Friday, December 31, 2010

Film Fest pulls community together -- again

It’s Friday, time yet again for another posting of interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Today, let’s take a look at one of the major Jewish happenings here in the Land of Cotton.

I don’t have a clue what I’ll be doing next week, but have a pretty good idea how I’ll be spending much of February. The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, one of the premiere flick fests in the country, has expanded and will be offering dozens of movies at venues across the Land of Cotton.

The lovely Miss Wendy and I have already made our choices and bought our tickets. Over the course of three weeks, some 60 films will be screened. Wendy and I managed to rip apart our calendars and rethink our daily schedules so we can attend a dozen or so. There are comedies and dramas, documentaries and shorts. They all explore the human condition and, in some fashion, there’s always a Jewish twist.

On one memorable Sunday, Wendy and I will be spending the day at our local multiplex – it’s one of the new venues added this year. Our marathon effort will begin with a documentary, “100 Voices: A Journey Home,” followed by two feature films, “The Human Resources Manager”, and “The Matchmaker”.

The documentary takes a look at the generation of chazanim lost during the Holocaust and brings together a group of world-class cantors in Poland to share their musical talents and memories of what’s been lost.

The Jewish factor of the features is a bit harder to classify. Both films are comedies, were produced in Israel and, I imagine, are imbued with a certain, um, yiddishkeit. It’s the details, the little bits of narrischkeit – Jewish nonsense – that make these movies entertaining and makes the film festival a not-to-be-missed happening each winter.

At one end of the artistic spectrum, the festival – btw, this will be its eleventh year – is all about entertainment and education, offering movies focusing on Jewish life, culture and history. That’s the party line, pulled from the festival’s official website here. But slide along this philosophical plane and I think there’s something of import resting at the other end of the spectrum.

There’s 120,000 Jews in the metro area and over the course of the festival thousands will attend at least one show. Last year the film fest drew some 20,000 moviegoers and expectations are high new records will be set. No other Jewish event – religious, communal or cultural – comes close to attracting such large numbers in the Land of Cotton.

The films, of course, are the draw. The icing on the cake is bumping into friends and family – the ganze mispucha. The wailing about the loss of Jewish identity and the real concerns of assimilation fade for at least a few weeks.

So we can all collectively sit back and relax in a darkened theater, laugh a little, cry a little, lose ourselves in what’s being offered on the big screen. And at least for an hour or two return home to our Jewish community that grows just a little smaller and more distant each year.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

God only knows what I'd be without you

Spent the other night in a lovely way with the lovely Miss Wendy watching “Love, Actually”! It’s become a Grebnief holiday tradition. The film is light and fluffy with a killer soundtrack and a message that goes just as far as you’re willing to take it.

The 2003 romantic comedy, written and directed by Richard Curtis, features an ensemble cast of iconic pros – Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Kiera Nightley, Alan Rickman, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Billy Bob Thornton – whose lives criss-cross in all manner of ways. There’s at least a half-dozen or so story lines that play out during the movie, focusing on the joy, pain and messy madness of love.

Of the half-dozen or so tales that play out during the movie, the one that’s lingering about in my noggin today is the laugh-out-loud funny connection between Jamie and Aurélia (Colin Firth and Lucia Moniz). They meet when Jamie escapes to his cottage in France to work on a novel and lick his wounds after being betrayed by his girlfriend. He meets and pretty quickly falls for Aurélia, his Portuguese housekeeper. Jamie speaks no Portuguese and Aurélia speaks no English. Hijinks ensue!

Jamie makes his way to Portugal on Christmas Eve to ask Aurélia to marry him, a hilarious, joyful bit of filmmaking. The dialogue is sharp and witty and the director manages to add an extra layer of energy by cutting back and forth between this story line and another involving two kids and first love. Trust me, it works!

Starring right along with the great script and wonderful acting is the city of London, all gussied up and twinkling for the holidays. And let’s not forget that killer soundtrack I mentioned earlier, a euphonic blend of pop hits and memorable classics. Highlights include Kelly Clarkson and “The Trouble with Love”, Norah Jones and “Turn Me On”, “Jump (for my love)” by the Pointer Sisters and Joni Mitchell doing “Both Sides Now”. Don’t look now, but I think you’re tapping your tootsies.

Push aside the feel-good vibe of the movie and there’s a little message all wrapped up at the end. The last scene returns to the opening of the movie at Heathrow, most of the film’s characters stumbling into one another – greeting or being greeted – at the international airport outside of London.

As the Beach Boys’ hit “God Only Knows” plays out, the bigger than life vignettes give way to real-life portraits of folks greeting one another – husbands and wives, friends and lovers, people! The screen splits, then splits again; then again and yet again. Hundreds of people hugging, holding tight and living out the lyrics that poignantly explain each of the stories in the movie..

Recall the refrain? If not, check out the headline to this posting to help jog your memory. Now go hug that special person in your life and happy New Year!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Me, a general, and a memorable holiday party

It’s Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Since Christmas, that most un-Jewish of holidays, is tomorrow, I thought this an opportune time to share one of my most memorable holiday stories.

