Sunday, April 20, 2014

STOP, LOOK, AND LISTEN!

Well, this was the week that wasn't. I took all of Passover off from work, so technically I'm still on holiday until Wednesday morning. One can never call this a vacation....this is 21 home cooked meals, preceded and ended with massive amounts of cleaning and box shlepping. Sometimes I wonder why I just don't take the week after Passover off, because I'm usually too exhausted to function on the days immediately following the holiday.

Passover is an interesting holiday, filled with lots of symbols and family gatherings and all sorts of similar stuff. It's also the holiday most closely tied to the old blood libel tales....the ones that accused Jews of kidnapping and slaughtering Christian babies so their blood could be used to make matzah. Blood libel was used to spur the pogroms in Czarist Russia in the areas within the Pale where Jews were permitted to settle. That area included much of LithuaniaBelarusPolandMoldovaUkraine, as well as parts of western Russia. Most of my family is from that region, so I grew up hearing a lot about pogroms, hiding from the Ukrainians, and the random destruction of entire shtetls, the little villages where Jews were required to live. 

So when Jews were handed leaflets as they emerged from synagogue last week, the text was not exactly a surprise. We'd heard it all before. This time, however, there is mass and instant media and I could not wrap my arms around the idea that some government would actually announce they were rounding up Jews. In fact, I responded to the first email I got on the topic with "Need to see more about what's really happening."

Let's be real clear: I was not dismissing the report. I just wasn't buying it, even when Secretary of State Kerry made his announcement. It just sounded too weird...and like a schoolyard double dare. 

Well, to date, no one has taken responsibility for what was ostensibly a political provocation kind of hoax. That said, there is plenty to talk about in the incident.

First: Soviet style propaganda machines still work. Whether or not the Russian separatists were behind the notices remains to be seen. Whoever did it must have found an old copy of Disinformation! The Best of The KGB. This makes one wonder about how far things have really progressed in the former Soviet Union is this stuff is effective. 

Second: Jews are still seen as vulnerable. The Ukrainian Jews were pretty sure it wasn't real, but it went viral anyway, with all sorts of people making all sorts of statements, some of which were not so veiled threats. This was a clear win for the leafleteers. It got a big giant, negative exposure on the world stage for free. 

Third: The instant news cycle is not our friend: No matter what the intent, the viral nature of the instant news cycle encourages conclusion jumping and the vitriol that comes with it. I keep thinking about all those jokes about itchy fingers on "the button." 

It's impossible to turn back the clock to a time where deliberation preceded print. No one is about to give up breaking newsflashes and the twenty-four-second news cycle. But just because it's available, it does not mean we have to believe everything we read. We still have to be able to distinguish between news and baloney, between fact and spin, between information and manipulation. In other words, we need to remember how to read. We need to stop, look, and listen.

However......

You don't always find just rumor and innuendo when you stop, look, and listen. Sometimes, you find real news that has gone unreported by the majors...like the NY TIMES, CNN, or NBC. You find out that 250 miles southeast of Kiev, in Zaporizhia, the Gimyat Rosa Synagogue was firebombed on Saturday night, February 22nd...and on this past Saturday night, the main synagogue in Nikolayev in southern Ukraine was also firebombed. You can watch the bomber in action in the video clip posted at The Jewish Press

How many of you, dear Readers, knew about either of those?

So here's the thing: Ukrainian Jews are being used as political pawns and we all know pawns are the most expendable pieces on the chess board. Both sides view the Jews as a way to bring down world ire on one side or the other. They are a small enough population with the country but have large, vocal support from outside.  I am afraid this may only be the beginning. 

And so to end...I've got ten minutes to post this before I light candles for the last two days of yom tov....holy days. Chag same'ach to those who observe...and last minute wishes for a happy Easter to you folks on the other side of the fence. 


Wifely Person Tip o'the Week
Vet, verify, and get the facts straight. 
Going off half-cocked on any topic does more damage than good. 
In other words, be sure you know your stuff. 







Monday, April 14, 2014

The Value of Cottage Cheese

Last year, it was TempTee whipped cream cheese. This year it's Breakstone's cottage cheese. 

I AM NOT SPENDING $6.99 FOR A CONTAINER OF CHOLOV YISROEL COTTAGE CHEESE. 
THAT IS JUST NOT HAPPENING.

