right of free speech. And he meant nothing offensive to the woman in the term. If anything, he was casting aspersion on the Jewish men of his acquaintance who he saw as chasing after non-Jewish women as a way of denying their Jewish heritage. In the meantime, as often happens with such expressions, not a few women have adopted the term as a badge of honor. I don’t have any good statistics for this, I can only say that I know many non-Jewish women, and a few women who became Jews, who think it’s great that their Jewish friends or partners regard them as “goddesses.” Personally, I have a big problem with calling a woman like Ivanka Trump a shiktza goddess, although it doesn’t surprise me to hear others do so. But Ivanka is now a Jew, so IMO that term is inappropriate for her. Steve Mnuchin’s wife, on the other hand…well, I digress.

Louise Linton, Steve Mnuchin's wife, deletes post in support of Greta Thunberg

It might startle some people to learn that for most of the 19th and a large part of the 20th century, many Jews regarded the word “Jew” to be a pejorative. That’s why Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise called the organization he founded in 1873 and which has become the largest religious organization of Jews “The Union of American Hebrew Congregations.” It wasn’t until 2003 that the organization voted to change its name to the Union for Reform Judaism. Interesting, to me at least, is that they still avoided using the term, “Jew.” In like manner, the Orthodox Jewish organization which was founded to provide no-interest loans to Jews (because interest is forbidden by Jewish law) is called The Hebrew Free Loan Society. HFLS was founded in 1892 and has not changed its name. One prominent Jewish publication which began in 1879 called itself The American Hebrew. Through a variety of changes over the decades it retired that name in 1956 and now survives as The Washington Jewish Week. Emma Lazarus, the poet who wrote the words on the Statue of Liberty, was first published by The American Hebrew.

I want to finish on a positive note. I think it is great that some of us care enough about these issues to raise objections. They are acting honorably, and it is good to remind ourselves that we need to look at ourselves and our language to ensure that we are actually communicating what we want to say. Not every issue has a resolution that will satisfy everyone. I never use the term shiktza goddess in my own writing other than to quote others. I see that it is problematic. But it’s not a term of ethnic or religious hatred, and it does convey nuance that is difficult to convey otherwise. I’m glad I had this opportunity to think about it.

 


Hanukkah Musings for 5781

Hanukkah 5781 for secular year 2020 is upon us and it is a holiday I always look forward to and treasure. The earliest Hanukkah I recall is one in which I crossed the hall of our tenement to enter the magical realm of my Bubby, my grandmother, who had her family Menorah (lamp, now more properly known as a Hanukkiah) ready for action. Bubby spoke only Yiddish, but we managed to communicate somehow or other, and she taught me how to recite the holiday blessings–in Yiddish, of course. This would have been before I learned to read Hebrew, so it may have been as early as 1957 when I was 5 years old. Whether it was then or a bit later, the warmth of the holiday and love of my Bubby and the joy she felt as I recited those words made an indelible imprint in my memory.

Bubby (Center), Esther and Louie

I was called to the Torah in 1965 and can’t say that I recall many Hanukkah occasions after that until I arrived at the University of Wisconsin. It was in my junior year, 1971, and thanks in large part to our fabulous Hillel House under the direction of Rabbi Alan Lettofsky, that I started paying attention to Judaism and Jewish history–a story for another day.

As a young student (and major) of History, I began reading about the Hanukkah holiday in several volumes that have retained their value and reputation to this day–in some cases more than half a century ago. Elias Bickerman wrote Der Gott der Makkabäer in 1937, the anteroom of the Holocaust. Subsequent accounts of the wars and dynasty of the Maccabees reflected the young state of Israel. Books like Victor Tcherikover’s Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (which became well known after its English translation appeared in 1958, but which was originally written even before Bickerman’s masterpiece in 1930). These were among the first publications to bring modern methods of historiography and analysis to the period of history bracketed by Alexander the Great and the Christianization of the Roman Empire. And for me, it they were the eye opener for me to understand that there was more to the history of the people who venerated biblical literature than the fairy tales I had known from childhood.