There’s some sort of weird synergy happening with Christmas falling on Shabbat this year. It has me thinking of another holiday season, long ago, when I was working for Uncle Sam and living in Germany. It wasn’t the Sabbath that added a touch of Judaism to Christmas then, but a bizarre link to the Holocaust.

I’ll explain. Some of you might recall the draft, a system once part of the American way of life. Universal conscription offered up warm bodies for military service, a useful program especially during World War II when darkness covered the planet. The draft continued providing soldiers, sailors and marines during the Korean War, then a dozen years later when the U.S. was busy battling Communism in Vietnam. I’ll leave any political posturing and discussions of right and wrong about our role in that little corner of the world for another day.

It was during this period, however, when our leaders were worried about dominoes falling across Southeast Asia, that a lottery system for the draft was created and I graduated from the Land of Cotton U just in time to become a private in the Army. The good news is I had learned how to type in high school and honed my talents in college. So it was all together a pleasant surprise after I managed to survive basic training that I ended up being handed a typewriter instead of an M-14.

More significantly – for both this posting and my life – I was shipped off to Germany instead of the jungles of Vietnam. I landed at a NATO base in Seckenheim, a small village between Heidelberg and Mannheim.

The little installation that became my home for the next 18 months or so was the headquarters of something called CENTAG – that’s army talk for Central Army Group. Back when the cold war was absolutely frigid, CENTAG was a happening place. If I actually detailed our mission, I’d then have to kill each of you. Suffice it to say I needed a “NATO Top Secret Atomic” clearance to sit in my office and do my work.

If you can recall the Nazi installation that was blown up by Lee Marvin and his band of misfits in “The Dirty Dozen” then you have an idea of what CENTAG looked like. The base had, in fact, been a Nazi Kaserne – barracks to you and me – during World War II. Rumor had it housing members of the Gestapo and the installation certainly had the look of such a place – cobblestone courtyard, sterile gray buildings and a pristine parade ground, all neatly surrounded by a high-brick fence topped with barbed wire.

The top general for USAEUR – military speak for United States Army Europe – was also the top dog at CENTAG. But his deputy was a German brigadier general – after all, this was a NATO base on German soil – and therein rests our story.

Hans Jurgen Vogler was straight out of central casting. He had leading man good looks – strong and confident, a shock of gray hair, sharp features and a tall, lean body. He was always immaculately dressed in a uniform that was perfectly pressed and creased, the chest of his slate-gray uniform filled with campaign ribbons and medals.

Although details about his war record were never officially discussed, it was rumored that he had fought for Germany on the eastern front during World War II, was wounded and taken prisoner by the Russians.

I was working as a glorified clerk-typist, but because I had a degree in Journalism and had worked for a newspaper before being drafted, I was often called into staff meetings to take minutes of the proceedings. So when our office, including NCOs and officers, held its annual Christmas party, I knew most of the players. It was an international group, top heavy with top brass from the U.S., Germany, England, Italy and Canada.

I was chatting with officers from England, Canada and Italy when Gen. Vogler joined out group. We had been discussing the sad state of affairs in Northern Ireland – it was 1972 – and the general seemed interested in our conversation. There was something about the violence in the region that captured his attention.

“It’s hard to believe,” he said, “that people die over religion.”

Have you ever been in a group, started to tell a joke and just before delivering the punch line realized there was a good chance someone listening was going to be offended? That’s exactly where the general found himself. Time momentarily stood still as our little group stared at him in slack-jawed amazement.

It had been over 25 years since the end of World War II. Yet the horrors of the Holocaust still hung heavily in the air, a constant reminder of the murderous, sadistic behavior of Germany’s Nazi regime and its people who claimed they never really knew what was happening in all those death camps across Eastern Europe.

Gen. Vogler turned to me, the only Jew in the group and, quite possibly, the only Jew on the entire base. He started to speak, stopped, then managed to say these five words. “I acknowledge what we did.” It seemed he had more to say, but after a moment’s thought, pulled himself to attention, gave me one of those Germanic bows – knees stiff, arms at his sides, slightly bent at the waist – then whirled about and walked briskly from the room.

His words and actions might seem slight and light. But given the time and place – he was a general and I was an enlisted man; we were surrounded by his colleagues, all filled with good cheer and expensive booze – what more could he do or say?

At least for a moment the cosmic order of military life had been turned on its head – up was down and down was up. And how could it have been otherwise? I might have only been a little specialist in a room filled with colonels and generals, but on that day 39 years ago I was lifted high atop the moral high ground by six million souls that will never be forgotten.

THAT BE ME: After being drafted and making my way through basic training, I ended up working and playing (photo above) at a NATO installation near Heidelberg, Germany.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Stuff happens and I can only wonder why?

My lawn mower coughs up oil and whines. Why? The idiot light flashes off and on in my car. What gives? There’s a small hole in the siding at the back of my house, pecked out by birds last spring. Why me?