So I will make cottage cheese. I've done it before. it's not a seriously big deal. But can someone explain to me why Jews gouge other Jews for keeping kosher....more especially kosher for Pesach? I mean really? Do we not have lawyers who would love to start a class action suit in a beit din for predatory Pesach pricing? Folks, where is the outrage? Where is the bruning* Anger, Wrath, Indignation, Trouble, and the Messengers of Evil to avenge we who practically have to toivel our entire kitchen annually only to be ripped off at the grocery store? 

And just as I was getting up a good head of steam on the topic, some nutball reportedly yelling "Heil Hitler" shot people at The Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City and at Shalom Village Senior Living Center. Murdered in the parking lot of the J were Dr. William Lewis Corporon and his grandson Reat Griffin Underwood. Neither was Jewish; they went to the Methodist church nearby. The woman gunned down at Village Shalom has not been identified at this writing. 

How do I complain about cottage cheese when there are people out there still hunting Jews for sport? Or so it would seem since he was targeting Jewish communal centers. It's not like we're walking about with yellow stars pinned to our coats any more. Coming on the heels of the Nazi dinner party at Gasthof zur Gemutlichkeit here in Minneapolis, how can we even be surprised that stuff like this happens?

One of the really interesting aspects of Pesach are the commandments to remember. Remember, we were slaves in Egypt. Remember what the Eternal did for us. Remember the taste of tears. Remember the plagues in Egypt. Remember it all in this order (seder) so that no part is omitted.

As Jews, we spend a whole lotta time remembering stuff....not much of it very pleasant. There's an anti-hubris theme throughout the seder and the liturgy in general. The reminders are purposeful....no matter how comfortable you get in any place, remember you were strangers in the land of Egypt, and you are strangers here. 

A single nutball shouting "Heil, Hitler" as they're carting him off to jail is a pretty strong reminder. Ross "Doubt-That" Douthat writing week after week about how this nation should be running on Christian values only is a pretty strong reminder. The Jewish Agency recently reporting that 40% of all racist violence in France is targeted at Jews is a  pretty strong reminder. 

We never forget. We circle the wagons a little closer, and we watch each other's backs. We remain constantly vigilant lest we be caught being vulnerable. It's what we do. We are supposed to watch out for each other. As it is written:

כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה
All Israel is responsible one for another.

This does not stop at the edge of parking lots. It extends into the halls of the JCC, into the lobby of Village Shalom, over by the day school playground. The responsibility is pervasive and demanding. If we don't care for ourselves, who will? We make sure we are all safe. We make sure all our kids are safe. We do not abuse each other. We do not kill each other. We look out for those who may be in need. As it is written: "Let all who are hungry come and eat." 

Somewhere in there is the idea we should all eat kosher. But there is no comparing the value of cottage cheese and human life. Human life, so fragile yet so extraordinary, trumps everything. Health takes precedence over every observance. Watching out for each other is a package deal...it's all about all of it. You don't get to choose which parts. 

Watching out for each other is not voluntary; it is neither midrash nor minhag. It is halacha


Wifely Person's Tip o'the Week
There are 7 weeks between Passover and Shavuot, 7 weeks of counting the omer.
While you're counting the omer, count something else of importance along with it. 



* Bonus Note *
*For the real old timers who remember the original Gutstein & Goldberg...there were wonderful typos in the text. Some of them have gone on to become treasured family memories. One of those gems is BRUNING ANGER. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

One of the more interesting (at least to me) aspects of being a widow is that you have no one to blame but yourself. I mean, you’re making decisions about stuff on your own and you get to own the outcomes. All by yourself.

So when the opportunity presented itself to submit DREAM DANCER to a local publisher, I grabbed it. I knew the publisher a little, I knew what was sold under her imprint, and I figured I had nothing to lose.

Except time.

It took her a full year to decide to publish the book. I signed the contract three days before my 60th birthday. I knew there would be work to do, because technology had changed since I wrote the book in the late 90s. Would I leave it where it was, or would I edit to include cell phones and Wi-Fi? I was anxious to begin and was looking forward to the process. I even announced it here.

And I was anxious to begin work.

Then I was still anxious to begin work.

And then I was worried because the work was not started.

My publisher decided to edit DREAM DANCER herself. And still the work was not started.

Publishing late 2013 became early 2014. Publishing in early 2014 became mid 2014. Mid 2014 became later in the year. No pub date was ever set, no edits, no move towards galleys. Each time I asked the question, I was assured all was well.

