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:

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:

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:

+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.

On the Passing of David Koch, Shr”i

It’s a funny thing–I write my posts and often do not have a clue about what my friends will like, dislike or even bother to read. Yesterday I posted an article about the passing of someone I consider to be a villain. I didn’t expect much if any response. Most of my friends already disliked him, and I figured those who didn’t probably wouldn’t bother to reply. But I was seriously wrong. Quite a kerfuffle erupted over my comments.

One of the reasons for that is that I stepped on a bit of modern Jewish tradition–basically a superstition, and apologies if those who hold by this think that’s offensive, for me it’s a term of art from my profession–teaching Religious Studies at a secular university. The tradition I mentioned is that “One does not speak ill of the dead.” And one reason I use the term superstition to describe this is that I think it hearkens to a notion that the dead might return to take some sort of revenge. I’m not sure–I’d have to do some research on that. But the point is that there is such a notion within Judaism today.

That’s actually one reason I went out of my way to introduce my comments with an explanation that the acronym “Shr”i” is one I took from Medieval Jewish literature. It stands for “shem r’sha’im yirkav” (שם רשעים ירקב). I believe the first time I read it was in Sefer haQabalah which describes the schism between rabbinic Jews and the Karaites. The rabbinic author used it to describe the Karaite founder (of course long dead by then).

That there is no such notion in our most sacred scriptures is patently obvious. Not only do we condemn the memory of Amaleq, but technically we are commanded to seek out and kill all of his descendants. One of the most difficult commandments of the Torah to figure out is the one that tells us to blot out the name of Amaleq–just how do we extirpate his memory by reminding ourselves about him every year?

The Book of Esther celebrates the hanging of Haman together with his sons, and Jews have turned this into the original Mardis Gras. By rabbinic ordinance we are commanded to celebrate this hanging, and it is the only time of the year that Jews are commanded to drink until they cannot tell the difference between “Cursed” be Haman and blessed be Mordecai.

The author of the Book of Kings, writing long after the deaths of those kings, had no problem with speaking ill of the dead:

וְנָדָ֣ב בֶּן־יָרָבְעָ֗ם מָלַךְ֙ עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בִּשְׁנַ֣ת שְׁתַּ֔יִם לְאָסָ֖א מֶ֣לֶךְ יְהוּדָ֑ה וַיִּמְלֹ֥ךְ עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל שְׁנָתָֽיִם׃ וַיַּ֥עַשׂ הָרַ֖ע בְּעֵינֵ֣י יְהוָ֑ה וַיֵּ֙לֶךְ֙ בְּדֶ֣רֶךְ אָבִ֔יו וּ֙בְחַטָּאת֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֶחֱטִ֖יא אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

Nadab son of Jeroboam began to reign over Israel in the second year of King Asa of Judah; he reigned over Israel two years. He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, walking in the way of his ancestor and in the sin that he caused Israel to commit. (1 Kings 15:25-26)

One of the people who complained about my comments made the point that the person had a good side, that he made large contributions to charity. In recent years we’ve seen several examples of why charity cannot be a reasonable response. Bernie Madoff is rotting in prison where I hope he will remain despite having given large sums–as it turns out of other people’s money–to charity. More recently, Jeffrey Epstein (Shr”i), a convicted pedophile who also trafficked children, committed the Jewish sin of suicide. Are we not supposed to speak evil of him? But he contributed enormous sums to Jewish charities! Funny thing–there was actually a controversy over whether he could be buried in a Jewish cemetery. I wonder how you can engage in a controversy over such a subject without “speaking ill of the dead.” Personally, I wouldn’t want my ashes near any place where his foulness might linger.

I’m sorry, but there is no quantity of charity that can compensate for destroying our planet. So I think we get to the crux of why my comments ruffled a number of feathers. The problem is that in some circles–mostly those populated either by people who are deeply committed to religious views bordering on fundamentalism, or those who support Trump (and obviously there’s some overlap there)–there is skepticism about the seriousness of climate change.

It may not seem like it is so, but Israel itself is in a very precarious position with regard to human created climate disaster. You can get a visceral sense of this by the view from Masada. When I toured Masada in 1973, the Dead Sea lapped the shore just a mile or so from the mountain. Today, it is bone dry. The Dead Sea’s southern basin would be completely empty were it not for a pipeline Israel laid to deliver sea water for the needs of the resort hotels that bring in large tourist revenues. Back in 1973, I had to worry about being flooded out of a trip through “Hezekiah’s Tunnel,” but no more, there isn’t enough water to cause a problem. True, this is not because of “global warming”–rather, it is caused by the diversion of fresh water inflows to the Dead Sea which have also reduced the Jordan River to a trickle.

But if the climate scientists are right–and the opinion is nearly unanimous–Israel’s agricultural industries may soon be confronted with a Judean Desert that will move steadily north. And while Israel is in a good position to manage such issues, let’s keep in mind that regional instability is not good for Israel, and climate change will probably be contributing to large amounts of regional instability all over the world, and in the Middle East in particular.

