Monday, February 28, 2011

Special museum offers a pause that refreshes

I watched it being built several years ago, but the World of Coca- Cola just seemed a little too fizzy once it was built to actually visit. It’s one of those touristy sites that’s a must-see destination, however, when out-of-town guests come calling.

So it was that I found myself playing tour guide over the weekend, showing my wonderful niece Arlene some of the hot spots that make the Land of Cotton such a special place to live. Fortunately, the entire Grebnief clan – the lovely Miss Wendy, Lauren and Josh – came along for the ride.

The World of Coca-Cola – along with the Georgia Aquarium, Centennial Olympic Park and CNN Center – is ground zero for most tourists visiting the city. The area is a synergistic blend of civic pride and politics, private enterprise and public funds. Just 15 years ago it was all a seedy mess – empty buildings, cracked and crumbling sidewalks and roads, vacant lots filled with garbage and weeds.

The ’96 Olympics – not necessarily a high point for me or the Land of Cotton – was a turning point for this area of downtown. If the world was coming to visit that special summer, the city needed somewhere for the masses to hang. A park filled with expansive green spaces, statues and monuments, fountains, flags and soaring light towers seemed a good way to go.

It all worked magically for a few weeks and the hope was that other developments – shops, condos, and additional tourist destinations – might locate nearby. Much planning ensued. But it would take a decade and the dreams of one man, Bernie Marcus – yes, that Bernie Marcus – to make good even better. He funded the Georgia Aquarium and the rest, as they say, is history.

But I digress. Coke officials, knowing a good thing when they see it, decided to move their marketing effort where the action was playing out. Today the marketing museum – hey, let’s not kid ourselves; the place is one huge advertisement that people actually pay to enter – draws thousands of tourists a year.

The good news is the World of Coca-Cola offers a fun, entertaining and informative way to spend a few hours. It’s filled with a dazzling array of things to do and see – pop art and culture, films and paintings, trinkets and tchotchkes. For those of us of a certain age, the whiff of nostalgia – magazine ads and TV commercials from the 40s, 50s and 60s – is worth the price of admission.

There’s even a very special room where visitors get to try out coke products from around the world, enough flavored sugar water to keep you high for hours. And the pièce de résistance? Why, that would be the 8-ounce souvenir bottle of coke you’re presented as you make your exit from the tasting room into the World of Coca-Cola’s retail annex. Here you can purchase tee shirts, jeans and caps; posters and artwork; glasses and mugs; key chains, paper weights and other trinkets – all, of course, tastefully sporting the Coca-Cola logo.

Truth to tell, it turns out coke was once again the real thing as we made our way home. Arlene was jonesing for another specialty offered only here in the Land of Cotton. So I make a quick detour just a few blocks from downtown, hanging a left onto North Avenue and into – drum roll please – the Varsity.

This Land of Cotton institution was just about a perfect way to end a perfect day; chili dogs, fries and onion rings, all washed down with the pause that refreshes. Up next? Grits and the Waffle House. Stay tuned!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Language of prayer comes from the heart

It's Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Today, let's explore the concept of talking with your heart.

Caught up recently in my semi-annual let’s-go-through-the-house-and-throw-away-everything-we-don’t-need cleaning spree, I came across a book that my daughter Lauren had used decades ago in Hebrew school.

I flipped quickly through the text, thinking I would toss it into the out pile. But something caught my eye, and I rested a moment to study a story that piqued my interest.

The book, Basic Judaism for Young People, examines God from a religious, spiritual and historical perspective. It mixes straight-forward text with midrashem and stories from and about rabbis through the ages.

What initially caught my eye was a painting of a couple of guys, one playing a saxophone, the other a set of drums. The caption running next to the drawing explained: “In music as in prayer, the ability to avoid distraction can mean the difference between a routine performance and a great one.”

I looked at the preceding page and stumbled onto a story that Rabbi Levi Yitzhak told his followers in the town of Berditchev every Rosh Hashana. The story deals directly with prayer and those who pray, and in a more subtle way with arrogance and humility. The story:

“Once I had to stay overnight at an inn away from home. Also staying at the inn were many Jews who had come on business. In the morning, I joined the prayers of the other Jews. To my dismay, the merchants’ prayers sounded like a baby’s babbling. It seemed to me that all their words were either swallowed or pronounced badly.

“At the end of the service, before the merchants left on their business, I thought I would teach them a lesson by speaking in nonsense syllables like a baby. When the merchants looked at me with surprise, wondering if I were a madman, I explained myself: ‘The way I just sounded to you is the way you must have sounded to God.’”

“One of the merchants then spoke up, ‘You were wrong to make fun of Jews who never had the chance to learn Hebrew properly. But you were right to compare our language to that of a baby. A baby’s parents understand what its nonsense syllables mean, even if no one else does. And I’m sure God understands our prayers, and knows we spoke them with Kavanah, even if you don’t.’”

“How right this merchant was to put me in my place! I remind you of his words today, on Rosh Hashana, my friends,” said Levi Yitzhak, “to reassure you that your prayers will be accepted. When people address their prayers to God with love and Kavanah, God understands them, whether or not they pronounce the words correctly.”