An outraged motorist runs me off the road. Why? The clerk in the grocery store closes her station after I wait 15 minutes. What gives? The cop on the corner ignores the guy in the red sports car zipping down the road and pulls me over for going 10 miles over the speed limit. Why me?

Some guy below the gnat line in South Georgia wins $150 million in the lottery. Why? Thousands of journalists across the country have lost their jobs and can’t find work. What gives? I’m short, bald and my prostate seems to grow larger each day. Why me?

Well, stuff happens. You don’t pay attention to your lawn mower and car, there’s a good chance they’ll break down at some point. People are crazy, especially motorists who have anger issues and others are just plain lucky – I’m thinking lottery here.

The world changes and jobs come and go. I’m certain there’s some sort of algorithm to detail the ups and downs of the economy and recent job losses and I’m also certain it would take me a few thousand words to explain it all. The good news is I can explain the bald, short, prostate thing in one word – heredity!

I learned Wednesday that my next door neighbor has a brain tumor. Gloria, a high school math teacher, is beautiful and smart and seems to have the perfect family – adoring husband and two wonderful kids. John is a sophomore at Alabama and Lisa learned just last week that she'll be attending the University of Georgia next year.

Those who believe in the healing nature of prayer might think of adding Gloria to their prayer lists. I’m certain she’s lived her life in such a fashion that the warm embrace of God is already present as she and her family now hover just this side of that valley, the one filled with the shadow of death.

The news so far has all been bleak. Storm clouds rest uneasily on the horizon. And all I can do at the moment is wonder why?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Doing battle at the mall this holiday season

It seems to happen every year. I swear I won’t come within five miles of a shopping mall, then I spot something on sale that the lovely Miss Wendy and I have on our wish list and I’m off to do battle.

For months, now that I’m a man of leisure and flying off to hot spots around the world – Tel Aviv, New York, Phoenix, Nassau – I’ve been thinking it’s time to upgrade our carry-on luggage. I’ve glanced about a bit during shopping forays at the ubiquitous strip malls in this little corner of the world. But, alas, what I liked I couldn’t afford and what I could afford, well, I didn’t like.

That still seemed to be the case as the holidays have played out in recent weeks and then I spotted an advertisement in that paper that once paid the bills around here at Chateau Grebnief. Sears, of all places, was offering up a 21-inch American Tourister bag for, well, half its original list price.

I first checked out one of the chain’s stores in our neighborhood, but they had already sold out of the advertised model. That meant I needed to go to one of the mega-malls in striking distance around here, a trip I figured that was doable since it was the first of the week, people were back at work and only retired idiots would be out in the frigid weather in search of bargains.

Turns out there are lots of retired idiots in the ’burbs or lots of folks really wanting cheap luggage – maybe both! I battled my way through morning traffic, outmaneuvered a blue-haired yenta for the one remaining parking spot in sight, then pushed my way through the bargain hunters inside the mall.

Of course none of what I’ve just written is true. The mall was, in fact, empty – hey, the economy, despite news suggesting otherwise, is still in the crapper! I had no problem getting to the mall, finding a parking space or finding the luggage department at Sears.

No one else was about. I had the place to myself and spent the next half hour or so leisurely inspecting the dozens of styles Sears had on sale – Samsonite, Delsey, Ricardo, Jeep and Skyway. I even checked out Macy’s and Mori Luggage before deciding my first instinct, American Tourister, was just fine.

Mall madness I fear is in full swing once again – only two or three shopping days before Santa calls it quits. Unfortunately, I just glanced at the paper and spotted a sweater I’ve been coveting for weeks. It’s, ah, on sale now. Curses!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Journalist explores the many faces of Israel

It's Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Today, let's visit the library and explore a book that offers and interesting look at the people, places and challenges of Israel.

Go to the bookstore and search for a book on Israel and what you'll probably find is a bloated essay on politics and war.

Donna Rosenthal, a veteran journalist with a hefty, impressive resume, thought there was a need for a book about Israelis – the people and the land. So she wrote one. "The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land" touches on the politics of the region, but focuses on ordinary and extraordinary people who call this tiny nation home.

The extraordinary include Gil Shwed, the Bill Gates of Israel, who took a simple software idea he cooked up in army intelligence in the early '90s and parlayed it into a company worth billions while amassing a personal fortune now estimated at $375 million. And Solomon Ezra, the first Ethiopian-born officer in the Israeli air force, who was instrumental in the dramatic and dangerous airlift of 14,324 Ethiopian Jews in a hush-hush project that the world came to know as Operation Solomon.

But Rosenthal spends most of her energy detailing the joys and struggles of dozens of "ordinary" Israelis – Jews, Arabs, Christians and others – simply trying to get by in a country dealing with double-digit inflation, massive unemployment, religious intolerance and, as Rosenthal so, ah, indelicately puts it, hookers and hash.

