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Don’t widen home plate to shirk duty

Posted on 10 May 2018 by admin

I rejoice in receiving what friends send me that they think I will appreciate and enjoy. Sometimes they are Jewish, but sometimes, like this, they are life lessons applicable to everyone, well worth passing on. So now, as the baseball season continues to unfold, I am introducing you to John Scolinos, a well-remembered baseball coach at Cal Poly in Pomona, California.
In January 1996, at age 78, he had finally retired from a career of almost 50 years, and Opryland Hotel in Nashville was abuzz with comments from some 4,000 people there for the annual American Baseball Coaches convention. One variation of a most-heard remark: “John Scolinos is here? Oh, man — worth every penny of my airfare.”
When he was called to the stage, Scolinos ascended to a standing ovation — with a full-sized, stark-white home plate hanging around his neck. He talked for 25 minutes, never mentioning his “necklace,” until he finally said: “You’re probably wondering about this. Well, I may be old, but I’m not crazy. Can you tell me how wide home plate is in Little League?” The answer came tentatively: “17 inches?” “Right,” said Scolinos. “And in high school baseball? And in the Minor Leagues? And in the Major Leagues?” The correct answer was always the same.
Then the coach asked: “What happens to a Big League pitcher who can’t throw the ball over 17 inches?” A pause before he answered his own question: “What they don’t do is say, ‘Oh, that’s OK, Jimmy. If you can’t hit that target, we’ll make it 18, or 19, or 20, or 25 inches, so you have a better chance…’”
And now comes the lesson: “What do we do when our best player gets caught drinking? Do we hold him accountable? Or do we change the rules to fit him? In other words: Do we widen home plate?”
Then Scolinos continued, “This is the problem with our homes today. With our marriages. With the way we parent our kids. We don’t practice and teach accountability. There are no consequences for failing to meet standards. In other words: We widen the plate…” A pause before he added: “This is also the problem in our schools today. The quality of education is going downhill fast; teachers have been stripped of the tools they need to be successful in disciplining our young people. We are allowing others to widen home plate. Where is that getting us?”
Silence filled the air until he continued: “And this is a problem in churches, where powerful people in positions of authority have taken advantage of young children, their atrocity swept under the rug for years. Their leaders are widening home plate.”
One convention attendee later remarked, “I expected to learn something about curve balls and bunting, but from this old man with home plate strung around his neck, I learned about life — and myself — and my responsibilities as a leader.”
Now, here’s how Scolinos ended his talk: “If I’m lucky, you’ll remember this from an old coach today: If we fail to hold ourselves to a standard of what we know to be right…if we fail to hold our spouses and children to the same standards…if our schools and churches and government fail to hold themselves accountable to those they serve, unable to provide consequences when they do not meet standards…” at which point he turned home plate over to reveal its dirty underside: “there are dark days ahead.”
Coach John Scolinos was 91 when he died in 2009, but his final words of 13 years before are still being remembered today, and acted upon by thousands of coaches: “Keep your players, no matter how good they are…keep your own children…and, most of all, keep yourself…at 17 inches!” As Jews, we can heed them today, adding one more “inch” to arrive at chai, a life of realistic, righteous, enforceable standards. I’m sure the outspoken “old coach,” of very blessed memory, wouldn’t mind at all.