In the case of the Maccabees, and the Hasmonean dynasty they founded, there was a practically unanimous conclusion that the surviving historical accounts do not portray some evil “Greek” attempting to subjugate “the Jews.” Rather, what we see is a civil war in which one group of Jews (the term is actually an anachronism, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s use it) against another. As often happens in such conflicts, one of the groups appealed for and succeeded in gaining the support of the ruler of the area–that evil Antiochus Epiphanes, but when all was said and done, the real war was between opposing groups of Jews who all accepted the Torah and other biblical literature, but had all sorts of diverse opinions about things like the calendar and which priests should be given authority over the Temple.

I wrote an article about this for the University of Wisconsin’s Jewish student newspaper because at this time of year, it’s customary to write about the holidays. Hillel would always have a candelabra (Menorah or the aforementioned Hanukkiah) lighting followed by a talk or group sing-a-long, and I headed over for what I thought would be the usual ceremony. As it turned out, Rabbi Lettofsky was out of town, but he asked the brand new Chabad representative (so new there wasn’t even a Chabad residence yet) if he would like to lead the service. I believe his name was Rabbi Shmodken, but memory does funny things over the decades. Anyway, I arrived to find most people already gathered around the Hanukkiah. Rabbi Shmodken apparently recognized me and arched his eyebrows. He then said in loud, clear voice–although with a heavy Yiddish accent–“Mr. Jack Love has entered the room. Jack, perhaps you would like to excuse yourself while we honor the memory of the Hashmonaim?” As I mentioned, Hanukkah was, and still is, a favorite holiday of mine, so I stood my ground and sang the blessings with my congregation.

611 LANGDON ST | Property Record | Wisconsin Historical Society

The ultimate irony in the good rabbi’s comment is that the original rabbis despised the Hasmoneans and did everything in their power to blot out their memory. They had good reason. The Hasmonean kings by and large supported the Temple priesthood most of whom belonged to the group known as Sadducees. The kings and their allies generally opposed competing groups such as Pharisees and Essenes–and it was the Pharisee sect that developed into the rabbinic group following the Roman war and destruction of the Temple. The Hasmonean king Alexander Janeus was reported to have crucified hundreds of his opponents on the roads leading to Jerusalem–which creates a bit of a problem for those who want to claim that Jews could not have had anything to do with the crucifixion of Jesus–but that is a tale for another day.

The point is that the Pharisees and their rabbinic descendants wanted nothing to do with the Hasmonean kings. They did not copy or preserve either of the books called Maccabees (which were copied and honored by Christians), nor did they copy or preserve the works of the historian Josephus, who also wrote about these events.

But what they did do is tell stories. One of those stories, which appears many centuries after the time of the Hasmoneans, recounts the tale of how the Temple had been defiled by wicked people and required purification. There was only enough oil for one day, but by a miracle, the oil lasted for 8 days. Strangely enough, we have no idea why it was necessary to have a lamp burn for 8 days for this purification to occur. But we do know that by another miraculous coincidence, that 8 day period corresponds exactly to the 8 day festival proclaimed by the Hasmonean kings to celebrate their dynasty.

LoveLees Hanukkah Night 1

 

 

On the History of (Jack’s) ColonFiberOscopies

First, I have to begin with a word of caution. This biographical entry contains some materials of a medical nature that might make some people a bit queasy. Best to skip this article if you don’t like hearing about blood or poop.

I’m writing this after my most recent colonfiberoscopy at UT Medical Center, which stirred the memory of how I became about the 3rd person in the United States to be treated with that instrument.

My earliest recollections of serious medical issues involving my guts go back to when I was 8 years old. That’s when I first noticed that there seemed to blood in the potty when I went to the toilet. Although my parents were not exactly the most medically knowledgeable people in the world (an understatement of considerable proportion) they did understand that this needed attention. Our family doctor recommended that they take me to Mt Sinai Medical Center.

There, and at many other times throughout my childhood, I experienced all the diagnostic tools available multiple times: the barium enema, proctoscope, and sigmoitoscope. None could detect the problem, although the presence of blood was confirmed and indeed obvious. In those days, the only thing that might have worked was exploratory surgery and as it turned out, thank Heaven my parents chose not to put me through that. So I regularly found blood, and every few months, there would be quite a bit of it.