I often stumble through the Hebrew during services and wonder what the point is. I hear similar words of frustration from family and friends. But Rabbi Yitzhak’s story has the ring of truth, and his message is clear: If you want to pray you can. If you want to reach out to God you can. Open your heart. God will hear.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Once upon a time there were journalists

One of the miracles of this brave new information age we’re living through is the ability to find out just about anything with a few clicks of a mouse. Need to know what the weather will be tomorrow, what’s playing at the local Cineplex or who the mayor of Poughkeepsie is? The answers are all out there, floating about with several billion other bits of info.

Several years ago, during a delightful trip to Prague with the lovely Miss Wendy, I snapped a photo of a piece of sculpture at one end of Wenceslas Square. Back home and curious about the artwork, I did a quick search on Google for “Wenceslas Square” and “abstract sculpture”. At the time I wasn’t yet a believer in the magic of the internet and didn’t think my efforts would be rewarded. Wrong!

Several sites popped up within seconds, providing detailed information about the artwork – it was called Kaddish and created by Ales Vesely, a well-known Czech sculptor who was part of an artistic movement known as the Czech Abstraction. Who knew? Well, I did, thanks to my computer and the magic of the web!

I mention all this as prologue, a sort of metaphorical scratching of the noggin, before I wonder aloud why we’re not witnessing a renaissance in the field of journalism. It’s a given that today we’re flush with great and grand new wonders of technology, providing journalists with the ability to quickly find detailed information on just about any topic and communicate it around the globe.

The problem is journalists are being replaced with data gatherers who wouldn’t know a scoop from a scam and wouldn’t recognize news if it broke out in their windowless cubicle. These gatherers of info are controlled by marketing gurus, no longer worried about fairness, objectivity or the dissemination of news. Mostly they are concerned about page views, market share and the bottom line.

Events of import, all that boring stuff that impacts our lives, are ignored or buried beneath the latest celebrity sightings. Aggregators, meanwhile, toss out a huge net on the web, stealing the hard work of struggling journalists and repackaging it all with bloated essays and punditry to attract readers with a particular point of view.

No longer, it would seem, do we need to make an effort to figure out what is really happening in this brave new world. We simply need to find just the right site that echoes back the politics, values and beliefs that each of us knows represents the truth.

But I digress. The genesis of this rant is a marketing scheme I stumbled across recently while listening to CNN on satellite radio. The anchor – I’m certain she is lovely, qualified and demographically perfect – listed three stories, then announced we (that would be you and me) could choose which feature would be aired in the following hour. All we need do is text what we wanted to hear. Presumably, the story with the most votes, ah, wins!

What’s next, “Dancing with the News”, featuring our favorite anchor, presenting a series of stories based on the number of hits each has received on the company’s website? Oh wait, that’s already happening, data gatherers waltzing to the tune of their bosses, focusing only on the demographic studies and surveys compiled by consultants.

Okay, there is a bright spot. Some creative and innovative work is being done by many newspapers and a few websites keying on local news. It’s one of the few places you’ll find real journalists on the job, doing what they've always done – reporting and writing news and features. It's a start.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Jewish film fest offers up mixed bag of goodies

The Atlanta Jewish Film Fest continues for another week or so here in the Land of Cotton, but the lovely Miss Wendy and I won’t be attending any more movies. We finished up our ambitious effort over the weekend and managed to see a dozen or so films this year.

As usual it was a mixed bag of cinema – documentaries and features; comedies and dramas; Israeli, French and Polish productions. Most were good, at least two were excellent. As some of you might recall, I was taken with The Matchmaker, an Israeli film that managed to seamlessly blend both a coming-of-age comedy and Holocaust drama. It offered few surprises, but the characters were memorable, the story compelling, and the cinematography lovely.

Another Holocaust film, The Round Up, also captured my attention. Unlike The Matchmaker, there was nothing subtle about this heartbreaking movie. The feature is based on the very real stories of two Holocaust survivors who were part of a massive roundup of Jews in Paris and its suburbs.

For a year or so after the Nazis invaded and occupied much of France in 1940, Jews were forced to comply with a series of draconian measures limiting their rights and freedoms. They were forced out of certain professions and schools, denied access to parks and other public places and ordered to wear a Jewish Star on their shirts and coats.

Much of this was accepted by both the Jews of France and their gentile neighbors with a shrug of their collective shoulders and the hope that sanity would be restored once allied troops managed to regroup and liberate the country. Unfortunately, the Nazis and their French collaborators had other plans.

On July 16, 1942, French police began the roundup of Jews in and around Paris. There were about 25,000 Jews in the region and before the day was out more than 13,000 were detained and arrested, some transported to an internment center in the northern suburb of Drancy, others taken to the Vélodrome d'hiver. The velodrome is at the heart of the bestselling novel, “Sarah’s Key”, that covers much of the same ground as The Round Up.

The movie, meanwhile, takes us inside the Vel' d'Hiv, the camera pulling back slowly and dramatically to reveal the massive velodrome. It’s a stunning sight. The sports palace had been transformed into hell, the sick and dying shunted aside into smallish tents; children dashing about, families attempting to hold onto one another and their dignity.

After five days with little to eat or drink, the lack of basic sanitation and soaring temperatures that hovered around the century mark, the detainees are shipped off to three nearby internment camps – Drancy, Beaune-la-Rolande and Pithiviers. In the film, we follow the struggles of several characters at Drancy – Jo Weisman and his family; Annette Monod, a Protestant nurse; and David Sheinbaum, a Jewish doctor memorably portrayed by the well-known French actor Jean Reno.