Righteous Gentile was Roddie Edmunds

Posted on 03 May 2018 by admin

It’s time for me to eat crow. I quote here a popular definition: “…a colloquial idiom that means humiliation by admitting having been proven wrong after taking a strong position. ‘Crow’ is probably foul-tasting in the same way that being proven wrong might be emotionally hard to swallow.” Having egg on my face may be more palatable, but no matter which cliché I accept — or both — I deserve the treatment.
In last Thursday’s column, I tried to sing the praises of a true, upstanding, Righteous Gentile in the American Army during World War II. This man — a mere sergeant in charge of 1,200 others because his superiors were lost forever to the enemy — became a hero as, standing before them in a Nazi prisoner of war camp, he stood up to its commandant, who was holding a pistol to his head. Instead of flinching when asked to identify “his” Jews — about 200 in the group at attention behind him — he said, in a brave face-down that ultimately saved everyone: “We are all Jews.”
You can reread my column of last week for basic information. But if you want to learn more about this Yad Vashem Righteous of the Nations, as at least one astute reader did, the first thing you’ll find when looking him up online is that I gave him a wrong name. This hero was Staff Sergeant Roddie Edmunds. I managed to misidentify him as Robbie Edwards.
In case you’re wondering — yes, indeed, there is a Robbie Edwards. He happens to be a minor league baseball player. I do like baseball, but I knew nothing about him — not consciously, at least — until after my grievous error was pointed out to me, and I went looking to find out what I had done. And why. Because I had never even heard of this person before I learned that I had usurped his name — and in so doing, dishonored a true hero. There is little I can say except how sorry I am, which is certainly not enough.
I’ve been in this business for a long, long time, and it has certainly not been a time without errors. I’m lucky that I can count the major ones on the fingers of one hand and still have a finger or two left over. Still, nothing has been as serious as this. And I’ve always been ready to eat crow when I have egg on my face. The one “excuse” I’ve never used — and I certainly won’t use it now — is that “these things happen.” Of course they do. But they shouldn’t. Any writer worth his or her salt has a responsibility to check and re-check facts before committing anything to print. I can promise all readers, and pledge to the memory of the great Roddie Edmunds, that I will never let such an error get past me again.
Only one of you has reported this mistake. But I’ll bet there are others who haven’t taken the time to do the same. In the future, if you question anything I write…if you are sure — or even just suspect — that I have it wrong, whatever it may be…please, don’t hesitate to let me know. I will be glad to make any and all necessary corrections. We may argue some “facts” that are in doubt or dispute; disagreements are always agreeable when handled civilly, so that both parties can learn something in the exchange. But an error is an error, and I will not deny any that I make. Most certainly, not this one.
Staff Sgt. Roddie Edmunds, I salute you for your heroism. And for Robbie Edwards, I wish a successful season this year. And maybe if you make it to the majors, and get to play with or against our Rangers, I’ll manage to meet you in person, shake your hand and tell you how I wrongly credited you with something worthy of history’s Hall of Fame.


Upstander told Nazi: ‘We are all Jews’

Posted on 26 April 2018 by admin

Last week, I sat in the Dallas Holocaust Museum, hearing survivor Simon Gronowski tell his story. He was 11 years old then, on the last train from Belgium to Auschwitz, the one remembered today because it was stopped by a trio of partisans who managed to pry open a door and free 17 of the Jews headed for destruction. The young boy and his mother were not among the 17, but as the train began to roll again, she sent him off, telling him to run. He never saw her again. But in his story of his life, he credits the kindness of others who helped him live. “Upstanders,” our museum calls them.
So, here’s another story, with a central character deserving to be famous because he’s one of the greatest “Upstanders” of all time. I offer it today as a postscript to both the Holocaust and Passover.
It was in the waning days of World War II. The tide had already turned in favor of the Allies, but German soldiers were still following Hitler’s order: Fight to the death for the Fatherland. And it happened that some 1,200 young American soldiers, a troop, separated from all comrades, fell into the enemy’s hands, enduring a two-day march before being herded into a Nazi prison camp. These GIs were without military leadership; the ranking “officer” among them was Master Sgt. Robbie Edwards. Some may have heard of him, but his bravery deserves more publicity…
Among the 1,200 were about 200 Jews. Their “dog tags,” like those of all Jews serving in America’s fighting forces then, were marked with a capital “H,” for “Hebrew.” And they were instructed to discard them in case of capture. Whether they had done so or not at the time of their incarceration is not known, but it really didn’t matter in this case; the Germans were hardly going to hand-check the identification of 1,200 individuals. Instead, they ordered everyone to stand at attention and called Sgt. Edwards, the young leader designated by necessity, to the front of the crowd. There was not a sound from the Americans as the ranking Nazi spoke to him: “Give us your Jews,” he ordered.
Edwards never flinched, never hesitated. It was as if he had known all along that he would be given such an order and had decided in advance what he would say when the time came to say it. And so he responded with this short, very sweet answer: “We are all Jews here.”
The Nazi in charge pulled out his pistol, put it to Robbie Edwards’ temple, and this time threatened: “Give us your Jews or I’ll shoot you.” Again, the sergeant showed no fear. Instead, “You can shoot me,” he said, loud and clear, “but then you’ll have to shoot everyone else here, too. You know the war is coming to an end and you are losing. So you’ll be tried as a war criminal, and that will be the end of your life, too.”
Without another word, the German officer pocketed his pistol and walked away.
This is one of the amazing stories of non-Jewish heroism at a time of such peril for all Jews in Europe, including those Jews in American uniforms who were fighting not just for Jews, not just for America, but for the good of the world. And Edwards had spoken truth — not about how many Jews were under his leadership, but about the state of the war. And it wasn’t long before Russian troops arrived to take those Nazis prisoner, and to free the Americans. The date of their liberation, fittingly enough, was March 25, the second day of Pesach 1945.
Yes, Staff Sgt. Robbie Edwards has been recognized as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem. But at the Dallas Holocaust Museum, which teaches the virtues of taking action rather than just standing by when one sees the abuse of others, he would be called “Upstander.” Truly a Sergeant First Class.