Well, all was apparently not well. To the best of my knowledge, work on DREAM DANCER was never started. After almost three years of waiting for something to happen, I think it's time to stop waiting.

Therefore, it’s with great sadness that I announce I have withdrawn DREAM DANCER from my publisher. It is an amicable parting of the ways, and for that I am glad. 

As for what happens now, I don’t know. It’s a good book….or so I’ve been told. It’s an action/adventure kinda romp. I thought I was writing lust in the dust, but it turned out to be something more than that. It was fun to write, and I hear it’s fun to read. I am open to suggestions as to what to do next. Honestly, I don’t have a clue.

Meanwhile, this blog goes on. And on. And on.


If you are a literary agent….or even play one on TV, let me know. I could sure use a good agent right about now.

The Wifely Person's Tip o'the Week 
Elphaba says: No good deed goes unpunished.
Remember that. It's not merely important....
It's true.


Monday, March 31, 2014

We Stood, We Walked, We Made Our Point

One of the reporters who covered last week's silent flash mob protest wrote:
Organizer Susan Schwaidelson Siegfried placed an initial, cryptic call to action through her personal blog on Monday night, inviting anyone in the Twin Cities who wanted to get involved to email her for more information. Although participants were initially instructed that the media would not be contacted until a few hours before the event, so as not to alert the restaurant, Schwaidelson Siegfried and co-organizer Margie Newman broke their media ban early, contacting City Pages for an interview on Wednesday morning.
Rob Callahan for the Star Tribune Mobile. 

Wow! I'm cryptic! What a thrill! What a total rush! Wish it was true. For the record, I'd like to know who notified the restaurant. Anyone wanna venture a guess since it wasn't either Margie or me????

The so-called media ban was because it was supposed to be a spontaneous flash mob. If you've ever seen a video of one, random people bump into each other and start playing Beethoven or dancing The Nutcracker or some other thing which is clearly anything but random. Still, people love it. Granted we weren't striking up Ode To Joy in front of Gasthof zur Gemutlichkeit, but we did want to seem, at least, to be spontaneous. Leave it to the press to make some SOP thing a big mystery. The bigger mystery, by the way, is why the above article was pulled from the main web site and relocated to the Strib's mobile site. Thankfully, the Star Tribune kept Jeff Wheeler's fabulous photographs...the ones that made us look like a total class act. 

Photo by Nick Kozel of City Pages
So we get to the corner of 23rd and University NE. We do not park in their lot; we park on the street. We pin yellow stars, pink, red, and black triangles on each others' coats. We hand out slips of paper that will answer any question without us talking. We pick up our boxes and valises and I quickly review the plan: walk in small groups, maintain silence, and do not block the restaurant's entrance. We take our first walk down the block and there are the bully boys in red t-shirts with big, bulging muscles who look menacingly at this ragtag line of deportee re-enactors. We ignore them and keep walking. We get to the end of the block, turn and face the street, and line up silently...as though we are waiting for a bus....or a cattle car. 

Photo by Jeff Wheeler
of the Star Tribune
Traffic slows down. People give us the thumbs up and honk. They wave. All but two show support. I won't even mention what the other two yelled out the window. We faced the street for about 10 minutes, then, in small groups, we walked to the other end of the block, turned, and walked back. 

In the middle of the walking part, the tow truck showed up. And the bully boys were pointing at this car and that car. They were going to tow the car of one of the journalists...but he quickly pointed out THEY told him where to park. So they focused on another car...only that one belonged to a restaurant patron who quickly came out to stop them. 

Photo by Jeff Wheeler
of the Star Tribune
We walked from about 7:15 until 7:30; then Margie and I announced we had made our point and it was time to stop. That's when several reporters came over and talked to us. KSTP-Channel 5, what Ziggy used to refer to as The Mr. Bill News since every story began with "Oooh Nooooo!" in the fashion of "if it bleeds, it leads," had a video guy there, but footage never showed up. I guess walking up and down isn't exciting enough. 

Thursday, the strangest thing happened.I got an email from Sophia Muender of SpiegelONLINE  (as in Der Spiegel) asking if she could interview me. I agreed; we arranged a time for her to call from Hamburg. We talked for about a half-hour. She asked some good questions; I did have to explain what a tow truck was, but that was the only language issue. 