By focusing on the dreams and nightmares of a few central characters and the thuggish and psychopathic behavior of their Nazi and French tormentors, Director Roselyne Bosch manages to poignantly humanize the Holocaust. We feel Jo’s pain, Annette’s outrage, the doctor’s frustration and anger. The Holocaust is no longer just an incomprehensible number. For a moment, it has all become very personal.

Life at Drancy doesn’t get better or worse. The venue has changed but survival remains a daily struggle. Meanwhile, the Nazis and their French puppets are struggling with a logistical problem. The Germans have become so efficient at rounding up Jews across Europe that they’re unable to murder and cremate them fast enough and the “Final Solution” is falling behind schedule.

The solution is to separate all the children from their parents, a heartbreaking scene in the movie that, unfortunately, really happened. The youngsters, many of them only toddlers, remained at Drancy while the adults were transported to Auschwitz and murdered. The children followed a few weeks later.

After allied troops crushed the axis powers and the dust had cleared, the utter madness of the Nazis and the Final Solution became clear. Six million Jews had been slaughtered in death camps and killing fields across Eastern Europe, including over 40,000 who had been rounded up in France during the summer of 1942. Of those detained and deported that summer, only 800 or so made it back to France when the war ended.

It was a stunned and somber audience that sat quietly in the theater as the final credits rolled. I know that all about me were others trying to make sense of what we had just witnessed; a reminder yet again of the darkness that swept across the world just seven decades ago.

The world, of course, has moved on and the darkness long ago pushed aside. Today we live in a golden, enlightened age. I’m pretty certain those last words were also written by some poor soul in Germany in the late 1930s. I'm just saying ...

Friday, February 18, 2011

'Center of Universe' filled with beauty and fear

It's Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Today let's take a journey together to one of the holiest sites in the world.

Christian mapmakers probably went too far when they labeled Jerusalem as the very center of the Universe. If scientifically that has been disproved, spiritually it remains a reality. This is God’s country, a land held off and on by Jews, Christians and Muslims since the day Joshua led the Children of Israel across the Jordan.

The sites of interest that dot the tiny country of Israel – Hebron, Jericho, Jaffa, Sfat, Bethlehem, the Galilee – are of cosmic import to one or another religious tradition. So linked to the ancient past is the state of Israel, that the Bible is not only used for meditation and prayer, but quite often by tour guides to locate spots of note.

At the heart of the country is Jerusalem, arguably the holiest city in the world. Three thousand years ago a guerrilla fighter named David captured this spot from the Jebusites. The rest is history, a rich history of an ancient people that is filled with tales of love and war, political intrigue, religious fanaticism and rebirth.

The Old City of Jerusalem is a euphonic blend of cobblestone streets and serpentine alleys, a place of spiritual energy, ancient secrets – and discord. Trepidation hangs heavily on the horizon. Much of the turmoil is centered on the Temple Mount, sacred and holy ground for two of the three religions that have matured and prospered here.

This bit of real estate speaks to the heart of Muslim belief, for on this site rests a mosque, the Dome of the Rock. Under its inlaid ceiling is the very rock, the observant believe, upon which Ishmael (not Isaac, as the Bible states) was nearly sacrificed by his father Abraham and from which Mohammed flew to heaven on his horse.

That this site also is among the holiest places in Jerusalem for Jews is, as the bard once wrote, the rub. Many Muslims fear that one day they will be tossed aside to make way for the rebuilding of a third Temple to pave the way for the coming of the Messiah. Such fears seem hard to believe, even to imagine, until you learn that the walls surrounding the Dome of the Rock and the adjacent Al Aqsa mosque once supported the immense platform upon which stood the original Temple.

The importance of this site to Jews in Jerusalem and around the world cannot be overestimated. It links them to their past, defines them as a people. Before being elected Prime Minister of Israel the first time in the mid-90s, Binyamin Netanyahu took his then four-year-old son Yair to the Western Wall, known in Hebrew as the Kotel. "I brought him over to see the foundations of our existence," Natanyahu said. Still, only fanatics on the fringes of Islam or Judaism actually believe there will ever be a third Temple.

Built by King Solomon, as detailed in the first book of Kings, The Temple was destroyed by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. Building of the Second Temple began around the year 515 B.C. It was completed by Herod around 20 B.C. and stood until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. The only part of the structure still remaining is a portion of the platform, the Western Wall, sun-bleached and worn by time, but a magnet for the religious, the righteous and the curious.

Those are the historic, irrefutable facts. And then there are the legends. Tradition holds that the stone now resting under the Muslim’s sixth-century Dome of the Rock is the source of the dirt from which God fashioned Adam. It is where Adam, Cain and Abel brought a sacrifice, and Noah too, and where Abraham came to sacrifice Isaac, or Ismael, depending on your belief.

This is also where Jacob dreamed of a ladder that served as a low-tech stairway for angels moving between heaven and earth. The entire area is overlaid with these truths and half-truths, constantly filled with pilgrims and mystics who are on spiritual journeys, abuzz with prayers that hang heavily in the air like smog.