Making sure the 6 million’s names live on

Posted on 19 April 2018 by admin

I wrote this four days ago, after I had just returned from Reading the Names. The Beth Torah Men’s Club had this inspired idea, began it in 2003, and it’s now a sacred tradition.
This quote is attributed to an elusive figure named Bansky: “A person dies twice. First, when he takes his last breath. Second, when the last person remembers his name.” Whether that was the inspiration, I don’t know. But 15 years ago, someone in the congregation realized that the names of many of the 6 million had never been spoken since their Holocaust deaths, and this annual ritual of remembrance is the result. It is subtitled: “To Every Person, There Is a Name…”
Anyone who wants to read names may do so. It’s a 24-hour vigil, beginning after Havdalah on the Saturday closest to Yom HaShoah, and ending at Sunday’s sundown. (Guess who reads through the wee small hours? Teenagers who have an all-nighter under the watchful supervision of youth group leaders and Learning Center personnel.) This tradition was started by Beth Torah, but was immediately opened to the greater community; now, folks of other synagogues, of churches and mosques, come; some even Skype in — sometimes from as far away as Israel. The names come from Holocaust museums that lend what they have: the Nazis’ own records of their victims. Who lived where? Died where? At what age? Germans have always been efficient at keeping details; the Holocaust was no exception.
People who don’t want to read are encouraged to come, sit quietly and just listen, to hear the names read aloud so that those who have drawn their last breaths now become people who have not died that second time. So, I sat in the darkened synagogue sanctuary until it was my turn to read, listening to others, facing the line of 11 candles lit in memory of our own 6 million, plus the 5 million others who shared their horrific fates.
A table on the bimah was stacked with individual sheets of paper, all covered with those neatly printed German statistics for each of the non-survivors. Four piles, each about a foot high. I calculated: My two great-grandsons will likely have grandchildren of their own when the Reading of the Names is finally completed. Maybe not even that soon…
But we read on. Some of us have difficulty with pronouncing the foreign names, or the towns in which their owners lived (and often died). But less difficulty with some of the death sites so carefully noted: Auschwitz — Sobibor — Babi Yar; we are already too familiar with them. With each name, however, we do our loud-and-clear best, to make sure that these people have not yet fully passed away. Sometimes it’s hard not to cry; I have to exercise a seldom-needed kind of self-control when I realize I’m reading off the names of an entire family: I can tell by the surname, the town in which all lived, their ages — people in their 80s, 60s, 40s, 20s and those who were teens, or 10, 8, 6, 4, 2. But most often, most sadly, they have not even died together in the same place. However, every one of them is coming to life again, off those awful pages, if just for a brief moment…
Israel’s three most special days are in this order: Very soon after Yom HaShoah, when Holocaust survivors are celebrated and victims memorialized, comes Yom HaZikaron, paying tribute to those who have given their all as soldiers of their country, and others who have suffered terrorism. Then, just one day later, comes Yom HaAtzmaut: Independence Day. After first mourning the long-gone, then stopping all activity for an incredible silence to salute those whose bravery and suffering have made their country live, Israelis burst out in a show of life like nowhere else in the world.
That final day is today. Let’s celebrate, too. And let’s mark our calendars now, to join in the Reading of the Names next year.