In the Fall of 1969 I headed off to the University of Wisconsin, which had and still has one of the finest medical research hospitals in the world. As a freshman living in the dorms I reported my issue to the Student Health Service and they put me through the same battery of tests with the same results. Yes, there is blood, no, we can’t figure out where it’s coming from.

In my sophomore year, I was living off-campus with several guys who have become my life-long buddies. As it happened, our landlord stopped by to chat. He had a brand new powder blue Cadillac he was showing off. I felt some pressure and went to the toilet where I expressed approximately half my blood supply. I staggered out of the bathroom and passed out. I woke up in the University Hospital ER. I learned later that my hematocrit was 18 (42 is low-normal for adult men), so they gave me a transfusion of two units of blood. By then, whatever had caused the hemorrhage had ended, so once again, they were stymied about what was causing this. 

The way I got to the hospital was that the aforesaid landlord, who we thought was kind of a joke, grabbed me and threw me into his brand new car and drove me to the ER. You can never tell how kind and gracious a person can be until you see how they react to unusual circumstances. I never joked about Sid Livsey again. But I have to say that the next time I saw him he was driving a different car–he said, “Well they got the stains out, but they couldn’t get the stink out.” So he bought a new car.

I spent a few days in the hospital recovering and on the day I was to be discharged an impeccably dressed man came to visit me. His name was Dr. John F. Morrissey. Dr. Morrissey had formed a strong relationship to a team of Japanese doctors who had invented a new device which was then called a colonfiberscope in 1969. Dr. Morrissey had used it for the first time that very week and he invited me to become the third patient. He explained that this was a flexible tube that could reach far higher into the intestines than a sigmoitoscope. And, depending on what they found, they could actually use the instrument to fix some sorts of problems. I didn’t need much convincing. So that is how I became patient number 3 for this new device in the US. 

When you hear about this procedure these days, mostly what you hear about is how difficult the “prep” is. Basically, the idea is that the physician using the scope has to be able to see the intestinal wall, and that’s hard if it’s covered in poop. So you have to do something to clean it up. In 1971 that meant not just laxatives, but enemas.

On the morning of the procedure, I arrived at the clinic and was strapped into a chair that could be inverted. When I was upside down, they pumped water into my colon until my bowels were bloated. Then they right-sided the chair and the water poured out of me. They did this three times.

Next, I was wheeled into the room with the instrument. In those days the instrument was much thicker than it is today and you can guess what that might mean in terms of comfort. Of course today, Propofol is the drug of choice and you really don’t feel a thing. But in 1971, as Dr. Morrissey explained, they could not use anesthesia because they needed my feedback (so to speak) on whether the instrument might be causing too much stress. But they did use an I.V. to provide me with valium (diazapam) which made me a bit loopy.

The scope was inserted and at intervals of 25, 35 and 45 cm (about 18″) they found large polyps. The deepest and largest of these was big enough to have produced the hemorrhage that nearly killed me. Dr. Morrissey used the scope to extract the polyps and cauterize the areas. A few days later the pathologist reported that while these were very large polyps, they were benign. For the first time since I was 8 years old I could go to the bathroom without seeing blood in the toilet.

A year later, I returned for a follow-up procedure. Major improvements had already been made and I don’t recall any pain or problems. The scope showed that my intestines remained in fine condition and no new polyps had grown. I was then 21 years-old.

I didn’t have another colonoscopy until I turned 50 when my family physician advised it as part of my regular checkup. As you can imagine, I was astonished by the difference those decades had made. I know it’s an over-used metaphor, but comparatively speaking, it was a walk in the park. On that occasion, they found 2 “diminutive” polyps and now they applied the more technical term “adenoma” to them which is the more dangerous kind because they can become malignant. Mine were benign, but they recommended 3-year follow-ups. So while we lived in Michigan, I went twice more and both times the results were “clean”–no more polyps.

We moved to Tennessee about 9 years ago and when the time came for a follow-up I had an unpleasant surprise. Our GI folks prescribed a “prep” which in it’s own way was as bad as what I went through in 1971. If you’ve had a recent colonoscopy, you know what I mean–a requirement to drink a full gallon of ghastly stuff. There are more palatable alternatives, but many health plans won’t pay for them. So I did what I knew to be the stupid thing and didn’t go.