Dalia is one of the prostitutes Rosenthal profiles, a suntanned sabra in her late 30s who fell for a big-talking, small-time drug dealer in Jerusalem who drove a Mustang. Dalia said her life was pretty good until the Russian mafia showed up in the Holy Land. The thugs have taken over the streets and are part of the largest tidal wave of immigrants in Israeli history, one of the largest in the history of the world.

After Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's easing of long-standing travel restrictions in 1989, more than a million immigrants headed for Israel. The rapid and massive influx of these people – Russians now make up 20 percent of the entire nation – has changed the face of the country.

Rosenthal reports a number of towns and neighborhoods resemble Moscow on the Mediterranean. Hundreds of non-kosher supermarkets sell pork sausages, Russian-style breads, Georgian wine, salted fish, and dozens of varieties of vodka. In restaurants and nightclubs in towns like Ashdod and Ashkelon, she writes, Russian is the national language, not Hebrew or Arabic. The Russian problem is relatively new and frustrating.

The Haredim – ultra-Orthodox Jews who often look like extras out of "Yentl" or "Fiddler on the Roof" – have been causing problems since the Jewish state was created in 1948. "There is Jewish," Moshe Stein, a Haredi youngster, told Rosenthal. "Then there's Jewish-Jewish. We're Jewish-Jewish-Jewish."

The average Haredi family is poor with lots of children. They live on welfare because the father studies Torah instead of earning a living. Most don't own a television and never have been to a movie. And although their education is funded by the "Zionist" government, Haredi students are taught that establishing the state was a modern Jewish catastrophe because only God is allowed to restore Israel to its land.

There's more – one additional irritant that infuriates non-Orthodox Israelis. In a country that has universal conscription, most Haredim are exempt from military service.

"I know they resent us," Benjamin Stein, Moshe's father, tells Rosenthal. "With soldiers fighting terrorists, what I say to explain seems trite to the secular. . . . We believe our prayers can be as powerful as tanks and guns. . . . More of their sons would die if we didn't pray."

Rosenthal also writes about other diverse communities spilling across the country – Israeli Arabs and their love-hate relationship with the nation; the Ashkenazim and their historical ties to the land; Muslims struggling for equality; and Bedouins trying to hold onto the past. She doesn't lecture and never rants. She stands aside and listens.

So the portrait Rosenthal creates feels true, a blemished masterpiece of a nation filled with a mixture of colors and textures of a people moving forward slowly on a land inextricably linked to the past.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Why I smile when the weather turns ugly

I couldn’t help but smile a bit while watching weather reports play out last night, filled with horrid news of freezing temps, rain, sleet and dangerous driving conditions across the Land of Cotton. It was late afternoon when I heard the first reference to “black ice,” and knew it was only a matter of time before traffic became a slip-sliding affair.

I was right. The evening was still young when the show I was watching on the tube was interrupted by a frazzled meteorologist, yelling that the sky was falling and warning motorists to drive with caution. He then urged anyone not needing to be out and about to stay home – safe, toasty warm and out of harm’s way!

I smiled again, tossed another log onto the crackling fire in my den and, well, sighed. The warning offered up by the harried guy on the tube was, in fact, good advice. And for the first time in three decades I was going to be able to ignore the weather and not worry about losing my job.

I’ll explain. Back when I was working for that place with the printing press in the basement, each year when the days grew short and a chill filled the air, a memo from headquarters was tacked onto a bulletin board in the newsroom.

I forget the phrasing, but essentially the point of the note was to outline company policy, that when the weather turned ugly – ice, snow, sleet, heavy rains, tumbling temperatures – employees were expected to find their way to the office.

And that’s what I did. While the rest of the world it seemed was warm and safe in bed, I slid my way into work each winter for years, inching slowly across treacherous roads and interstates covered with ice and show. The good news is that as often as not the roads were empty and my sliding about often seemed like some sort of bizarre game or cosmic joke.

It was me against Mother Nature and since I’m still around, I’m guessing I won! Now I can sit back and relax in my comfy chair, remembering warmly all those frigid days when the landscape was bleak and yet another deadline was resting just beyond the slate-gray horizon.

When I get up today – noonish has a nice ring – I might venture out for a cup of Joe, then pick up my morning paper in the driveway. I’ll be thinking of my friends and former colleagues at that new place in the ’burbs as I read about the bad weather.

Covering Mother Nature can be dirty work and somebody has to do it. Nice to know I’m no longer that somebody.

Roads across the Land of Cotton (photo above) were covered with ice late Wednesday as a cold front blasted its way across the region (AJC).

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Who's at the door and what are they selling?

The doorbell rang and Miss Wendy and I looked at one another, momentarily startled. It only took a few seconds to make my way from upstairs and across the foyer to the front door. I wasn’t exactly anxious as I reached for the handle, but there was a sense of uncertainty hanging heavily in the air.

Not all that long ago a knock on the door was most always a good thing – friends or family dropping by for a visit, the neighbor hoping to borrow a cup of something, a messenger from Western Union. Okay, maybe this good vibe stuff was really four or five decades ago.