Father Desbois’ newest accolade fittingly earned

Posted on 12 April 2018 by admin

We always remember the Holocaust. How could we not? But today, Yom HaShoah, it should be at the top of our minds. And it’s the right day to think about Father Patrick Desbois, the Roman Catholic priest who received something special last fall: The Human Rights Prize, given annually by the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice.
What did the cleric do to earn this honor? Well, his life’s work, post-Holocaust, has been recognizing more than a million unknown victims of the Nazis. Writing in the Times of Israel, Eric Cortellessa reported that the honoree “has focused on the Jews who were killed by mass shootings by Nazi units in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Moldova and Romania, between 1941 and 1944.”
Father Desbois now teaches in the Center for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. This made it easy for him to attend the reception on Washington’s Capitol Hill, where he was lauded as “a vital voice standing up for the values of decency, dignity, freedom and justice.” The honoring Foundation is that of Annette and Tom Lantos, who both survived the Holocaust. You may recognize Tom’s name: a Democrat from California who died in 2008, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives – the only Survivor ever to be a member of Congress.
Yahad-In-Unum is the French organization Desbois founded 14 years ago to locate mass graves of Jewish victims. He documented its results in his first book, The Holocaust by Bullets, which was published in 2008 and won that year’s National Jewish Book Award; its subtitle is A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews. At that time, he was credited with “virtually single-handedly undertaking the task of excavating the history of previously undocumented Jewish victims of the Holocaust.”
One critic assessed his book realistically as “… not particularly well-structured or well-written, but its importance far outweighs its narrative flaws,” because Desbois is credited with using “wartime documents, interviews with locals, and the application of modern forensic practices on long-hidden gravesites” in his work. More recently, he wrote “In Broad Daylight: The Secret Procedures Behind the Holocaust by Bullets,” also based on research and firsthand accounts. Another reviewer, not put off by writing style, was inspired to say its author “…might be one of the greatest detectives of all time.”
Father Desbois, ordained in 1985 at age 31, first worked as a math teacher for the French government in Africa, then moved to Calcutta, where he helped Mother Teresa establish her homes for the dying. His priestly work includes directing the church’s Episcopal Committee for Relations with Judaism, which connects to the French Conference of Bishops, and serving the Vatican as a consultant on relations with Judaism. He was also a personal aide to the late Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger, the Jew who converted to Catholicism and became a priest.
(So soon after Easter, it’s interesting to consider Lustiger’s epitaph, which he wrote himself, as a sidelight to Desbois accomplishments: “I was born a Jew. I received the name of my paternal grandfather, Aaron. Christian by faith and by baptism, I remained a Jew, as did the Apostles.” Lustiger also retained his surname, which may ring the bell of recognition for those of us who know even a little Yiddish: in that language, “Lustig” means “fun,” and those of us who grew up with grandparents whose native tongue was Yiddish, and who sang holiday songs to us in their first language, surely remember “Oy Chanukah,” which calls the holiday both a “freilicher” and a “lustiger,” comparatives that translate to happier than just plain happy, more fun than ordinary fun.)
Father Desbois is in good company as a Lantos winner: prior recipients have included both the Dalai Lama and Elie Wiesel. But the prize presenter offered this chilling introduction: “There is nothing more human than the capacity to kill.” Should we believe that? Do we want to believe that?


