Sunday, August 27, 2017
I Have a Friend Named Shmuel
[This post may seem too raw or too direct or too soon for some. It may seem to walk roughshod over the unwritten rule that one shouldn't speak ill of the dead (which, if we're being honest with ourselves really means one shouldn't speak with complete honesty about the dead). It's partly out of a sense of fair play that these conventions have become enshrined in practice. After all from the earliest age we are taught that if you don't have anything nice to say... don't say anything at all. And certainly not if the person being discussed is not there to defend him/herself. I want to be clear from the outset that this post is a labor of love and is not meant to damage or disparage anyone's memory. It is meant to be a contribution to an ad hoc cooperative project where countless grieving people who hold only a few pieces of a complex puzzle are allowed to glimpse the pieces that have been hidden from view, and perhaps find some closure by gaining a more complete view of a person who had such a central and profound place in our lives. If you are looking for blame or excuses, you won't find them here. And if you seek to control a legacy or shield yourself (or others) from a less than eulogy-worthy recollection of a man... please read no further. This is a discussion for grown-ups. Each reader will know if they are prepared for a grown-up discussion. Lastly, I must stress that I am as flawed and biased a person as any man who has ever lived. I am entitled to pass judgement on no man, and my opinion is worth only the value you may place on it. Like the parable about the group of blind men grasping at parts of an elephant, their individual assessments are valid, limited and ultimately wrong. I accept that I am basing my observations on sadly limited information, but that maybe, by sharing our impressions, in time we can all come to an honest, loving understanding of the elephant in the room, and in our hearts.]
I first met Shmuel at a camp in the Catskills where we were both in our mid 20s and scheduled to play in the band for a youth group retreat; he on drums and I on trombone. But when we were introduced, we weren't playing... we were eating, an activity that would be almost as central to our friendship as our shared love of music.
What made our meeting particularly memorable was the fact that Shmuel sat across the table from me, trying in vain to flag down one of the teen-aged waiters for a bottle of ketchup to go with the impressive mound of hot dogs and hamburgers he had piled on his plate. After one last fruitless attempt to obtain some ketchup, Shmuel shrugged at me and tucked into his lunch with gusto.
Exactly at the moment he finished the last morsel of meat on his plate, a harried young man in an apron ran up and plopped a squeeze bottle of ketchup at Shmuel's elbow, Without missing a beat, he raised it in my direction as if making a toast, and tipped it back like a bottle of beer... finishing two thirds of the red condiment before slamming it back on the table.
My expression must have been one of bafflement, because by way of an explanation he said, "You can't have hot dogs and hamburgers without ketchup!".
To borrow Morgan Freeman's line from the beginning of 'The Shawshank Redemption', "Yeah, I think it would be fair to say... I liked [Shmuel] from the start".
From that first encounter and many more like it, I realized that Shmuel thoroughly enjoyed doing the unexpected.
No, that isn't exactly correct. It was much more than that. His very persona depended upon being unpredictable. He was the one in any group who would deliberately defy, and more often than not, explode, any standard social convention.
He was unconventionality, writ large.
It didn't occur to me then, or even during the more than 30 years of our on again, off again friendship, that maintaining that role must have been mentally and physically exhausting for him.
Think about the person in your social group who always seems to have a joke ready... or the one who seems to have an inexhaustible supply of ecdotes handy for any occasion. There is homework and preparation that go into maintaining those roles, even if at first blush it seems effortless.
Shmuel's role in any group was to be larger than life.
If someone mentioned spotting a celebrity or politician, Shmuel had a story about a close personal friendship with a former General, Mossad Chief or Prime Minister to recount. A part of me wanted to call 'bullshit' on many of these stories. But another part deeply enjoyed that two degrees of separation Shmuel afforded me to the rich and powerful people who seemed to populate his world. Make no mistake, if any of his tales lacked perfect candor, we were all willing participants in the possible deceptions, small and large.
But the reality-gaps between Shmuel and those who knew him were far greater than that.
We all have mortgages and do the daily financial triage in which modern grown-ups engage in order to maintain the illusion of stability. Shmuel didn't go to work (at least not in any organized or conventional sense), yet somehow he had a fabulous house, nice cars and a collection of whiskeys and wines that could only be described in Edwardian terms of quality and quantity.
Everything about Shmuel seemed a bit magical. But upon reflection, that descriptive is probably quite apt.
Just as a magician relies on careful placement of the audience and props to carry out convincing slight of hand, Shmuel artfully arranged his various social audiences in such a way that they saw only what he wanted them to see... and were hidden from the underpinnings of the illusions he created, and from each other.
To the extent that it was humanly possible, Shmuel created carefully curated groups of acquaintances (and in some cases, friends), who remained perfectly isolated from one another. In George Costanza terms, his worlds were never allowed to touch one another. To be clear, I don't want to imply anything sinister or intentionally dishonest. I'm not even sure Shmuel was completely aware of what he was doing. I think he was actually a bit of a savant when it came to setting the stage on which he performed his frequent miracles.