This year my health plan, it turned out, had authorized the more palatable solution and so I scheduled my visit for today. The prep was awful, but less awful than drinking a gallon. The test itself was, as I said, a walk in the park. They did find three (again) “diminutive” polyps and my GI doc said there’s no chance that they are malignant. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t stupid. I should have swallowed my pride and the prep and gotten the test earlier. I could have as easily allowed myself to get cancer for nothing as have this better result.

Don’t do as I did, do as I say: get the test when the docs tell you to.

On the Use of the Pardon

The soon-ex-president held the traditional turkey pardon yesterday which was followed by pardoning a metaphorical turkey, Michael Flynn. Earlier pardons in Trump’s administration include letting a racist murderer off the hook.

The news media are filled with speculation about how many more pardons will be issued and whether and how he might try to pardon himself. Several conservative commentators noted that Democrats have also issued controversial pardons. Omitted from their observations is that none of these pardons were actually designed to protect the president himself from prosecution.

In fact, even Richard Nixon declined to use his power to pardon those who were convicted of helping him by committing crimes. Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell and Dean all served their sentences and never received pardons. Nixon may have been himself a criminal, and certainly needed Ford’s pardon in order to avoid his own prosecution, but evidently as corrupt as Nixon was he understood that pardoning his abettors would be an inexcusable abuse of power.

Consider that despite all the shouting of “Lock her up” for five years now, Barack Obama did not choose to issue a pardon for Hillary Clinton. I think he had two reasons for this. First, as a fine constitutional scholar in his own right, Obama would have regarded such an act as an abuse of power. Second, he certainly didn’t consider her guilty of any crimes and thought there to be no possibility that she would ever be charged. Indeed, the lack of charges against her, even from arguably the worst Attorney General in US history, proves that point.

What we are seeing now, like so many other deplorable things associated with this administration, is an unprecedented abuse of power. He is literally paying off those who assisted him in multiple criminal offenses and defrauding the citizenry.

There is rampant speculation that Trump will resign shortly before January 20 in order to allow Pence to pardon him. While that would not surprise me, I don’t think it’s all that likely. First, I’m not sure Pence would do it. Pence is one of the few people in the administration who probably has not committed a crime. I disagree with him on almost every political issue, but I don’t think he’s a crook. And second, that would require Trump to resign–and I don’t think he’s mentally able to do that.

Another strategy that is the subject of speculation is the possibility that he would try to pardon himself. So far every constitutional scholar I’ve seen comment on this has argued that such a pardon would be unconstitutional on several different grounds such as the technical definition of the term “grant.”

This issue is one of the most important reasons that Mr. Biden should not pardon him. It will probably take some sort of constitutional amendment to fix the possibility of abuse of power via the pardon and we all know how difficult that process can be. So we need other ways to caution a president against such abuses of power. The obvious remedy is impeachment, but we have learned from Mitch McConnell that that remedy can be politically unavailable. Since we have learned that the remedy the Founders provided to end public corruption can be flouted, we need presidents to understand that they may still be subject to prosecution.

One aspect of this issue that is interesting is one that I thought Trump understood, but perhaps not. Many commentators argued that the reason why Trump commuted Roger Stone’s sentence rather than pardoning him was that had he pardoned him, Stone could no longer plead the 5th amendment against self-incrimination in any subsequent court actions against Trump. That also implies that Michael Flynn, pardoned yesterday, loses that protection. In other words, Flynn can be summoned to court and compelled to testify. If he refuses, he can be charged with obstruction of justice, impeding a prosecution, etc If he lies, that’s a new crime he can be prosecuted for. So there is at least a chance that could lead to more factual revelations about Trump’s guilt in his official duties.

Finally, it is crystal clear that that one reason Trump is so desperately trying to cling to power is that he does understand that indictment in State court is imminent, and no one believes he can pardon himself for the multitude of crimes he has committed in NY State. Recall that he had to shut down his charity and pay a $2M fine because he ran it as his personal piggy bank. Sadly, he ran the entire US Treasury as his personal piggy bank, and it is long past time that we prove that no one in the US is above the law.