Somewhere between Elvis singing Love Me Tender and Gerald Ford falling up the stairs at the White House, the world changed. Well, duh! Now our homes have really become our castles and many of us, if possible, would build a moat across our front yards.

Once upon a time in my neighborhood, we didn’t lock our doors. Now many of us have high-tech security systems that monitor all that is happening around our homes, deadbolt locks and iron gates. Interestingly, all this protection doesn’t seem to make most of us feel safer. But I digress.

The doorbell at Chateau Grebneif has ding-donged a dozen times or so in the last year and it has never been a friend or family member waiting on my steps when I reached the front door. No, a ringing bell today means somebody is trying to sell me something, almost always a product or service I already have or don’t want.

At one end of the spectrum are vendors pushing new web and cable services, at the other end salesmen offering cheaper rates for garbage pickup. Somewhere in the middle are scam artists selling magazines, entertainment books and salvation. Can you say Amen? I’ve also had Girl Scouts pushing cookies and cub scouts selling popcorn. Truth to tell, I’m a soft touch when it comes to sweets and things that are salty.

The guy at the door most recently, a man in his late 30s, wearing a tie and sporting an ID badge, made it clear that he, um, wasn’t selling anything. Somewhere in the next sentence I knew there was going to be a “but” that would have him asking for cash.

I wasn’t disappointed. He explained that he wasn’t going to be asking for any sort of donation, that his company had already done that by going to area businesses and getting them to ante up for some sort of charity. Then he pulled out an entertainment book, featuring the businesses, that he was going to let me have for only … well, I’m not sure what the asking price was since I was in the process of saying no thanks and shutting the door.

Bottom line? Don’t come banging on my door unless you’re cute, wearing a uniform and selling cookies; or unless you have a steam shovel and can offer me an incredible deal on digging a moat!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Three dog night in the Land of Cotton

It’s been a three-dog weekend for me here in the Land of Cotton. No, I’m not referencing the frigid temps and snow flurries that have turned Dixie and much of the rest of the country into a winter wasteland.

I mean, literally, it’s been a three-dog weekend. The lovely Miss Wendy and I had the grand opportunity to take care of our grand-doggies – Joey, Maggie and Ella Rufus. The canines', um, parents – that would be my darling daughter and son-in-law – were away for a few days and asked if we’d handle the brood.

Truth to tell, I’ve always wanted to be leader of the pack and this seemed like a good opportunity to woof it up. We spent the first evening with weekend pals, Susan and John, taking advantage of Lauren and Josh’s state-of-the-art entertainment system, watching “It’s A Wonderful Life” and watching Joey, Maggie and Ella enjoying their doggie lives.

We snacked on popcorn; the canines settled for dog biscuits and lots of attention. It’s probably worth mentioning that Joey, a golden retriever, and Maggie, a black lab, collectively weigh more than I do; and if they ever learn to walk upright they will easily be able to rest their front paws on my hairless noggin.

Highlight of the evening had to be when we all trotted off to bed – just to set the record straight, Susan and John had already said their goodbyes. Miss Wendy and I were settling in for the evening when Ella, 15 pounds of mostly hair – she’s a Westy-Shih Tzu mix – joined us, then Maggie called dibs on the middle of the bed, wiggling herself into a snuggly position, then resting her head on my chest.

I was about to push her aside when she glanced at me with one of those innocent doggy looks that got my attention and had me thinking a bit about karma and what my future might look like if I kicked her out of bed.

Fortunately, Joey was happy to curl up on his oversized doggy pillow. That changed the next night when Wendy left me alone with the dogs and they all decided to join me in bed. I learned that dogs do, in fact, snore – long and loud! I hadn’t heard such a ruckus since my days in the army.

Joey – did I mention he’s the size of a Shetland pony – also kept getting up and walking around a bit, following his tail, trying to find that sweet, comfortable spot that always seemed to be on the other side of the bed.

I also learned that if you’re the head of the pack, you might have the best view of the world, but whatever you do – get up for a drink of water, go to the bathroom, grab a book or magazine – there’s a really good chance that the members of your pack will want to join you.

They can also talk. Word choices are limited – hey, they’re dogs – and mostly focus on food, water and treats, pooping and esoteric details involving the licking of one’s genetalia!

Here’s another bit of useful info I learned over the weekend. It turns out “Three Dog Night” is much more than a rock band from the late 1960s. When it’s cold – I’m talking bone-chilling cold – it’s a toasty good thing to have three dogs around to keep you warm.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Exploring the Jewish roots of Avatar

It’s Friday and time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories and Facts (IJS&F). Today, for a change, let’s go to the movies!

My Torah study class this week had a guest teacher who took us on a little celluloid adventure, exploring the blockbuster hit Avatar and its links to Judaism. Sandy, a retired educator, has spent hours studying James Cameron’s sci-fi adventure and spotted numerous references to Jewish beliefs and rituals.