The article appeared on Friday. I could watch the WP Blog-o-Meter spinning with hits from Germany. The WP Facebook page was also getting huge traffic. But it was the list of comments that blew me, and Margie, too, right out of the water. They were wonderful. They were supportive and thankful. There were private messages, too, pointing out that the original party, had it been held in Germany, would've been illegal. Take a moment to go there and read them. They are amazing. 

And on Sunday, we were picked up in La Sopitas in Mexico

Although not everyone was on board with our decision to walk in front of Gasthof zur Gemutlichkeit, I am, without a doubt, positive it was the right thing to do. Yes, there will be meetings and discussions, and hopefully these will include the restaurateur, Mario Pierzchalski, and the participants, but our silent presence on that corner was eloquent and visceral at the same time. We left the site knowing we had made an impact. 

And judging by the size of the tow truck and the number of bully boys standing around, one of those impacts had to be in Mr. Pierzchalski's wallet. After all, he paid for all that security, dontcha know? 

Turns out there was another demonstration on Saturday night, by a more politically organized group called the Minneapolis Anti-Fascist Solidarity Action. They weren't silent. They had bull horns, speeches, and a chant: 
No Nazis! No KKK! No fascists USA! 
The speeches were about the working class enclave of Nord'East and how those people...the ones in the restaurant... are racists and against freedom, unions, jobs and stuff like that. It was, judging by the video, very passionate.

And kind of misrepresenting reality. The gist of their comments centered on removing that segment of the population, but in truth, they are the ones who come off as anti-free speech. There was an edge in their rhetoric that was the complete opposite of where we were. The bullhorns serve as a way to whip the crowd into some kind of frenzy...but this is Minnesota and we don't do frenzy very well. Frankly, I couldn't follow their stream of logic.

But that's me. I came up with the silent flash mob idea so that our silence would speak for the victims. The freedoms we treasure as Americans are the very freedoms denied the victims of the Holocaust, both civilian and military alike. I wanted to focus on preserving that which is guaranteed in the Constitution. In that moment, we needed to celebrate the opportunity for free speech....not to preach how others do not have the right to talk. It's a tough line and not easily explained and I'm certain I'm bungling it, but at the end of the day, what we have is worth preserving even if it means some people are going to have tasteless Nazi dinner parties.

We were a small crowd. We had no bull horns, no chants, no rhetoric. Our little silent flash mob was practical and functional. People all over the world read about it...and wrote to us to share their support, citing the silence again and again as the most powerful way to deliver the message. 

And I am more than okay with that. 

We did good. Real good. Margie and I are still kvelling. 



The Wifely Person's Tip o'the Week
If you haven't seen this in a while, take a moment to listen to
the ACLU speech from Aaron Sorkin's THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT.
It will knock your socks off. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Sitting Down Is Not An Option

UPDATE: Our silent flash mob deportation reenactment went off without a hitch. We had a good sized crowd and some good press coverage. 

Minneapolis Star Tribune - Photo Gallery - Jefferson Wheeler did a great job on the photos. 
Bring Me The News - also did a very nice piece.

More about this in next week's blog!


America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours." 
"ACLU speech" from The American President by Aaron Sorkin

This week's blog is not about free speech. It's not about whether or not the Nazi re-enactors had the right to have a party in a restaurant on a night the venue was closed. This isn't even about whether or not decorating the Gasthof zur Gemutlichkeit with swastikas and Nazi bunting is appropriate. This is about how...or even if... one responds when that event is made public.

On Monday night, January 20th, a group of WWII re-enactors gathered for their 6th annual holiday party. These guys said they were guys who played Nazis when there was a need to have Nazis. They gathered to celebrate their shared love of history by wearing their Nazi officer uniforms at a German restaurant that had been decked out with Nazi regalia. One might think those attending such a festive occasion would want to remember the evening with a few snaps, but alas.  restaurant staffer felt compelled to sneak a few pictures with his smartphone camera even though he'd been warned that no pictures were permitted. 

The pictures, as they appeared in CITY PAGES are, admittedly, not great, but good enough to be really scary. Although the participants likened what they did to a Star Trek convention where people dress up as both good guys and bad guys, I cannot help but think Nazi SS does not qualify for the  best fantasy costume category. Still....does there need to be a response?

Yes.