Holocaust books tell tales of healing

Posted on 05 April 2018 by admin

A wise Sunday school principal told me this, years ago, when I complained about how little time there is between Purim and Passover to prepare children for the latter: “Don’t limit yourself. Passover is so important to our people, you must teach it all year, then celebrate it when it comes.” I hope our religious schools do that.
I also hope they — and we — appreciate the fact that the Holocaust is also with us year-round. We commemorate it on Yom HaShoah, which soon arrives again. But we must remember it, and teach it, always. A good way is to read some of the many books that deal with this incredibly important, horrifically unfortunate part of our Jewish history.
I also hear people complain: Too many Holocaust books, they say. But they’re wrong, because not everything has been said. And all will never be said – just as there is, and will be, no end to the teaching of Passover. There should be, and will be, more. Not every book will be quality, but all deserve to be read, because they tell truth in many ways. Every Survivor, every child of a Survivor, everyone with a Survivor grandparent, has a different story to tell. We must encourage all of them to get every single one out for us to read and learn from.
Not all such stories are “true” in the same way. Some are honest, quite literal biographies, but many are very different. I applaud two remarkable novels that deal with the fallout of the Holocaust for two very different individuals, in two very unusual ways. These stories are fiction built on imaginings of possible Holocaust realities.
The first is a new one: “Secrets and Shadows” by Roberta Silman. The second was published seven years ago: Evan Fallenberg’s “When We Danced on Water.” The title of the second is more than a bit ambiguous and gives the reader something to mull over even when the reading is done.
The author, an Israeli, imagines and fleshes out the meeting of a young Israeli woman who made a dreadful error during her army service, something that has caused her prolonged unhappiness. A budding artist, she works in a coffee house, and there meets and gets to know an old man, once a dancer and choreographer, who emigrated to Palestine as soon as he could after World War II, during which he silently suffered horrors that Fallenberg describes in word pictures to make one’s blood run cold.
The title of the first hides nothing. A young man, now a successful American, endured and survived the Holocaust as a child. But he has carried a secret with him for years, something he could never reveal until the fall of the Berlin wall forced him to rethink his past and confront the need to unburden himself before guilt destroys his life. To do this, he seeks the help of his ex-wife, knowing that his secret is what caused the destruction of their marriage.
Both of these writers are masters of their craft; when readers reach the ends of their tales, all the “clues” planted in the pages before re-emerge to complete the puzzles of healing for both the old dancer and the tormented young man. It is the healing aspect of both these novels, the truth that – at least for some – when Holocaust memories are confronted head-on, when secrets are finally revealed, there is no forgetting, but there can be healing.
Perhaps healing is what is most important about all Holocaust writings, fiction and not. That’s why such writing should be encouraged, even from those who are not recognized and honored writers like Fallenberg and Silman. The stories help their authors heal themselves and others, so please do not downplay their importance. And above all, please do not say “Enough, already.” There will never be enough said about the Holocaust, just as we will never stop telling the story of our Exodus from Egypt.


Pickles and root beer and ‘chrain,’ oh my!