Add to this the ebb and flow of everyday life — tourists, beggars, politicians and soldiers; rabbis, priests, imams and students — and you start to understand the interplay of the divine and mundane that makes this spot unlike any other on earth.

One last legend is worth noting. Some Jews, Muslims and Christians believe that it is this very spot where all the prayers of the entire world come and are elevated to heaven. So pervasive is this idea among certain fundamentalist sects, that many Jerusalemites like to say talking to God here is a local call.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My special afternoon with Winston Churchill

It’s nice to watch a movie and be entertained. It’s even nicer to walk away from a film feeling that you’ve experienced something important. Winston Churchill: Walking with Destiny is fun to watch, packed with detail and emotionally compelling.

I saw the documentary earlier this week, part of my mission to see just as many films as possible during the 20-day run of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival here in the Land of Cotton. It was produced by Moriah Films, an arm of the Simon Wiesenthal Center; directed by the Oscar-winning filmmaker Richard Trank and narrated by Ben Kingsley.

Winston Churchill was a bigger-than-life personality, a charismatic politician who by sheer force of will lifted up the British people during the very dark days of World War II. As the Nazi war machine rolled across Europe, leaving death and destruction it its wake, it was Churchill who rallied the troops and the masses, offering words of comfort and hope while metaphorically thumbing his nose at Hitler and his generals.

We forget in this age of 15-second commercials and political sound bites, Facebook and Twitter, that words can actually be strung together coherently in such a way that they touch the heart and soul. Churchill, like all good speakers, had the ability to write for the ages and speak with authority. His was often the voice of a lone prophet – quiet and reflective, powerful and pugnacious, compassionate and caring. He talked and the people listened.

Over the course of his life, this remarkable man said much worth remembering – bits of wit and whimsy, truths about the human condition, sorrow and joy. Much of what he thought and believed has been saved, words of wisdom that remain as true today as when they were first put to paper.

In the late spring and summer of 1940, when dark and evil forces seemed on the move about the planet, he stepped forward and offered a beacon of light to the people of Great Britain. His words were simple and direct, strong and valiant, a call to arms.

Churchill talked with passion and power of victory, victory at all cost, victory in spite of all terror. He talked of fighting in France, fighting on the seas and the oceans with growing confidence and growing strength. But he also shared the truth, that for the moment Western Europe was lost and the British people stood alone.

Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands … Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say, "This was their finest hour."

History tells us that the British people did rise to the occasion and so, too, the people of the United States – eventually. It would take several years, but the tide of war turned and the axis powers were defeated.

Some 50 million people died in World War II and for a moment – a long and frightening moment – the world stood tottering on the brink of a new age of darkness. Winston Churchill, a man of destiny, made sure that would never happen.

In that long ago summer when he was out and about, sounding the alarm and comforting the troubled, Churchill paid tribute to the men of the Royal Air Force. He praised them for their gallant efforts in besting the might of the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. I think it only fitting to paraphrase his own words in praise of his efforts – and life!

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by
so many … to one man.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

AJFF: So many films, so little time

Five down and only a dozen or so more movies to watch. That’s the plan for me and the lovely Miss Wendy now that the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival has begun here in the Land of Cotton. We managed to attend three films on Sunday, a marathon that began mid-morning, continued through the afternoon and finished up well after the sun had called it quits for the day.

On Monday, we pulled back a bit. I spent the afternoon in a packed multiplex enjoying a documentary on Winston Churchill, his rise to power and handling of the early years of World War II. Wendy met me later for dinner, then we celebrated Valentine’s Day with a romantic Comedy, The Names of Love, a French film that manages to be funny while exploring a wide range of issues – politics and war; the meaning of love and causes of hate; nationalism, colonialism and a bunch of other isms, childhood angst and the Holocaust. Did I mention there was nudity?

As you might imagine, much great and grand cinema is floating about in my noggin at the moment. But if asked to pick “Best of Show” right now, I’d cast my vote for The Matchmaker, an Israeli film featuring fine acting, glorious cinematography and a multi-layered story that manages to be both funny and heartbreaking.

The film takes place in 1968 and is set in Haifa. It plays out in flashback, a coming-of-age drama centered around one very special summer in the life of Arik Burstein. Arik becomes the go-to spy for Yankele Bride, a matchmaker extraordinaire and small-time smuggler still struggling with a hefty load of emotional baggage and physical problems picked up as a victim of the Holocaust.

There are no Nazi stormtroopers parading about in The Matchmaker, no graphic scenes of atrocities and death. The Holocaust, however, is at the heart of the film, nibbling around the edges, informing the lives and actions of almost all the characters in one fashion or another.

Yankele spends his days at the foot of Mt. Carmel, in a commercial section of Haifa filled with a stunning cast of misfits, a colorful assortment of laborers and losers. They go about their lives, pushing aside their demons, wary and struggling to make sense of a world that had once gone completely mad. Clara Epstein, lovely and broken, is hanging on by her fingertips.

She and Yankele have formed an uneasy partnership, working together to make a living; soul mates living in a bright, new world that for them remains dark and melancholy. After all, they survived. The Matchmaker dares to ask “how?”

It’s a sensitive and morally complex issue, the suggestion being that on some level everyone who survived did something reprehensible to live through the hell that captured so many others. Ultimately, it’s a question that leads to tragedy in the film.