Most of us experience moments of discomfort when our work, home and social lives overlap. This is because we have slightly different personas in each place, and having those worlds overlap places us in an awkward position of having to decide which persona is real, or at least dominant. Like most other things, Shmuel simply accepted this natural internal conflict and took it to new heights.
In any event, this careful partitioning of his various worlds worked out quite nicely for Shmuel.
Until one day his worlds collided.
Those of us who populated the orbits of those various Shmuel-systems will likely debate for some time to come what led to the collision. But from my vantage point in a warm orbit in his musician universe, it seemed inevitable. No juggler, no matter how deft or talented can keep that many balls in the air forever.
Without going into prurient details, what happened was that one day his wife was confronted with fairly irrefutable evidence of something that would be a deal-breaker for most reasonable people, and his perfect world began to come apart at the seams.
As those who knew him desperately tugged on those loose threads he had so carelessly allowed to protrude from the fabric of his carefully segregated worlds, the thin curtains that had shielded his many spheres from one another were pulled aside.
The Great and Powerful Oz turned out to be a man after all... with all the flaws and frailties inherent in the species.
As the fallout from the collision bared the framework of Shmuel's financial world, and led to the acquaintence of people who were never meant to meet, it became increasingly clear to any casual observer that smoke and mirrors played as important a role in Shmuel's apparent affluence as his considerable financial acumen.
And the more the attorneys played wack-a-mole with Shmuel's assets, the harder it became for him to maintain any semblance of solvency. Sadly, for anyone who makes their living being trusted with other people's money, insolvency is perhaps the only unforgivable sin.
Yet, somehow, Shmuel went about building new worlds, and set them in new orbits around himself.
I was relegated to a distant Plutonian orbit... which was mostly okay with me, having been burned a few too many times by the proximity of his marriage and personal relationships as they went super-nova. But I still missed him deeply.
Just as I said earlier that many of us gladly basked in the fame by association of Shmuel's star-studded circle of [real or imaginary] friends... we were found guilty by association by the court of public opinion as gossip mongers drove people to choose sides and assign blame. Anyone who thought they could have one without the other was quickly disabused of that notion.
But time marches on.
Shmuel met and married a new wife at the far reaches of his new universe... or so it seemed, since so few of his former friends had even glimpsed her.
Those of us who were desperately struggling to reconcile Shmuel's behavior with the person we had met and come to love years before were left grasping for straws. Until a single word began to dominate the way I came to view Shmuel (in hindsight and in the present). It was a powerful, tragic word that was suggested to me by a mutual friend who is a physician:
The word is 'Manic'.
Rather than color the definition with his own baggage, this doctor friend told me to look it up.
According to the current standards of assessment, to be considered to have had a manic episode, at least three of the following must be present:
- Inflated self-esteem or grandiosity
- Decreased need for sleep (e.g., one feels rested after only 3 hours of sleep)
- More talkative than usual or pressure to keep talking
- Flight of ideas or subjective experience that thoughts are racing
- Attention is easily drawn to unimportant or irrelevant items
- Increase in goal-directed activity (either socially, at work or school; or sexually) or psychomotor agitation
- Excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences (e.g., engaging in unrestrained buying sprees, sexual indiscretions, or foolish business investments)
In my unschooled, layman's assessment, Shmuel passed that diagnostic threshold with ease on more occasions than I could count.
And somehow, learning the definition of that one word was a priceless, liberating gift.
By framing his behavior in terms of mental illness instead of malice or intent, I no longer had to struggle with the idea of forgiving Shmuel (something I was having great difficulty doing), and placed him mostly beyond blame or responsibility.
I realize now (with shame and remorse), that many of the things that drew us all to Shmuel were actually textbook symptoms of an illness which I suspect contributed to his death at a tragically young age.
Reading back over this piece, I was a bit shocked to notice that I had used the present tense in the title even as I wrestled to come to terms with Shmuel's death.
The mind is funny that way; saying what we are really thinking even when it defies the facts before our eyes.
The truth is, I'm devastated over the loss of my friend. But in many ways, I lost that friend years ago... at least in the shared sense that most people take from the word friendship.
If I'm being honest, I'd been using the past tense in pretty much all my thoughts about Shmuel for some time; pining for a time in our relationship when he was more in control of his demons and I was less in control of mine.
Now, as I mourn him and come to terms with the personal challenges he must have faced, perhaps I can allow myself the luxury of thinking of Shmuel exclusively in the present tense. In my heart he can now safely remain that larger-than-life friend who made me feel larger-than-life when we were together.
In my heart we will be forever celebrating our bachelorhood together... our young married lives together... our fatherhood together... our new lives in Israel together.
And in my mind's eye, Shmuel and I will forever be sitting together, up to our necks in a cool stream in northern Israel, with the sun on our shoulders, sipping bourbon and pitying anyone who isn't us at that very moment.
Because as much pain as Shmuel may have caused those who loved him most in recent years... to me, the world is a poorer, duller, less colorful place without him in it.
Tuesday, August 15, 2017
A Bit of Perspective, Please!