Posted on 29 March 2018 by admin

My Boubby the Philosopher was queen of her kitchen. But throughout the year, some goodies were the province of my Zaidy the Plumber, all by himself.
First, there were the pickles. Clausson’s are probably the best in local markets today, but if you think they’re good, I feel sorry for you. They’re nothing like Zaidy’s pickles, which provided a sublime “sting” that stayed with you for hours after eating.
He also made delicious root beer. At times, it was dangerous to walk in the basement of the house because you’d have to avoid colliding with bottles that covered virtually all the floor until Zaidy declared it was time to bring them up and start drinking. And how did he know that? Well, he’d cleverly constructed a “timer” of sorts by inserting a raisin or two (or maybe three) into a few of those bottles which, left alone long enough, would ferment. And when that happened, they blew the corks right out of their bottles. The sound from the cellar that resembled gunfire signaled drinkability, and everyone in the family would holler out, collectively, “The root beer’s ready,” accompanied by loud applause.
But most important of all: Zaidy made the horseradish for our Pesach Seders, and it packed a wallop that outdid everything else, surpassing even his stinging pickles and his “pickled” root beer. As a child then I had no idea what his process was, or how long it took. But I remember that at a certain time before the start of Passover, we grandchildren would gather in the dining room, seated in a ceremonial half-circle around the foot of the long table, with Zaidy sitting opposite us, alone at the head, a dish of beet-stained red stuff in front of him.
It was a quiet ritual, at least at first, and very informal: I remember him wearing a sleeveless white undershirt for the occasion. Then we would watch, holding our collective breaths, as he took a heaping spoonful from that dish, swallowed the contents in one big gulp, threw back his head —and his eyes watered furiously while his face turned as red as what he had just ingested.
After what seemed to us a long, dangerous time, he would lower his head, regain his powers of speech, and declare with satisfaction: “Good. The chrain is ready.” Then the “fun” was over; the color would drain from his face, and we’d go back to more normal activities. But to this very day, I can’t abide that wimpy stuff I find in jars…
One more bit of cooking for the “man of the house”: Once in a great while, he would make cernatzlach. If you don’t know what these are, you are definitely not Romanian. In truth, neither was my Zaidy, but he was born in a small village located on several borders that included Hungary and other countries, so depending on who was in charge locally (no one Jewish, for sure) and what day of the week it was, his nationality was subject to change. But this was a meichel no woman in our family ever attempted: finely ground beef, mixed with nothing at all except many, many cloves of garlic that had been peeled, boiled and mashed, all then formed into sausages like fat little fingers and boiled. Another powerful Zaidy dish.
I actually have an 80-year-old Jewish cookbook that doesn’t feature lists of ingredients; it just tells you what to add and do as you read along. And this “recipe,” this step-by-step set of instructions, is in it. Four cloves of garlic to every pound of meat, it says; more if you prefer. As you can guess from the information above, Zaidy did prefer.
May your Pesach tables be beautiful and your foods delicious, so good memories will travel with you into a future as long as I’ve held mine: of pickles, root beer and — above all — chrain. (P.S: Cernatzlach are Kosher for Passover…)


A mischievous Elijah who loves wine

Posted on 22 March 2018 by admin

Closer and closer to Pesach; more and more fun to share. I’ve just had the pleasure of re-reading Shalom India Housing Society, a jolly romp of a novel with this intriguing subtitle: The Riveting Story of a Lost Tribe of Israel Living in India.
Legend has it that more than 2,000 years ago, one of those lost tribes was shipwrecked — why they were sailing and where to are not specified — and somehow landed on India’s Konkan coast. This was the start of the Bene Israel of India today.
This much is true: In 2002, there were religious riots in the part of India where the Bene Israel had settled. Author Esther David, herself a “member of the tribe,” used actual history in creating her splendid 2007 work of fiction, shot through with humor and heart. She relocates a group of Jews, anxious to get away from the rioting — since they might be mistaken by either of the two warring groups as members of the enemy — into a large apartment building, and gives us readers a chance to observe them.
Now here’s where Passover comes in: We first see these Jews through the eyes of Elijah, who is especially beloved by them, having a status that seems located somewhere between Moses and the Almighty, and possessing the wisdom and abilities of both. We pour that Cup of Elijah and during our Seders open the door for him, inviting him to enter and drink. So, it wouldn’t be out of the question (would it?) for the Prophet himself to make a round of inspection visits before the first Seder, to see how it will be observed by these people who venerate him much more intensely than we ever have. Well, he does just that. And as he flies unseen from apartment to apartment, we readers fly with him and are privy to his observations, comments and conclusions.
In her brief introductory “Prelude,” David introduces us to “Eliyahu Hannabi” (Indian spelling rendered in English) as the novel’s protagonist. He is not at all the way we think of Elijah here in the West. As a matter of fact, the Bene Israel even defy the injunction against making images of people because they love Elijah so much that they hang pictures of him in their homes. And they believe that on his way up to Heaven, he flew over India, where the horses driving his chariot left their hoofprints on a large rock — the place where Shalom India Housing Society residents now go to give thanks, and leave something for Elijah to eat — after they’ve prayed to him (not to God above) if their prayers have been answered.
Author David portrays Elijah as “a fun-loving, mischievous character who enjoys watching the theater of human follies, and good-heartedly intervenes when necessary.” This is why we, as readers, can follow the intertwining lives of those Society residents after the first Seder — after we have flown with him, invisibly, and watched him check out “important” things, like the quality of the wines that fill his special goblet in every apartment.
An example: Elijah knows the Hyams, in A-102, always have something good for him. But we see his surprised disappointment: This year, they have made their own “wine,” and he finds nothing “liquorish” about it. So he moves on, only to find something colorless waiting for him in the next apartment’s goblet. He “feels like hitting his head on the wall,” we’re told. But when he dips a finger in and licks it, he is “hit like a bomb”: This glass is full of straight gin — quickly assessed by the Prophet as “something to look forward to.”
A Pesach like none we’ve ever known. A new way to view our old holiday. We adults can have more fun than our youngsters do with their plastic frogs if we just imagine the spirit of this Puckish Prophet hovering over us. L’chaim, Elijah.