At the top of the list of, um, coincidences is the name of the indigenous people living on Pandora. The aliens are svelte and blue with big, luminous eyes and sparkly bits of glitter across their other-worldly features. Their name, Navi, is the Hebrew word for prophet.

The film’s hero, Jake, who joins the Navi as, well, a pseudo-Navi, becomes part of the tribe, clinging eventually to the “Tree of Life”. That tree, Sandy shares, is a perfect metaphor for Etz Chaim, the Tree of Life that Jews embrace – the Torah.

In one memorable scene, Jake is learning his way around Pandora and flailing about in his efforts to follow Neytiri, his teacher and, eventually, lover and mate. Neytiri easily maneuvers across a small and trembling branch, high above the forest floor – an area, btw, that could easily be mistaken for the Garden of Eden.

Jake follows Neytiri, struggling to maintain his balance and fearful that he may soon plunge to his death. Sandy sees in this scene a playing out of one of the most famous lines and bits of Jewish philosophy about life and how best to live it.

“All the world is a narrow bridge,” Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlev said. “The crucial thing is not be afraid.”

Well, maybe Cameron, Avatar’s producer, director and writer, was thinking about Rabbi Nachman when he created the scene. Then again, I could just as easily make the argument that the creator of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was thinking Jewish thoughts when he had Butch and Sundance wiggling across a tiny ledge before they plunged into a river hundreds of feet below.

You’ll recall one of the film’s most famous and funny lines come just a moment before the two jump when Sundance confesses he can’t make the leap because he doesn’t know how to swim and fears he might drown. Butch responds: “Hell, Sundance, you don’t have to worry. The fall is gonna kill you!”

It was an entertaining hour. The bits of information and trivia about Avatar were interesting and fun. There was even – drum roll, please – a mini-revelation that captures something truthful, I think, about the human condition, faith and belief. Sandy pointed out early in his presentation something oddly familiar about the spiritual beings – the jellyfish like spores – that float and glow around Jake and the forest.

Dangling beneath all this spiritual energy, is a glowing “Star of David”, Sandy said. He was playing a segment of the film at the time and, in all honesty, I couldn’t spot the Magen David. Sandy pointed out the star several times during the class, but it all seemed a blur to me.

The lesson, perhaps, is that the Star of David – like much that is hidden away in the Torah, the Bible and other sacred texts – is there, waiting to be found. It’s all a matter of faith and the freedom to choose what we want and need to believe.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Me, baboons and running a winter marathon

It was a blustery, frigid breeze that greeted me at the river over the weekend, a reminder that winter is settling in across the Land of Cotton. No matter. I was comfy in a heavy sweater and coat, my noggin covered with a cap.

Only a few other folks were about, the walking path mostly a blank runway filled with leaves and other debris, zipping off toward a slate-gray horizon. It was a perfect launching pad for thought and sent my mind momentarily searching for other cold days in my past.

Growing up in the south, I’ve never been forced to deal with the kind of cold that freezes your thoughts and chills your bones. It’s always been a soothing cold here, weather that is usually more delightful then painful, the sort of chill that has you feeling alive and alert.

Ice has occasionally been a problem, snapping trees and downing power lines when temperatures dip below freezing, turning highways and streets into disaster zones filled with motorists slip-sliding away – often into one another!

The icy fingers of winter have managed to grab hold of me tightly only once. And, like most problems, this bashing was self-inflicted. I’ll explain.

It was the late ’80s and I had been running for a couple of years. I was in a good place. Everything in my running life was stable – weight, training, running times. I had gone from races of modest distances, 5 and 10Ks, to running an occasional half-marathon – 13.1 miles. In some sort of vague way that had yet to completely materialize, I knew that at some point in the future I’d run a marathon. I just didn’t realize it would happen so quickly.

My boss and friend at that place with the printing press had gotten me into running and he was now pushing me to join him at the Rocket City Marathon in Huntsville, AL. No need to bore you with the details, but in early January – it was 1989, or maybe the following year – I found myself bunched together with Don and several hundred other runners, minutes away from the start of the race.

I’ve had people ask me how long the Rocket City Marathon was and, of course, the answer is 26.2 miles, the same distance as ALL marathons. What made this trek a bit different was the weather. A cold snap had literally blown in a few days earlier and settled over the area. The morning of the race, the temperature was in the high teens and the sky was an ugly battleship gray.

“Bracing” is what I think local meteorologists predicted for weather conditions at the start of the race. I’m not certain, but I think I recall one weatherman saying only a baboon would run in such conditions.

He was right. The low temperature, a modest wind blowing from the north and a wintry mix of sleet, snow and rain all came together over the next several hours to turn my little adventure into the marathon from hell!

To battle the elements, I was wearing a long-sleeve tee-shirt, a nylon running jacket, a runner’s cap, mittens and, um, tights – not toasty thermal tights, but some sort of unholy blend of nylon and spandex. Go figure!