Lots of people share responsibility for this disaster. But the person I called out yesterday bears an enormous personal and direct responsibility. He and his brother have donated huge sums in an effort to wreck every attempt to control the carbon emissions that are the single greatest contributor to the planetary crisis.

Although I will likely be gone before the worst of this becomes a reality, I feel a deep responsibility for my children and my grandchildren. I want to do what I can so that they can enjoy the world as I have been able to do, not inherit a sandbox.

Regarding the passing of the man yesterday, I echo the author of Kings, “He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, walking in the way of his ancestor and in the sin that he caused Israel to commit.”

On Racism and Antisemitism

A short while ago a small kerfuffle erupted on my FB page. The cause was quite innocent–I made the mistake of replying to one of those constant annoyances of FB life, some sort of survey. The survey question was “Do you think Donald Trump is a racist?” and it promised the results of the poll today. If those results have been posted, I haven’t seen them.

I didn’t understand that when I answered the question that my answer would be posted on my public page, and then of course many of my friends began to interact about the topic. This is not the way I would have like to have had a conversation about this topic, but there it was.

The Sabbath allowed me to take a breather from the fray, and as I contemplated the stars, tea leaves and the meaning of life, it dawned on me that many of my friends have lost the knowledge so wisely provided over a decade or so starting in the 1970s in the brilliant sitcom, “All in the Family.” Week after week and year after year, this amazingly popular TV show explored the nature and definitions of phenomena like misogyny, antisemitism, and above all, racism. And it did it all with a wonderful sense of humor.

One of the frequent topics on the show was demonstrating how people could be prejudiced without any self-awareness or evil intent. The phenomenon of “Some of my best friends…” was explored with regularity.

I don’t want to reignite what I hope is now a dead issue on my page, but I think it’s important to understand things like the fact that you don’t have to want to put Jews in death camps and annihilate them in order to be afflicted with antisemitism. Perhaps we have done such a great job of educating the public about the horrors of the Holocaust that people think the Holocaust is synonymous with antisemitism. It is not.

Some folks are amazed when I mention that Franklin D. Roosevelt, who surely did as much as anyone on Earth to eliminate the scourge of Adolf Hitler, was an antisemite. But he was. He wasn’t a Nazi, he didn’t want to kill Jews, and yes, some of his best friends were Jews. But not in his country club. Not among his neighbors. He was an antisemite exactly in the ways that Archie Bunker was played so well by Carroll O’Conner. And perhaps that more subtle antisemitism allowed him to escape some of the guilt he might have felt when he turned away (literally) boat loads of Jews vainly trying to escape the Holocaust.

It’s no accident that All in the Family was based on a British sitcom called Till Death Do Us Part. In that British version, the family patriarch is a working-class character named Alf Garnett who frequently spouts racist views, but in his case, it’s the socialists who are one of the frequent targets of his bigotry.

Last night, Terri and I had the immense pleasure of viewing a beautiful little film called “Blinded by the Light.” It tells the story of a working-class immigrant Pakistani family in 1980s era England whose high-school age son finds an almost religious revelation in the music and lyrics of Bruce Springsteen. At one point the exasperated patriarch of the family scolds his son and tells him to forget about poetry and music and concentrate on math and economics. “Find the Jews in your school” he says. “Follow the Jews and emulate what they do–they can show you how to be successful!” His son looks at him and says, “Father, that’s actually a racist thing you’re saying.”


The Current American Student Loan Dilemma

These days I get a lot of inspiration by reading social media and discovering the extent to which even highly educated and well-meaning people have assimilated views that are so contrary to fact as to be astonishing.

Yesterday, a good friend of mine put a cartoon up on his Facebook page which made fun of students who find themselves unable to repay student loans. The cartoon said, “You took out a loan, pay it back.” The caption read “Student Debt Crisis Solved.” When I objected, he was joined by another good friend of mine who declared the crisis to be the making of the “Education industry” to which I and Terri belong.

When Terri and I went to college, the loan default rate was de minimus. The primary reason back then that a student might be unable to repay a loan was the occurrence of a major illness or injury. As percentages go, these fell in the level of defaults that are tolerated and excused by most financial institutions.

Most loans in those days were extended by generous federal programs that provided low interest and convenient terms. These loans were intended to encourage young people to attend college which in turn was seen as a public good. They were very successful in that regard, and many a practicing engineer, scientist, educator, doctor or lawyer today owes their undergraduate degree to these programs.

Today, the situation is very different. There are a large number of student loan defaults. What happened?

The first major change in the education economy took place not long after Terri and I completed our educations. Banks and financial institutions had been angry for many years because they saw the government loan programs as competing against their primary business. They did what businesses do in the American political landscape: make political contributions and hire lobbyists to change the law. And they were wildly successful. The loan programs which allowed Terri and I to go to college were effectively ended. Instead, families needed to go to banks where they were charged closer to market interest rates.

Even so, the loan default rates remained low. And actually, if you look at American education today, there is no “debt crisis” among most students. Most students attend state or public universities, or responsible non-public universities that provide subsidized tuition along with an education that will allow students to pay off their debts once they graduate.