There are a number of responses going on. Most are discussions about why so many people (not just Jews) were totally offended by the event. The organizer, a fellow named Scott Steben issued a slightly odd apology:
Scott Steben had said earlier that the Jan. 20 dinner was a Christmas party and an exercise for period actors. But in an apology reported by the Star Tribune on Wednesday, Steben said his group understands that some items displayed at the dinner "have made people feel uncomfortable." He said, "That was not our intent." 
"We are a historical re-enactment and professional actor society dedicated to promoting understanding of World War II. In no way are we or any of our members affiliated with groups that promote the subjugation of anyone."     
                               from The Associated Press report of the event - March 19th, 2014   
     

This group seems not to have an official name. There is no Nazi Actor's Equity or Screen Nazi Guild. This appears to be (according to them, anyway) a bunch of guys who play the bad guys in film and other art forms. They say it's like playing the Indians in cowboys and Indians when you're a kid. It would seem they like to take their work home with them, and see nothing wrong with going out in public dressed as Nazis officers. Did they think there will be no visceral reaction? 

Well, being it's a private party and cameras were banned, the answer must have been yes, because there was no expectation that word of this event would get out.  But in this day of instant media, that's just not the way of the world. It escaped the walls of Gasthof zur Gemutlichkeit in living color and did a bunch of spins around the planet. 

Setting aside the part about free speech, the actions of the re-enactors have set off a firestorm of disgust, horror, and anger. And it's not all Jewish. Veterans' groups are incensed that anyone in the US would celebrate Nazi anything. GLBT groups have come out against the event as an attempt to deny or denigrate their existence and their progress in society. And Jewish groups argue that an event like this, no matter how benign it seems, is a public endorsement of anti-Semitism. Whatever the intent was, the perception was not mainstream positive. Perception is everything, and everything is open to interpretation.

Is there an appropriate response to the participants as well as the owner of the restaurant that hosts the annual dinner? 

There have been lots of responses: community leader meetings, stuff on the op ed pages of local newspapers. Lots of people are talking about it, and there's lots of stuff on Facebook, but there has yet to be a public gathering. 

Having spent my formative teen years standing on Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in front of the UN with a variety of signs, as well as planning some of those events, I am compelled by my own history to do something. Not doing something is unnatural to me. Someone must stand up to represent those who no longer have a voice. There needs to be a public presence on their behalf that says, "We do not forget those who perished at the hands of the real SS officers." 

As abhorrent as that party was, as obscene as glorification of the SS and the Nazi party may be to many of us, as Americans we must also defend their right to have such an event. This is the hard part of free speech. But that does not mean we are absolved from taking a stand against what their free speech advocates or, perhaps, glorifies. If we do not physically stand up and make our presence known, are we failing those who perished at the hands of the Nazis?

I believe that we are. I believe by not physically showing up we are helping 6,000,000+ men, women, and children to disappear into the mists of history. Our physical presence is a concise reminder that we remember what happened to them, that they are always in our consciousness. When we stand up for them, literally, we are preserving their very existence. 

I am not sitting this one out. A bunch of us aren't sitting this one out. If you're in the Twin Cities and want to stand up with us, send me an email. 

Stay tuned, folks. I'll keep you all posted. 


The Wifely Person's Tip o'the Week
Silence isn't always silent.
Sometimes, it speaks louder than anyone could imagine. 
It's all about context.....and perception.

Monday, March 17, 2014

If Not Now.....

So this plane went up in the air, flew around for a while, said "goodnight" to Malaysian air traffic control, then disappeared. Sorta. Seems it made a couple of unscheduled turns, pinged a satellite a few times, then disappeared. 
the search routes

In a nutshell, that's about all we really know about Malaysia flight 370. So far, anyway.

What I knew about Malaysia 370 was scary enough for me. I put one of my travelers on the MH red-eye to Beijing...and could not remember which day. The flight took off after midnight which, when I'm advising travelers, I am always very careful to say something like..."the flight takes off at 12:05 a.m.....that's the middle of the night between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, so you have to be at the airport late Tuesday night to make that flight.  Now, let's double check...is your last meeting Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning?" I cannot tell you the number of times there's been a big "uh oh! Wednesday morning!" followed by a date adjustment. So I spent part of the first weekend banging my head against the wall wondering what night I booked that fight. Thankfully, I did not; my traveler flew in the wee hours of Thursday morning. 