Despite the dreadful weather, the race actually got off to a good start. Adrenaline can, in fact, keep you warm, even when you can hear ice crystals crunching beneath your feet and bits of sleet start building up atop your racing cap. The body has this miraculous way of producing heat as you expend energy, a wondrous mechanism that keeps you alive and functioning if you need to work outdoors in wintry climes.

But miracles only go so far and the body can only take so much punishment. At a certain point – and I’m sure there’s some sort of algorithm to figure this out – things start shutting down and the body’s thermostat gets turned off. In my case, that all happened around mile 17 or so on a slushy hill in the heart of Huntsville. I still had a grueling nine miles remaining before I’d reach the finish line and the warm embrace of Miss Wendy.

Making matters even worse, the Rocket City Marathon was a modest affair, only a few hundred runners, most scattered about the city in ragtag groups across a dozen miles or so. For long stretches I’d find myself alone, running in neighborhoods that seemed part of some mad artist’s vision of the apocalypse. Fortunately, race officials had placed a few poor schmucks along the route at key points to help runners find their way home.

That moment came for me about 3 hours and 45 minutes after I waved a hearty farewell to Wendy and Lauren, all but lost in the excitement of the starting ceremony – balloons and banners, a high school band, bells, whistles and a surprisingly loud bang from the starter’s gun.

Only Wendy and Lauren were about as I limped across the finish line. A volunteer wrapped me in some sort of metallic blanket that for the moment seemed as cold as the rest of the world. It was about then that I started shaking, chilled to the bone.

I was gingerly escorted into race headquarters and offered a bowl of tepid soup. I’m certain I looked shell-shocked and certainly felt like I’d just been through a major battle. I wasn’t at all certain at that moment if I had survived.

The room brought a measure of warmth and the soup, shakily spooned from bowl to mouth, began slowly thawing me out. That wasn’t all together a pleasant experience. The chill was immediately replaced with aches and pains in places I didn’t know I had.

A few minutes later I managed to make it to a shower – race headquarters, thankfully, were inside a local high school and runners had access to a large shower room. I stood underneath the warmth of a gentle spray of water, the chill, aches and pains of the day giving way to a rising cloud of steam.

Anyone who’s done any long distance running will get this next part. The rest of you will simply think me mad. On the mend and warmly clothed in fresh sweats, I was dozing off as the lovely Miss Wendy handled the driving chores for our return to the Land of Cotton.

The pain and effort of the day were already fading memories and my runner’s high – a euphonic blend of endorphins and exhaustion – was kicking into overdrive. So my thoughts as I fell asleep were focused on me jogging effortlessly along a sun-drenched beach and what I needed to do differently to better my race time at the next marathon I entered.

Such is the madness and glory of life.

Friday, December 3, 2010

New book filled with warmth, wit and wisdom

It’s Friday and time yet again for another posting of “Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts” (IJS&F). Today, let’s take a peek at a new book and the importance of friendship and community.

I just finished reading an essay on chevra, the Hebrew work for society, as often as not used to describe a special community of friends. The piece was written by Pamela Gottfried, a renaissance woman – rabbi, artist and writer; wife and mom extraordinaire. It’s just one of many special essays that make up her just released book, “Found In Translation, Common Words of Uncommon Wisdom”.

The focus of the chevra piece is of special import to my wife, the Lovely Miss Wendy, because Pamela builds the essay around a valiant group of women – including Wendy – who took part a few years ago in the Susan G. Komen 3-Day Walk for the Cure, here in the Land of Cotton.

Such walks, held annually around the country, raise millions of dollars for breast cancer research. The mega-events attract thousands of men and women, many breast cancer survivors, others walking in honor of friends and family who have died from the disease.

Pamela doesn’t explain why she decided to take part in the walk, but instead details the preparation necessary to successfully complete the 60-mile trek – 20 miles a day, often slugging along for 10 hours, then resting up as best you can in smallish tents and showering in itsy-bitsy cubicles. Hey, it’s an adventure and the spartan nature of the effort increases the feel-good factor exponentially.

That said, there’s nothing easy or fun about taking 10-mile training walks and Pamela realized when she had only about 3-months left to prepare for the event that it was time to find a group – a chevra. At the time she didn’t realize what an impact the group would have on her life.

“Our weekly conversations began as a comparing of notes,” Pamela writes. “They developed into a sharing of life stories.” She learned that walking has a way of opening people up, allowing them to share bits and pieces of their lives. At the other end of the spectrum, walking also allows people to be with one another in “comfortable silence”.

Years ago, when I was youngish, still had hair and was looking for adventure, I did a little running. In fact, now that I think about it, I did a lot of running for about a decade. It all started with jogging, my thinking at the time that a little exercise might be good for both my physical and mental health.

It was a good idea. After only a few months, I had lost 20 pounds, was running 7-minute miles and entering races. Eventually the madness – if I haven’t made it clear, this running thing became somewhat of an obsession – led me to entering marathons.

A little training can get you through weekend fun runs, but running a marathon means you’re probably going to be doing some serious workouts. It wasn’t unusual for me to run every day, doing 3 to 8 miles each afternoon during the work week and spending hours over the weekend doing long runs – sometimes 15 to 20 miles.