Pretty heavy stuff, right? Fortunately, the filmmaker balances it all out with Arik, focusing on his work for Yankele – your basic fish-out-of-water shenanigans – and sexual awakening. Did I mention there was nudity?

The Matchmaker stars Adir Miller, a well-known standup comic and TV personality in Israel; Maya Dagan and Tuval Shafir. It’s one of those films that’s fun to watch and, just maybe, important to see. Interested? There’s a good chance you can find it on Netflix.

Friday, February 11, 2011

'Seeing God' looks into secrets of Kabbalah

It's Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Today let's take another peek into the mystical world of Kabbalah.

David Aaron thinks the secrets of Kabbalah are open to anyone willing to explore this mystical philosophy developed in the 11th and 12th centuries. It's a journey worth taking, he suggests in his book, "Seeing God, Ten Life-Changing Lessons of the Kabbalah" (Tarcher/Putnam, $23.95).

Aaron, a rabbi, pianist, composer and poet, founded an educational institute, Isralight, in Jerusalem nearly two decades ago that offers seminars on Judaism. He quickly realized that many of his students were interested in learning Kabbalah, thinking that there were secrets to life to be found in the ancient belief system. During a phone interview, he talked about such secrets and explains why people remain interested in Kabbalah.

Q: Kabbalah continues to be an "in" thing, especially among New Age types, celebrities and people on the fringes of mainstream religion. Why? What is it about this esoteric Jewish practice that attracts people in search of meaning?

A: The Kabbalah is really the "unified theory of everything." It goes beyond denominations revealing the truth about God's all-embracing oneness -- the foundation of all love and meaning. Therefore, especially in our generation when we no longer believe that technology will make us happy and solve our existential problems, we are very hungry for a wisdom that can show us the way to personal fulfillment, love and meaning.

People are disillusioned with religious institutions like some churches and synagogues that are lacking soul, sophistication and inspiration. Although Eastern traditions are attractive, it does not fully satisfy a Westerner who was raised on the tradition of the Bible. Therefore Westerners are looking for a Bible-based mysticism -- the Kabbalah.

Celebrities are attracted to it perhaps because it really addresses the real meaning of our identity. It clarifies the power of the soul and its connection with God and how we are channels for God's spirit into the world. Entertainers often look for that creative moment where the spirit flows through them.

Q: You suggest in the opening chapters of your book that life has a way of "blinding" us -- that most adults have forgotten the state of awareness called wonder. Isn't this loss just part of the maturation process, the natural order of life? Wouldn't it be problematic for a person's well-being to hold onto such a childlike state throughout life?

A: Yes, it is definitely part of maturing to become more concrete in the way we think and create categories for the purpose of communication with others and thereby become social beings. However, this does not have to come at the expense of wonder, which is individual and cannot be expressed to others. The key to life is always balance. My teacher explained to me that a prophet was an adult child. He was able to draw strength from both aspects of himself.

Q: You write that the Kabbalah is referred to as the "secrets of life." Are there such secrets and, short of giving up one's day job to study and work with a spiritual guide, is it possible for most people to understand the mystical concepts of Kabbalah?

A: Of course there are many levels that one can ascend to. We all have the potential to reach these spiritual peaks (or should I say spiritual peeks). However, it does involve work to become a great master of Kabbalah. Other than becoming a master, we can all transform our daily life experience into a truly enlightened and inspired state. I wrote my new book "Seeing God" so that anyone could access the sweetness of this ancient wisdom and immediately experience more happiness, love and meaning in their life. Can God be seen by everyone? Yes, we can all learn how.

Q: You write about God being all that is, the one reality. When a person shows love, it is God's love; when we see joy, it is God's joy. But what about the other side, the dark side? When a person is angry or bitter or just plain mean, are these traits also a reflection of God?

A: They are not reflections of God, but they do contribute to the reflection of God. Without the dark side, would we know there was light? Just like in a painting, it is the dark colors and lines that bring contrast and thereby enhance the bright colors.

One of the major themes of Kabbalah and Jewish tradition in general is that our task on earth is to choose love and goodness. If there was no evil or hatred, there would not be choice and we could not reveal the greatest goodness and love that is accomplished when we overcome evil and hatred and choose love and goodness

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

In search of a new home, life in Jerusalem

I was bored and flipping through the channels earlier this week and came across an interesting episode of House Hunters International on HGTV. It’s always fun to fantasize about having the wherewithal to make a move to some exotic locale on the other side of the world. As often as not, lovely beaches, deep blue water and majestic mountains are part of the deal on this show.

This time around, sun-bleached buildings, serpentine alleyways and ancient mysteries were the hot drawing cards, all circling about the very old and memorable city of Jerusalem. Hayley Gerszberg, living the good life with her four kids in New Jersey had decided she needed a change and Israel was where she wanted to be.

I thought this a swell adventure and enjoyed the first few minutes focusing on some of Jerusalem’s iconic sites – the Western Wall and Cardo in the old city; Mahane Yehuda, the world-class shuk, and picturesque gardens and parks in newer sections of the city.

In just five minutes, the show’s producers managed to pull together images of the ultra-Orthodox praying and soldiers enjoying free time away from, ah, soldiering; students on their way to school and seniors basking in the afternoon sun; tourists in search of memories and locals enjoying a cup of Joe at a corner café.