It's not the first time I've waited for the passenger manifest to be published. A friend from my college days was on the American Airlines flight 11 out of Boston on 9/11.  I had two clients originally booked on Air France 447 from Rio to Paris on June 1, 2009, only to change them a few days prior to return to the States instead. All of us in the industry have moments when we rack our brains to remember if we put someone on a particular flight. It comes with the job.

We live in a dangerous world. People hijack planes and fly them into buildings. People lob missiles at schoolyards. People set off car bombs in market places. People gun down people exiting houses of worship. People drive their cars into crowds on the sidewalk. And kids shoot up schools. The places that should be safe are not. And that is reality.

How scared are we supposed to be? Do we not go out into pubic places? Do we not travel on mass transit? Do we stop flying? Do we home school our kids rather than risk sending them into a place with lots of other kids thereby making it a target for a crazy person? 

Should we make each tragedy our own? Local tv stations look for anyone with a connection to whatever happened...the cousin of the hairdresser who was a friend of the brother-in-law of the woman who was a victim. Anything that will make whatever happened seem more personal. But does that do us any favors? Or does that just make us roll our eyes and think, "if it bleeds it leads so who cares?"

Once upon a time, I might have laughed at those questions, but not so much now. I think about what is safe and what is not every time I book a trans-oceanic flight. I have close friends in Israel....that's a worry on its own plane. What if that boatload of arms had reached Gaza? Another dear friend works in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia....and I worry about his safety all the time. I worry about the senior son playing at festivals and in some pretty tough neighborhoods. 

What is safe now may not be safe tomorrow. 

The US cannot police the world any more than it can police the country. If we were to curtail our foreign misadventures, would that make us more safe....or would it put countless others at risk? And is it our job to ride off to save the world? What if the world doesn't want to be saved according to our vision of how the world should be? Is there a moral imperative, a moral obligation, or does that kind of talk just mask the banality of our own colonial ambitions? 


"Guarding" Crimea naval base
In the last week, we've listened to John McCain rattle his saber at Vlad the Invader while the President is putting economic sanctions onto the table. What outcome does Senator McCain envision if we put so much as a single boot on the ground in Ukraine? Surely he does not believe the US would be greeted with open arms. We have millions of our own citizens living in almost 3rd world conditions and he wants to open another front? Give me a break.

I have no answers, only more and more questions. Some of them are not pretty. Others are probably naïve. But I cannot believe for one New York minute that I'm the only person asking them. Hillel is said to have asked the best questions of all...as it appears in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers):
1:14. He would also say: If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? 
These are not abstract questions any more. In fact, they cut to the heart of our national dilemma: do we have a responsibility to We, the People first, to make sure we clean our own house? Mired in greed and corruption, we are hardly a beacon to the world. Is the obligation to the rest of the world military or humanitarian? And if we are to act, is there a moment for which we wait....or do we, as a nation, act as quickly as possible?

And in the end, the final question must be....what makes us safer...safest? 

As for MH370....I think it landed someplace....but that's just me. There are so many islands out there where a runway could've been smoothed without anyone being any the wiser. Somehow, ditching in the ocean just doesn't make sense. Right now, there is nothing to do but wait. 


Wifely Person's Tip o'the Week
Older folks, even blind ones, enjoy getting birthday cards. 
It's a just the idea that someone thought about them not just on the day, but ahead.
If you know someone who will turn 93 on Friday, a birthday card would be nice.

Monday, March 10, 2014

We Are All Vashti

Illuminated Book of Esther ~ Ferrara, Italy, circa 1615
Well, it's that time again...Purim is a week away and between the hamantashen baking and the usual opining, I am one busy person.

This year, Megillat Esther, strikes a particular chord for me. The story of Queen Esther is not just about how a nice Jewish girl from Shushan became queen of Persia or about saving Jews from genocide, or even about freedom or redemption. It’s about all those things. There isn’t a person on the planet who can’t find something to take away from that story.

But here’s the thing: I'm not so sure any of it happened the way the book says. It kinda reads more like a novella than a historical account, but who knows? Maybe there's a poppy seed of truth in there someplace…and for me, that would be a bonus.

Looking at a text at least 2000 years old requires two things: 1) the understanding that unless you're reading it in some ancient language, you're reading a translation, and 2) your understanding of the characters is tempered by that translation as well as the time in which you live. 