In the summer, training was hellish, a hot and sweaty grind that left me exhausted. In the fall and winter I was often chilled and, um, bored silly, spending hours by myself running along the same neighborhood routes, occasionally jogging endless laps around a track at a nearby school. Try running 80 laps around a track – that would be 20 miles – and holding onto your sanity!

Every so often I’d find myself running behind another nut, I mean runner. Occasionally, it would become clear we were both training at about the same pace and after a bit we’d find ourselves running together.

At some point the inevitable questions would be asked – how long have you been running; do any track workouts; what sort of shoes do you like best? Eventually, the running queries would give way to the stuff of life – family, jobs, religion and politics.

And then there were the silences, filled with miles of huffing and puffing, sprinting along dirt roads, jogging across grassy fields, straining up rambling hills. Often the effort was made less difficult simply by having someone else nearby, wheezing and struggling next to me.

Once upon a time, I would have told you that such training was easier with another person nearby because misery loves company. I think Pamela has a better idea. “Members of a chevra are dedicated to one another,” she writes.

Even strangers, I’d now argue, can be dedicated to one another, especially if they’re both in pain and working toward a common goal.

Given the, um, pain of life, it’s probably a good idea for all of us to find ourselves a chevra filled with folks who share the same sorts of hopes and dreams we cling to and, if we’re really lucky, are trudging down life’s path in search of similar goals.

That’s just one little nugget I’ve spotted in “Found In Translation”. My guess is Pamela has hidden away a few additional surprises – ripe tomatoes, perhaps – in the essays exploring “common words of uncommon wisdom”!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Holidays often the most confusing time of year

The search for meaning is a constant struggle. Around this time of year, when days grow short, nights long, and the world seems to overflow with things of the spirit and holiday cheer, such philosophical concerns become even a greater problem for some.

Unable to capture just what it is they believe, many people thrash about a bit, taking a little of this and a little of that. They close their eyes and shrug their shoulders, and mostly come up with a whole bunch of nothing.

Such efforts generally are of little import. A person looks, explores, and comes up empty. Maybe next year. No wonder people suffer from holiday depression. They eventually grab hold of only the superficial elements, ignoring the transcendent beauty and wonder to be found during this, um, most wonderful time of the year.

Occasionally all this effort runs amok. In the rush to belong, to understand, and feel good about whom and what they are, people sometime forget that ritual and belief need to have something meaningful at its core.

Several years ago, when I was getting paid to write and still worked for that place with a printing press, I received a publicity kit for a new children's book, "Blintzes for Blitzen." I tossed it atop a growing pile of letters, bulletins, books and press releases, planning to study it when I got a moment.

As Hanukkah neared – btw, the eight-day Jewish festival begins this evening – I remembered the colorful cover that featured a drawing of a reindeer and a Menorah, and dug out the promotional material.

At first glance, "Blintzes For Blitzen" seemed to be just another holiday offering, a cute, brightly illustrated children's book that explored the beliefs of two dramatically different religions, capturing the seasonal cheer and worth of both.

But it became clear, very quickly, that mostly this book was filled with a discordant mishmash of this and that, devoid of meaning, message, or cosmic belief.

That the story is moronic – something about one of Santa's reindeer, Blitzen, stumbling across the house of Bernie the deli owner, who is busy making blintzes for Hanukkah – only reinforces the notion that nothing of lasting worth is being offered.

The motives of the book's publisher, MixedBlessing, seem noble enough. "The book blends the traditions of Christmas and Hanukkah into a heartwarming tale of discovery and joy," the publishers write, and is aimed at the "growing number of interfaith families."

Phooey! Raising children of faith is a difficult problem these days. Helping them understand the wonder and beauty of different traditions is a worthwhile undertaking. But trying to blend the disparate traditions of Christmas and Hanukkah is a mistake that honors no one.

Hanukkah has nothing to do with Christmas. Christmas has nothing to do with Hanukkah. Placing a Star of David atop a Christmas tree might seem like a good idea that offers a message of understanding and tolerance. But it trivializes the holidays for those who take their religion seriously, lacks any depth of meaning or transcendent worth and confounds and confuses the brightest of children.

The search for meaning and faith is a struggle that involves understanding who you are and your place in the world. Coming to such belief might begin as an exercise of intellect – a product of the mind – but ultimately finds a resting spot in the heart and soul.

Standing off in the distance and appreciating the beauty of the holiday season is okay. I got no problem with anyone enjoying Christmas Carols and Hanukkah lights, sharing festive meals and handing out gifts to family and friends. It's when some folks try to smoosh everything together, creating Hanukkah bushes and Christmas menorahs, that the season grows bizarre, silly and meaningless.

Hanukkah and Christmas aren't just words, devoid of meaning. Both holidays offer something special for those who are interested in hearing the message. But there's a price that must be paid to appreciate the holidays as anything more than one-dimensional, festive happenings. You have to figure out what you believe and make a choice.