Read new Zell, Harpham books

Posted on 15 March 2018 by admin

Two people who on the surface may seem to have little in common: one a man, the other a woman. But look more closely, and you’ll see that both are members of our local Jewish community, both are published authors and both have brand-new books that are worth our attention.
The man is Rabbi Shawn Zell, spiritual leader of Tiferet Israel, Dallas’ traditional congregation. The woman is Wendy Harpham, doctor of internal medicine.
Life sometimes plays some funny tricks. Rabbi Zell has not (to my knowledge, at least) experienced anything quite like what Dr. Wendy has lived through. When her three children were very small, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She has defied the dreadful prognoses that most often accompany NHL and is now a grandmother. Zell is a knowledgeable, devoted congregational leader — and also a grandfather.
Harpham’s disease, with its many treatments, its ins-and-outs of remission, weakened her early on, sapping her strength and energy. She could no longer continue her medical practice, so she turned to writing about what she was experiencing and learning about surviving cancer. For Zell, writing has always been a natural adjunct to his rabbinical career. Astute and expressive, he educates and entertains his congregants weekly; his bulletin articles are filled with alliteration and clever wordplay. It’s no surprise that his books reflect love of language along with vast Jewish knowledge.
Zell’s first book, The Right Word, provides invaluable guidance to those who are tongue-tied when visiting a house of mourning, or trying to put sympathetic thoughts into a condolence note that says more and better than the routine, much overused “my thoughts and prayers are with you.” Harpham’s first book, Diagnosis: Cancer, quickly introduced her continuing emphasis in its subtitle: Your Guide to the First Months of Healthy Survivorship.
Zell introduced his second book, Passover Points to Ponder, at a recent brunch in his synagogue. With Pesach coming upon us so quickly, we might all ponder how to squeeze in some time to read at least a few of his profound, insightful explorations concerning the forthcoming holiday. Harpham’s Healing Hope: Through and Beyond Cancer will launch Sunday, March 18. It is a sharing of her own experiences and continuous learning, the mental skills that have kept her a positive survivor. And as a physician herself, Harpham has produced a small library of books targeted not only at cancer survivors, but also the doctors who care for them.
Do not get the idea that Zell’s Passover book is just another new Haggadah. There are so many of them already on the market; you can surely find one that suits whatever kind of Seder you’re having, and whatever mix of people will make up those seated around your table. In its pages, he delves deeply into Torah accounts of much that our people experienced long before the Exodus, tying them together to show how the roots of the latter are firmly embedded in the former. Since reading time is short during this period of holiday preparation, just choose a topic or two from his list of more than 30 — from Matzah and Kiddush to Adir Hu and Chad Gadya, and virtually everything in between — and let the learning begin.
Harpham’s previous books cover in sequence every step of her own life since diagnosis, but always with the emphasis on survival, providing a positive path for everyone with cancer — and anyone with any other life-threatening disease. The new one is perhaps the simplest yet, which may make it the most useful of all: It asks, at the start, “What is a Healthy Survivor?” and answers with brief vignettes and clever illustrations on knowledge, hope, action, meaning and happiness. It is a bright read for everyone, even — maybe especially — those of us currently in good health.
Aren’t we lucky to have these two gifted writers among us? May they — and we — have the happiest Passover ever.