The show generally focuses on three properties and I figured tagging along with Hayley might give me a good idea of what real estate is worth in Jerusalem. Wrong! It turns out Hayley’s budget was a bit more than I’d have to play around with if I was in the market. She was hoping to find a place to call home that wouldn’t set her back more than, um, $2 million.

I forget the various neighborhoods that Hayley, her best friend and real estate agent visited, but they were all upscale areas, centrally located, featuring expansive green spaces, good schools, convenient shopping – and, most importantly, sun-bleached buildings and serpentine alleyways. I won’t bore you with the details – you can see the entire show yourself by clicking here – but Hayley eventually settled on a home in the German Colony, a chic and oh-so trendy community just a mile or so outside the Old City.

The house is expansive and beautiful, sort of contemporary, but filled with lots of little details – mosaic tiles, stone walls, bits of Judaica – that capture a sense of time and place. If I had $2 million hidden away somewhere, I could easily call this place home.

The program, of course, is all about the search and I was left wondering about Hayley, her kids and why she decided the time was right to make such a move. Israel can be a lovely place, but it’s a small country in a tough neighborhood. I found it interesting that even though Hayley talks about moving to Jerusalem she never says she’s making aliyah – if you’re Jewish you’ll understand my point.

I’ve had friends who’ve done the Israel thing and only managed to last a year or so. The language is tough to learn and the culture can be daunting. Without a social network, muscling your way through the bureaucracy is often a deal breaker. I imagine, given her resources, Haley can probably make a go of it just about anywhere. After all, F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously wrote that the rich are different. In this instance, I think he’s probably right.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Mother Nature needs to rethink pecking order

They’re back! And I thought I had at least another month before the pecking started in earnest.

It all begins each year with just a vague little sound off in the distance. As often as not, it’s a tiny annoyance that I manage to ignore until I find myself holding my breath, trying to figure out what’s going on around my house.

Something is happening somewhere; I just have no clue what or where. Eventually I put on hold whatever I’m doing and venture out into the hallway, once again holding my breath until I hear a whack, then another and yet another. It’s always a series of tiny pecks, fluid in execution, a primal act of nature.

At some point I’m able to figure out what direction the sound is coming from and then, not unlike a heat-seeking missile, I explode, dashing into whatever room my inner radar selects, whipping up the blinds, ready for action.

As often as not, the culprit ignores me all together. Generally it’s a finch or sparrow, almost never a woodpecker. Go figure! For whatever reason, the little birdie and its friends and family grow tired of the pines and hardwoods dotting my property and take special delight in pecking holes in the siding of my home.

My plan of attack is simple. Bang on the walls and windows until the feathered rodents fly off and begin pecking away at the home of one of my neighbors. Occasionally, I dash outside and grab anything nearby – pine cones, pebbles, bricks – and lob it in the direction of the birdie doing the damage.

All this effort generally works – for about five minutes or so. On really bad days, bands of birds spend the morning feasting on my home, banging away until they manage to create a foothold of some sort. By the middle of spring there are often a half-dozen holes in the siding of the house and dozens of laughing birds mocking my efforts to battle Mother Nature.

The chill of winter will hold off the annual full assault for at least a few more weeks and this year I’m gonna be prepared. I’m toying with the idea of buying a pellet gun or, better yet, a howitzer. Anyone have a decent recipe for fried finch or sparrow stew?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Taking a journey and honoring the dead

It’s Friday and time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Several years ago I visited Auschwitz during a trip to Eastern Europe with members of my Synagogue. Here’s what we saw.

It was hot and I was tired, emotionally drained after an afternoon of touring Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi death camp about 40 miles west of Krakow in southern Poland.

As I stared out across a huge field where so many had suffered and died, I was momentarily startled by the blast of a shofar – the traditional ram's horn that is sounded during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services each year. I turned and saw the leader of our group, Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Congregation Etz Chaim in east Cobb County, holding the horn to his lips, blasting away at the pain and darkness of this place.

Thirty of us, all from the Land of Cotton, were traveling across Eastern Europe on a congregational trip sponsored by Etz Chaim that was equal parts vacation, heritage tour and traveling marathon. The plan was to visit five cities of note across the region – Warsaw and Krakow in Poland; Budapest, Hungary; Vienna, Austria; and Prague in the Czech Republic. We would immerse ourselves briefly in the local culture and spend time wandering the cobblestone lanes and picturesque corners of these ancient and charming communities; but the focus would be on the past, the rich Jewish heritage that was once a vital piece of this part of the world.

It was understood that there was a dark, melancholy side to all of this, that the trip would carry a hefty load of emotional baggage. After all, the Jews of Eastern Europe, their culture and way of life were systematically destroyed by the malevolent power and madness of the Nazi war machine more than 60 years earlier.

The scope of the destruction is difficult to comprehend. It began slowly in the 1930s with a series of draconian measures aimed at isolating and demonizing the Jews of Germany, picked up speed with a government-sanctioned pogrom in 1938 that came to be known as Kristallnacht, and found its stride a few years later with the creation of a sprawling complex of concentration and forced-labor camps that quickly morphed into factories of death.