Honoring RBG

Today on Facebook I’d like to publish a fundraiser to honor the memory of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. There are many charities that you can choose to do this, but I’m suggesting that this one has special meaning in several aspects of RBG’s life: The National Tay-Sachs and Allied Disease Foundation (NTSAD).

Tay-Sachs disease is a 100% fatal disease that is concentrated in two populations, Jews of Eastern European ancestry like RBG, and the Cajuns of Canada and Louisiana. TS does occur more generally, but those two groups see it the most often.

Tay-Sachs disease is a nightmare. Because it is rare, physicians do not generally test pregnant women for it, and even in the main populations where it is more common, it is often not detected until late in a pregnancy. If a child is born with it, that child is doomed to a maximum of 4 years of life. Every day of that life will be filled with pain. The child will often scream in agony for hours on end, and the signs of their discomfort never stop. There is no possibility of anything resembling a normal childhood, or a normal life for the family.

Tay-Sachs disease also has terrible social consequences. Parents who cannot afford round-the-clock nursing care have to do it themselves. Over half the parents with a Tay-Sachs child wind up in divorce proceedings. You might be able to imagine what this might mean for the other children of those marriages.

I have a personal connection to Tay-Sachs: I am a carrier of the gene. The disease occurs when both parents are carriers and a child is born with a double dose of the gene. If one parent has the gene, they can pass the gene to a child, but the child then becomes a carrier rather than a victim. Even if both parents have the gene, there is just a 25% chance that a child will actually develop it. My grandmother lost the lottery. She bore 6 children in the WW1 era Europe, and 3 of them died before age 2. When I asked my father and one surviving aunt what killed them, all they would say is that they died of a horrible disease. Although it is not possible to say with certainty that this was Tay-Sachs because this preceded genetic testing, given that we are carriers and the family had decent economic status (so there was no malnutrition at that point), TS is a reasonable surmise.

There is another connection to Ruth Bader Ginsberg here. Tay-Sachs disease is one of the conditions that makes it imperative to preserve Roe v. Wade. Parents should have a choice about whether to bring a Tay-Sachs baby into the world. As I watch various states pass anti-choice bills, I look at their provisions to see what would happen if parents discover they have a Tay-Sachs fetus in the 3rd trimester. As of yet, I haven’t seen a single one of these bills that would allow a termination under these circumstances. Some of those bills allow for termination for rape or incest, but not a one to spare parents from a child’s agony, family bankruptcy and divorce.

And please understand that while Cajuns and Ashkenazi Jews suffer disproportionately from this scourge, it (and similar genetic disorders) can and does hit everyone.

[This article was posted as a Facebook fundraiser.]

Please consider a donation to this wonderful organization today. When Facebook tells me that the donation period has concluded, I’ll try to make sure the Foundation knows that it was in honor of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. And Terri and I will start the ball rolling with a $75 contribution.

Teddy Bear

Today is the 9th anniversary of the passing of my mother, Mrs. Stella Love (as she preferred to be known), pictured here during the 1970s.

In 1958 as I was about to begin 1st grade, I awoke from sleep to the sound of a commotion. I wandered out to our living room and witnessed a cop dragging my mother out of our apartment by her hair. That was the last I saw of her for 10 months.

She spent those 10 months in Rockland State Hospital, my father placed me in a private boarding school. On one of his visits, he brought me a teddy bear my mother had sewn. As you can imagine, that bear became my most prized possession.

At the end of the school year, my father brought Stella home from the hospital and me from the boarding school. Teddy remained with me at all times. Until one day when Teddy disappeared. I looked everywhere. Then my father told me that I was too attached to Teddy, so he had decided to throw him away. I was inconsolable for hours and perhaps days.

My father abandoned our family when I was 15 to move to Israel and my mother and I made do on our own. Two years later I headed off to the University of Wisconsin and Stella stayed in New York earning a living as an office staff person. Then in 1978 she had a relapse of her mental condition and I was forced to make the decision of letting her go to some other hospital or taking care of her–which meant at least temporarily giving up on my PhD. As most of you know, I took a leave of absence from grad school, packed my mother up in New York, and brought her out to live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Stella became a fixture in Sproul Plaza, dancing to the music, and visiting Larry Blake’s Rathskeller.