Is this book psychology or psychobabble?

Posted on 08 March 2018 by admin

Have you ever gone to see a play and found it so personally unappealing that you were ready to leave at intermission? Have you ever actually done that? Not I. Even when sorely tempted, I’m afraid I’ll miss something important in Act II, so I dutifully file back in when I hear the call. Now — interestingly enough — this choice is confronting me about a book.
I’ve just read half of Barbra Streisand: On the Couch, and I don’t quite know what to make of it, leaving me unable to decide whether plowing through another 250 or so pages would improve my understanding enough to make it worthwhile, or if that would just be time wasted.
Yes, Streisand is an interesting subject. And, yes, Alma H. Bond, Ph.D., is an interesting author. A psychoanalyst with many years’ experience, she’s given up that work in favor of writing books. This is the latest of her On the Couch series, in which she uses her professional skills to extrapolate from known facts of famous women’s lives. She’s already explored the psyches of Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Hillary Clinton; now that Streisand is between closed covers, she’s already working on Meryl Streep.
As author of what I see to be clever works of fiction, Bond casts herself as Dr. Darcy Dale, to whom rich and famous women come for understanding more about themselves. As a real analyst, she certainly has her chops. But in writing, she presents her subjects as real people in therapy with her fictional alter ego. So should readers be expected to believe what (or anything) of the conversations that make up her books? The extensive press kit accompanying my copy of Streisand says Bond’s “fictionalized biographies provide a unique and revealing perspective of (her subjects’) lives.” I certainly agree with “unique,” but I question the value of what they reveal.
I haven’t see any reactions to these Bond-interpreted women from the women themselves, or noticed their books hitting the top of The New York Times best-seller List. Possibly I’ve missed something, but somehow, I doubt it…
I haven’t even found this a “fun” read, which is why I’m ready to put the book aside after “Act I,” as it were. What have I learned about Streisand that I didn’t know before? Words come out of the made-up analyst’s mouth, as they do out of the supposedly-real Streisand’s mouth, and this is the impasse where I find myself: I can believe the things that Bond-as-Dale says only if I can also believe the “quotes” that supposedly represent what Streisand says. And would the latter ever really have made such statements, asked such questions, and responded as she does to Dr. Dale’s answers? Plus, there is so much sex and rough language attributed to this Barbra that a very “blue” cloud was hanging over On the Couch as I was reading it. Can this really be the way she wants herself portrayed? “‘Tis a puzzlement…”
Streisand’s authorized autobiography is supposed to be out soon, but its publication has been delayed (according to the press kit mentioned above). I think I might just wait for it and put this book aside, because it seems to me that in “Act I,” it has already shared everything, and will only offer up more of the same in an endless Act II. Would you agree with me?
For the record: Bond is Jewish herself, with a New York background, so she easily handles such Yiddish as emerges from the on-paper Streisand’s mouth. And like the real analyst she is, she eschews direct judgment. However, she is actually sharing with her readers what properly belongs only in a real analyst’s private notebook, which makes me uncomfortable: What right do I, an outsider, have to know the intimate thoughts of either her or her subject?
So: To read or not to read on — that is my question. Please let me know your answers!


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