By the end of World War II, nearly 6 million Jews from across Europe had been rounded up and killed. In Poland, one of the leading centers of European Jewry before the war, nearly 3 million Jews were caught in the Holocaust, slaughtered by special commando units or in ghettos and concentration camps.

Auschwitz – the German name given to the nearby village of Oswiecim after Poland was invaded and conquered in 1939 – was the largest death camp constructed by the Nazis. It remains one of the largest graveyards in the world. Nearly 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered here, their bodies and ashes dumped into mass graves.

Arriving at the camp is a surreal event. The past hovers uneasily on the edges of an expansive parking lot, hidden by tour buses, cars and tourists enjoying a quick lunch. Our group works its way through the crowd to the camp's welcome center and a bustling cafeteria, shaking off the four-hour journey from Warsaw. A buzz of languages – English and Polish, Hebrew, French and Slovak – spills about us like canned chatter from a gathering of the United Nations.

We dine on overcooked chicken schnitzel and so-so pizza, happily talking about our first days in Poland and the adventures that still await us farther south across the Slovak border in Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic. But it's the past that captures our attention when we finally settle down inside a small auditorium to watch a film on the liberation of Auschwitz.

We begin our afternoon's journey into darkness, assaulted by images of the Holocaust – long lines of weary, brutalized people staring through barbed-wire fences; children rolling up their sleeves to reveal numbers tattooed on their arms; piles of clothes, spectacles and luggage; and piles of corpses decaying in open pits.

Back outside, the black-and-white images of the film spring to life in color as we walk toward the camp's entrance, the buildings, roads and landscape impeccably – some might say obscenely – manicured, still wrapped in barbed wire and ominous warnings of electrified fences.

We read the same sign that welcomed the legions who died here, "Arbeit Macht Frei," work makes you free, the Nazi lie that this was a work camp and that hope still existed in a world at war. Our guide, Alicja Tarowska, points out the "b" in Arbeit and asks if we notice anything unusual. After a moment it becomes clear that the letter had been put in place upside down; a little annoyance, Tarowska says, offered up by an inmate to irritate his captors.

Auschwitz I, along with Birkenau, Monowitz and 39 subcamps, would eventually hold more than 100,000 prisoners – Jews, Russians and Poles, Gypsies, gays and others that the Third Reich considered "undesirables" – and become the graveyard for well over 10 times that number.

We shuffle along the crisscross grid of roads in the main camp with other groups of tourists, peering into barracks that house a series of horrors – the piles of hair, eyeglasses and luggage seen in the introductory film, now on display behind huge walls of glass, and torture chambers, including a claustrophobic "Standing Cell" where prisoners were forced to spend nights together, unable to move, hardly able to breathe.

I'm awake but caught in a nightmare, wandering through rooms where horrific medical experiments were conducted by Josef Mengele, the sadistic Nazi physician, and his colleagues; past a killing wall in a small courtyard where political prisoners, religious leaders and others were executed; then back into a barracks, the "Death Block," where some prisoners were held without food or water until they died of starvation.

It was here, I learn, that the Nazis first tested the toxic gas Zyklon-B, a pesticide initially used at Auschwitz to fumigate barracks and disinfect prisoners' clothes. The test proved hugely successful and offered the means for the Germans to put in place their master plan, the Final Solution, to wipe out the Jews of Europe. It was a plan that took form only a few miles away, at Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II, a 10-minute bus ride from the main camp.

We arrive somewhat dazed, still filled with images of death from our first stop, not prepared for the brutal reality that awaits us. We stand in a parking lot, directly across from a low-lying brick structure that looks vaguely familiar. We walk toward the center of the building and see train tracks that run through a distant field, shimmering in the afternoon heat and fading in the distance.

Images flood my mind – a huge locomotive belching steam, its brakes squealing as tons of machinery grind to a halt; cattle cars filled with desperate, weary people; Nazis shouting orders and guard dogs snarling.

The scene is one of the lasting images from "Schindler's List," Steven Spielberg's award-winning film about the Holocaust, and the focus of numerous other theatrical films and documentaries, plays and novels, memoirs and nightmares. This is sacred ground, the uneasy resting place for a million souls. And it's huge.

The camp spills across hundreds of acres, divided by train tracks and subdivided by rusting fences. A few rows of wooden barracks remain, the debris of hundreds of others – each pinpointed by a crumbling chimney – stretches across a grass covered field, clumps of wildflowers jarringly framed by strands of barbed wire.

"Of course there was no grass here when the camp was operating," Tarowska says. "People were starving and they would eat it."

They were the lucky ones, not yet consumed by this killing factory. Most died shortly after arriving, ordered off the cattle cars that pulled into the heart of the camp and into lines where it was decided who would live and who would die. We stand on the spot where Mengele, infamously known as the Angel of Death, often made the daily selections, then follow a path leading to a pile of rubble, all that remains of Birkenau's killing machines.

As the war continued and the tide of battle turned in favor of the Allies, Nazi planners were gripped with a renewed urgency to rid the world of Jews. Transports increased and additional gas chambers and crematoriums – there eventually would be four facilities at this camp – were constructed.