For me, marriage and children followed, and from time to time we had to pack Stella up and move her to a new living situation. Stella’s last residence was the Evangelical Home of Michigan in Saline. At first I was a bit dubious about placing her in a Christian home, but as it turned out there were other Jews there and the non-judgmental love they showered on Stella made me understand that I had made the best choice.

On that final stop, we went through her belongings to see what might be donated to charity, and look what we found. My father hadn’t thrown Teddy away after all, just placed him with Stella for safe-keeping. And he is with me to this day.

Blessed is the True Judge. May Stella’s memories be bound with ours so that she lives on forever through us.

ברוך דיין אמת

Today is the 9th anniversary of the passing of my mother, Mrs. Stella Love (as she preferred to be known), pictured here during the 1970s.

In 1958 as I was about to begin 1st grade, I awoke from sleep to the sound of a commotion. I wandered out to our living room and witnessed a cop dragging my mother out of our apartment by her hair. That was the last I saw of her for 10 months.

She spent those 10 months in Rockland State Hospital, my father placed me in a private boarding school. On one of his visits, he brought me a teddy bear my mother had sewn. As you can imagine, that bear became my most prized possession.

At the end of the school year, my father brought Stella home from the hospital and me from the boarding school. Teddy remained with me at all times. Until one day when Teddy disappeared. I looked everywhere. Then my father told me that I was too attached to Teddy, so he had decided to throw him away. I was inconsolable for hours and perhaps days.

My father abandoned our family when I was 15 to move to Israel and my mother and I made do on our own. Two years later I headed off to the University of Wisconsin and Stella stayed in New York earning a living as an office staff person. Then in 1978 she had a relapse of her mental condition and I was forced to make the decision of letting her go to some other hospital or taking care of her–which meant at least temporarily giving up on my PhD. As most of you know, I took a leave of absence from grad school, packed my mother up in New York, and brought her out to live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Stella became a fixture in Sproul Plaza, dancing to the music, and visiting Larry Blake’s Rathskeller.

For me, marriage and children followed, and from time to time we had to pack Stella up and move her to a new living situation. Stella’s last residence was the Evangelical Home of Michigan in Saline. At first I was a bit dubious about placing her in a Christian home, but as it turned out there were other Jews there and the non-judgmental love they showered on Stella made me understand that I had made the best choice.

On that final stop, we went through her belongings to see what might be donated to charity, and look what we found. My father hadn’t thrown Teddy away after all, just placed him with Stella for safe-keeping. And he is with me to this day.

Blessed is the True Judge. May Stella’s memories be bound with ours so that she lives on forever through us.

ברוך דיין אמת

 

Stella Love
Stella Love in the '70s
Teddy Bear
Teddy

Moderate Your Own Social Media Postings

In recent weeks two of my friends have found themselves amid controversy and an enormous amount of time might have been saved by taking a few simple steps before pressing the “post” button. Let me say at the outset that this is not a “left” versus “right” issue. Anyone who has a political viewpoint and is willing to discuss their viewpoints on platforms like Facebook or Twitter is vulnerable to this problem.

First of all, understand what is going on here. People who are usually paid operatives for things like presidential campaigns or their allies are constantly scanning social media looking for people who can be tricked into becoming their spokesperson. They understand that the only people who tune into (for example) a Trump campaign site are people who are likely to vote for Trump. But if they can convince some of those people to echo their claims or “share” the Trump info they might be able to reach into places they normally cannot get to–your family and friends. This is the social media multiplier effect, and it is a very powerful tool.

Next, understand the methods these people and parties employ. They are almost always deceitful. One clever type of deceit they employ is to use something that happened, or video of an event, but present it ways that distort the original event.

They have very good intelligence on what sort of things will motivate you to share their propaganda. For example, thanks to the ability to sort data on social media platforms, they can tell if you are strongly pro-Israel and target you with memes showing how anti-Israel or even antisemitic various Democrat supporting folks are. An example of how deceitful that tactic can be is the recent congressional resolution condemning violence against synagogues. All four Democratic Party members who are the frequent targets of this type of malicious propaganda voted in favor of the resolution, but twenty-three Republicans voted against it. This proves two things. First, that regardless of Party, the overwhelming majority of Congress are willing to vote in favor of causes important to Jews, and second, that the distributors of pro-Trump propaganda will never present anything in perspective.