There is no way to know what the intent of the author was since you’re probably not reading what was originally written. It was the last book to make it into the canon we call Tanakh in the 1st century C.E., and it’s the only book not to have been found at all at Qumran in what is commonly called The Dead Sea Scrolls. If you’re not reading a Jewish copy of the Bible, you may very well be reading the retelling of the story as found in the Septuagint, the first comprehensive translation of the Bible…into Greek. If you’re reading a translation of the Latin version of the Bible, you’re probably getting some additional information that did not appear at all in the original, which most Hebrew scholars think probably made its appearance around the 4th -3rd century B.C.E. And one should not forget that nowhere in Esther does the word G-d appear.

Confused yet? Wait. It gets better.

The characters are total cardboard; they’re a bunch of archetypes. The king is usually portrayed as a dimwit, Mordechai as a smart guy, Vashti as evil, and Esther as obedience and feminine intelligence. The little we do know about the real history tells us that Ahashverus is probably Xerxes I who ruled Persia from 485–465 B.C.E. and this guy was no slouch. But he is in this story.

So here’s the text I want everyone to look at:

1:10 On the seventh day, when the king's heart was merry with wine, he ordered Mehuman, Bizzetha, Harbona, Bigtha and Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, the seven chamberlains who ministered in the presence of King Ahasuerus.

1:11 To bring Vashti the queen before the king with the royal crown, to show the peoples and the princes her beauty, for she was of comely appearance.

1:12 But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king's behest which was [brought] by the hand of the chamberlains, and the king became very wroth, and his anger burnt within him.

Truth be told, Vashti is my favorite Biblical woman. She said no.  I want to believe her reasons were 21st century rational: she wasn't gonna dance in front of a bunch of strangers. She was the queen. She had to command the respect of the other women in the palace. She was a woman of stature. And most of all, she was a woman of valor. In a time when women didn't say no, she said no and she paid the price.

[An odd side note: some scholars make a point of pointing out the first line of the book does not call Ahasverus “king,” but from the very first mention, it calls Vashti “the queen.” Is it possible he came to the throne by marrying her as some scholars speculate? Well, probably not….but that is how his father secured his place on the Persian throne…by marrying Atossa,  the daughter of Cyrus the Great, one of the most beloved rulers ever. Even the Jews like Cyrus… so the answer to that question is no, since he is the son of Darius and Atossa, making him Cyrus’s grandson. Anyway….I digress.]

Josephus (37 – c. 100 C.E), the guy who is the closest thing we have to an on-the-scene reporter, says of Vasti: 
But she, out of regard to the laws of the Persians, which forbid the wives to be seen by strangers, did not go to the king; and though he repeatedly sent the eunuchs to her, she nevertheless continued to refuse to come, until the king was so much angered that he broke up the banquet, rose up, and called for the Seven Persians who were responsible for the interpretation of the laws, and accused his wife, saying that he had been insulted by her because although she had repeatedly been called by him to his banquet, she had not obeyed him once.
So maybe saying "no" to a blatant attempt to humiliate is not such a newfangled idea. Vashti said no. And Ahashverus’s ultimate regret in doing away with his queen opens the door to Esther…and Esther’s own defiance by showing up at court unbidden…which set the resolution of the story in motion.

All over this country there are a whole lotta wannabe Ahashveruses telling women they don't have the right to say no. They’re saying women don’t have the right to control what happens to their own bodies. They’re telling women they have to be breeders at the whim of men…husbands or not. They are taking the position that women’s reproductive healthcare is not to be readily available to all women. Texas has now forced the closure of 19 women's clinics, leaving just 24 clinics to serve 24 million people contained in a state of 268,581 square miles. 

Women need to channel both Vashti and Esther. We need to rise up against that attempt to push us back into another century. We need to use our ballots. We need to use our voices. And most of all, we need to come together as a single voice, pro-choice/pro-life/Jewish/Christian/Muslim/Hindu/Buddhist/ Wiccan/whatever to advocate for ourselves. Clearly, no one else is going to do it.  If We, the Women of The United States continue to send these yahoos back to Congress and the state legislatures, we have no one to blame but ourselves. 

What are we telling our daughters, our granddaughters, our great-granddaughters....and on and on and on?

Women of The United States, we are all Vashti. And we need to say NO very loud and clear.

Wifely Person's Tip o'the Week
Shalach manot is the opposite of Halloween. 
Feel free to leave an anonymous basket of goodies for a friend. 

Bonus ~ if you want to know what I think happened to Vashti, click here.