Those selected – a brutal, capricious exercise that always included children, women with babies, the elderly and ill – were marched into underground changing rooms, ordered to strip, then locked into huge gas chambers that were disguised as showers. They were murdered and removed to nearby crematoriums. When all was up and running, 20,000 people could be pulled from cattle cars and turned to ash in a single day, a stunning figure that captures the cold efficiency and pure evil of this place.

Standing alongside the ruins of the crematoriums in the late afternoon, the sun dipping below a row of birch trees that tower over the back of the camp, our group huddles together for comfort and a short memorial service. We recite a few psalms and read a poem, light a memorial candle, and together say the mourners' kaddish, a special prayer for the dead.

I turn away, gazing across the tracks and the nearby fields surrounded by barbed wire, momentarily lost in thought about the past and the Holocaust. The wail of the shofar grabs my attention. The sound echoes and magnifies the ache in my heart and I see that others around me also are moved, a few wiping away tears of sadness and anger.

I shudder, recalling the words of a memorial plaque I walked past moments earlier and that I can still see off in the distance, resting below a tortured sculpture of a smokestack. "For ever let this place be a cry of despair . . . And a warning to humanity."

I whisper a silent amen.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Quenching your thirst and getting soaked

The lovely Miss Wendy and I were reaching way back into the, ah, vault of golden oldies recently, reminiscing about growing up in the '50s and '60s. Essentially we were attempting to outdo one another with “I remember” memories focusing on the low cost of stuff.

Wendy recalled paying only a nickel for an ice cream cone, a quarter for a sundae and a buck for dinner. I played the “fuel” card – a gallon of gas went for about 15 cents or so and you could easily fill the tank of the family sedan for under $3.

All this nostalgic revelry sent us spinning off in a different direction, however, when we started detailing the high cost of products today. There are all those high-tech gadgets – smart phones, laptops and flat-screen TVs – that can cost a fortune. Worse, a wardrobe of designer jeans, shirts and suits cost more than my first year of college tuition back in the mid-60s. And, heaven forbid, if you’re of the female persuasion, the tab for haute couture probably matches the GNP of some smallish, third-world countries.

But for sheer madness, and the point of this posting, is the handful of cash I handed over for something during my most recent trip to the Big Apple. I’ll explain.

The missus and I spent our first day in Gotham around Times Square, enjoying the sights and trying to stay warm. We managed to grab a couple of the last seats available for Mama Mia! and hunkered down with a thousand or so other tourists for the fun and funky show. Tickets weren’t cheap, but the price tag was pretty much what I expected for a Broadway show.

During intermission, I realized I was thirsty. In fact, I was feeling a bit dehydrated and decided I needed something to drink. Now I understand that it’s a given that there are certain places on this planet where it’s not a good idea to purchase drinks or snacks – airport terminals, tourist hot spots, any sort of professional ballpark, neighborhood multiplexes and Broadway theaters.

Did I mention I was dehydrated? Why, yes, I think I did. So it was that I muscled my way to the back of the Winter Garden Theatre and spotted a guy pushing a cart filled with bottled water – something, btw, I never buy. I asked him for a bottle and this is how our conversation played out.

Him: “Hope you’re enjoying the show … that’ll be $5.”
Me: “Pardon me?”
Him: “$5”
Me: “Jesus Christ!”
Him: “Yeh, I know what you mean.”

Did I mention I was dehydrated? Anyway, that’s how I ended up making one of the most absurd purchases in my life. To put this all in perspective, I crunched a few numbers. Most of us would agree that the cost of gasoline is relatively high; somewhere around $3 a gallon. It costs me about $40 to fill up the tank of my fuel-efficient car.

If, heaven forbid, the cost of fuel ever comes close to matching what an ounce of water goes for at Broadway theaters, I’ll be forced to take out a loan every week or so for about $1,200 – that’s $80 a gallon!

The bottom line? Drink plenty of liquids before seeing Mama Mia! – or any other show on Broadway – and keep your legs crossed tightly and hope the performance doesn’t run long.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Weekend weather just a tease of things to come

Mother Nature has been toying with us. The weekend was sunny and warm, a taste of spring just a few weeks after the Land of Cotton had been transformed into a frigid wasteland..

Temperatures soared on Saturday, helping melt away the winter blahs that had settled across the region. Bone chilling temps, ice, snow and freezing rain were, for the moment, fading memories.

Out and about with the lovely Miss Wendy, enjoying the afternoon sun that sparkled happily along the Chattahoochee, we were joined by an eclectic mix of folks as we sauntered along our favorite walking trail. There were young families with their young kids and children playing ball; runners, bikers and boaters; friends and, I imagine, lovers. Even the geese seemed a bit perkier, fluttering about with good cheer.

Sunday was just about the same, another day of warmth and mostly clear skies.

But it was all a tease. Monday broke gray and dismal, temperatures plunging into the high 30s, rising only slightly into the mid-40s by late afternoon. Tuesday was more of the same, including a fog that shrouded the region in a heavy blanket of mist.

Meteorologists were once again predicting gloom and doom, talking up a massive winter storm sweeping across the country’s heartland, expected to dump large amounts of snow over the Midwest and New England.

The good news is the Land of Cotton will only be feeling a slight chill from this frosty blow in coming days. No need to stock up on milk, bread and booze. That said, it might be helpful about now to remind ourselves of the promise offered up by Percy Bysshe Shelley in “Ode to the West Wind”.

All together now: "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"