Another favorite tactic of the propagandists is to misrepresent what they are posting. For example, most reputable newspapers allow opinions on their editorial page which are contrary to the stated opinion of the publication’s editors. What they will do is provide a link to the opinion with a title suggesting that the newspaper itself is endorsing that opinion–they know that >90% of readers won’t bother to click the link and see the truth of it.

Another favorite tactic is the false equivalent. People hostile to Donald Trump often mention his notorious sexual offenses and escapades. That Trump has committed egregious acts is beyond question. But if you can convince people that his opponent has as well, you might be able to blunt the force of the criticisms of Trump. As I write this there is a YouTube posted about Joe Biden which calls him a pedophile in the title. A very serious allegation. But the accusation is based entirely on photographs of Biden over the decades hugging fully clothed people. Nothing even remotely as noxious as Trump eying his own daughter lasciviously. That’s a perfect example of the false equivalent. On the one hand a person who has admitted to serial adultery against all three of his wives, invaded the personal space of nude 15-year-old girls, and bragged about committing sexual assault. On the other, a man who is undoubtedly guilty of hugging people too much. Exactly the same thing, right? Wrong.

Which brings me to the subject of links. NEVER click a link unless you are absolutely certain it comes from a reliable source. Over and over again I have found links that purport to be something like “news@nytimes.com” but when you hover over the link most email or browsers will show you the real source which might be “scams@f*ckyou.com”. I rarely censor my Facebook page, but one trigger for me is a correspondent who posts one or more links–I don’t want to risk my friends getting snagged in a scam, so I will delete those sorts of posts as soon as  I see them.

Another extremely common tactic is deflection. If you can’t defend something your candidate is clearly guilty of, talk about how people on the “other side” have done equally awful things–whether or not those allegations are true. Even if they are blatant falsehoods, they figure they can exhaust their opposition with senseless side discussions. A recent example of this strategy is attempting to convince people that other politicians are more to blame for the pandemic than Trump. This has led to an avalanche of social media posts condemning Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York. This is hardly the place to examine Gov. Cuomo’s actions (I may do that elsewhere), but suffice it to say that Cuomo should not have had to do anything about the epidemic because Trump’s federal team had the responsibility to do that before it ever became the catastrophe that afflicted New York. But getting people to talk about Cuomo instead of Trump is the goal of the strategy.

Yet another strategy is sewing discord within the ranks. If the discussion is about how corrupt a given politician might be, throw out some allegations by others. For example, if you’re discussing the private trip that Trump made to a private island with the pedophile and sex trafficker Jefferey Epstein, try to steer the conversation by talking about how Bill Clinton and other Democrats also went to Epstein events.

What can you do to avoid the pitfalls of playing into the hands of propagandists? Actually, quite a bit. First, if a post or meme appeals to you, check it out before you share it. Does it come from a reliable source? Do you even recognize the real source? You are usually safe to link your posts to good faith actors like the NY Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the Economist, the Guardian, Le Monde, etc. Large general circulation newspapers, news sites such as CNN and MSNBC. On Fox News it’s a mixed bag–a few of the general news hosts are safe, but some of their commentators are willing to venture into dangerous territory–I would suggest avoiding Fox for that reason and not because I disagree with their politics, which of course I do. But be fair: I never share memes I get from sites that often appeal to my progressive politics. For example, you won’t find a single post of mine shared from Act Blue or MoveOn.Org even though I largely agree with their points of view because they are very political and sometimes use the same sorts of tactics I criticize in other sites.

Finally, use a little common sense. How reasonable is it that people marching for social justice are going to be dragging innocent people out of their cars and abusing them? How likely is it that people committed to social justice are going to be slinging racist or antisemitic slurs? If you are presented with a statement or even a video which claims such things, you need to vet the source even more strongly. Chances are you are being pranked or worse–deceived into supporting a cause you might not support if you knew the truth.

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.