There are two areas where this is not so. The first are non-public universities which are legitimate providers of education, but have low endowments and few resources to help their students. These colleges often charge enormous amounts for tuition and students graduate with an amount of debt the jobs they obtain simply cannot sustain. There’s no question that this is a problem which high school guidance counselors and other advisers need to do a better job explaining to families. And many of these places would simply close if banks were told that they would not have government assistance in collecting delinquent loans.

By far the biggest area for “student debt crisis” is outright education fraud by for-profit schools that charge high tuition and have partnerships with financial institutions that use various governmental guarantees to make loans that they would never make if they actually had to withstand the defaults. You see advertisements plastered over every public space offering education to place students in “high paying” IT jobs, hair dressing jobs, office jobs–jobs that in fact don’t pay enough to manage the debt and often don’t exist at all. The current president of the United States thought that sort of school was a great profit-making idea and complained bitterly when he had to compensate the students for fraud his company perpetrated.

All of this has happened because lobbyists have pressured the federal government. Not just eliminating the old federal loan programs. They also passed laws that protect financial institutions by guaranteeing what are obviously bad loans. And the most recent strategy has been to enact policies that allow private companies that provide little or no real education to access those loan guarantees. The president even appointed a prominent advocate for that sort of private fraud to be the Education Secretary of the United States.

The “student debt crisis” has been manufactured by banks and politicians who argue that they are supporting the “free market.” But in a free market, banks and schools would not be allowed to extend credit for programs that cannot be economically justified. You see, in a real free market, customers can walk away from bad deals and the purveyors of those deals can suffer the consequences.

Happy Birthday, Mary Love

One of the most important people in my life was born this date, August 6, 1915, so this is 104th anniversary of her birth. Mary was my father’s first wife, he married my mother after he divorced Mary. They remained on a friendly basis and we made the occasional pilgrimage from our home in the Bronx to Mary’s apartment on 112th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam, not far from Columbia University. Mary was Mary_Loveimportant to me among many reasons because her apartment was a place of tranquility in the tempest of my life.

My father was impatient and my mother was mentally ill–not a good combination. Arguments were frequent and loud in my own living space, and I longed to be someplace else. When I was about 7 years old, I walked across the hall to the apartment where my cousin Marty lived and begged him to tell me how to get to Mary’s apartment. Marty was about 5 years older than I was and wise to the ways of the New York City Transit Authority. He gave me directions.

One weekend day soon after, during a robust disagreement between my parents, I walked the two blocks to Southern Boulevard and then another 4 blocks to the IRT 174th Street Station. I didn’t need to pay a fare, because in those days the rule was that anyone who could walk under the turnstile could ride free. And for better or for worse, I’ve always been short for my age. I boarded the Southbound IRT train and watched for the Grand Central, 42nd Street stop according to Marty’s directions. From there, I took the Shuttle Train one stop to Times Square. Being careful to look for the Uptown side, I made sure to take the Number 1 Broadway Local. I disembarked at 110th Street and headed up to street level.

From 110th St., I stayed on Broadway and walked two blocks north to 112th Street. I recognized the street well. The church of Saint John the Divine filled the end of the street. I walked past Tom’s Restaurant (the facade used for the Seinfeld show), the Goddard Space Institute, and the next building was Mary’s. The front door was locked, but someone opened the door for me, and I walked up the stairs to the second, Mary’s floor. I quickly found Apt 2G and rang the door bell. I could hear some rustling around behind the door, and soon Mary was peering through the peephole, but she couldn’t see me–I told you I was short. I knocked, and she said, “Who’s there?” “It’s Jackie, I replied.” “Jackie?!!!”

The door opened and she was completely astonished. The first thing she did after inviting me in was call my parents. She made me a grilled cheese sandwich and something to drink and chatted the hour or so it took before my father arrived to fetch me. He would have been apoplectic were it not for the fact that both he and my mother were just relieved that I had been found safe and unharmed after the few hours I had been gone. We returned home by taxi.

That trip lasted only a few hours, but it was the first of too many to count. After that, I returned to Mary’s house almost every weekend, often sleeping over.  In Mary’s house I found good literature. We went to the movies together, Broadway shows, off-Broadway shows, and off-off-Broadway shows. We went to every museum that Mary could find, and Manhattan had a lot of them. We ate all over the Village, Midtown and the Columbia district. If I am somewhat normal today, I owe all that to my life with Mary Love. I miss her every day, but this day I celebrate the day she was born.

We have a problem, Houston!

Hi Everyone.

First of all, thanks to those of you who are following my blog, and especially us aging folks who have fond memories of JHS 44, the Bronx–as far as I know this is still the only place on the Internet to talk about that!

You may have noticed a drop-off in my posts. It’s not for want of writing more–but I’ve been a bit flummoxed by the new Gutenberg Editor that WordPress introduced. I understand the basics (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this!) but as many of you know, I use several foreign language typefaces in my posts and so far I have not been able to get the new editor to display those characters properly. Apparently I have to learn some more about the new editor before I can resume regular posts.

Anyway, I’ll do my best to soldier on, and we’ll see what the future brings!

— Jack Love