Look, I get that to descendants of African slaves, being confronted throughout the southern United States by daily reminders of a regime that chose to secede from the Union rather than bow to Federal demands to abandon the cruel institution of slavery, must be demoralizing and degrading.
But trying to sanitize the south of its Confederate symbols and monuments - especially at this late date - smacks of partisan showmanship more than cultural sensitivity. After all during the deliberately harsh period called 'reconstruction', the carpetbagger functionaries had ample opportunity to nip such pride-filled, nostalgic public displays in the bud.
And it is worth noting, that a confederate memorial on Martha's Vineyard that I noticed on many of my family vacations to that Massachusetts Island, still stands proudly and unchallenged to this day! In fact, in an article about that monument's re-dedication ceremony after having been lovingly restored in 2001, contained the following breath of fresh air:
“This monument was proposed,” said Mr. Streit, “not as an attempt to justify or rationalize the cause many in the South fought for. We should be clear from the beginning that this monument is not about excusing or explaining the grotesque and inhuman system of slavery. This monument was conceived and built as an icon of healing — as a testament to our nation’s need to come together again in spite of all the killing, all the casualties, all the destruction that both sides endured.”
And let's be very clear, Robert E. Lee was not a demon in need of a modern exorcism ceremony. He was no more or less passionate about the institution of slavery than many of his former West Point Colleagues who opted to fight on the Union side. After careful consideration (he had been offered command of the Union Army by Lincoln), Lee decided his loyalty to his home state outweighed his loyalty to the Union (not an uncommon sentiment at a time when that very issue was at the center of secessionist debate). So he decided to resign his commission in the U.S. Army and accepted a commission as the commander of the armed forces of the State of Virginia.
The idea that violence erupted in 2017 over the proposed removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee from a public park is both misguided and devoid of historical justification. After all, once the Union turned Lee's family plantation into its National Cemetery (does Arlington ring a bell?), any future insult to his memory rather pales by comparison.
And if someone were to posit that any symbol reminiscent of slave-holding regimes must be removed and destroyed, I would ask if that should apply to the Romans as well? Should we tear down all remnants of the Roman empire, or are some chapters of history more worthy of preservation than others?
While you're pondering that, consider the fact that the Romans oversaw the capture and cruel servitude of far more slaves than the confederacy ever did! In fact, the staggering number of Jewish slaves that were exported to the Italian peninsula by the Romans after the destruction of the second Temple was reported by contemporary historians to have been so great that it ruined the market price of slaves for decades afterwards.
I'm not trying to be glib here. I'm just wondering out loud if we (and by 'we' I am talking about everyone), aren't trying a little too hard to score points by lashing out at the dearly held talismans of our political opponents?
I'm Jewish. So it stands to reason that the sight of Nazi imagery such as swastikas and SS uniforms should be repugnant to me. And on some level,they are. But I was starting High School when United States Supreme Court ruled that the use of the Swastika is a symbolic form of free speech entitled to First Amendment protections, and determined that the swastika itself did not constitute "Fighting Words". Its ruling allowed the National Socialist Party of America to march. [source]
That stuck with me. I was angry about it at the time... but on some level it was reassuring that the laws and institutions of my country were deemed strong enough to withstand such poor treatment and blatant abuse.
Further, I remember an AP history teacher explaining to us that it was downright inspiring that the opposing sides had fought their battle largely in the courtroom, and not on the street, as would have happened in a country with a weaker constitution and/or an imbalance of powers between the various branches of government. "Taking the law into their own hands", he had said, "would have been the surest sign that they had no confidence in the rule of law.".
In the end, I'm sad to say that as shocking as I found the lethal car attack on the crowd demonstrating against the neo-Nazis, what has been haunting me at night is the scene that followed shortly afterwards, where left wing demonstrators took the law into their own hands and settled the central issue of the dispute by summarily tearing down and destroying the contested statue of General Lee.
As tragic as the car attack was, it was a one-off criminal offense perpetrated by a hate-filled madman. That the left-wing mob deciding to bypass the courts and decided for themselves what is and isn't fit to display in a public park, will echo for years, and will probably be seen as a precedent to be emulated elsewhere by those wishing to right real or imagined wrongs. After all, a length of rope and a towing hitch are far cheaper and more expedient remedies than years of legal wrangling with an uncertain result.
This was a test case in American history every bit as important as the National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie.
And sadly, when scholars look back on this week's events through the clear lens of time, it will be the American left that will be held responsible for breaking faith with the constitution, and with the institutions that document so thoughtfully established and carefully nurtured.
To be sure, there were monsters worthy of eternal revulsion before and during the Civil War. But Robert E. Lee - a deeply principled gentleman and exemplary military officer - certainly wasn't one of them. It is troubling that his statue became the rallying point for people General Lee would have found irredeemable and repugnant... and that his statue was ultimately illegally toppled and destroyed by people in whose company he would have probably felt far more comfortable.
Now you say something, Jordan.
Monday, August 07, 2017
Support BDS? Then be prepared to really boycott Israel!
Over the years there have been no lack of catchy YouTube videos and emails pointing out all the Israeli medical, scientific and technical inventions and innovations... and how if the haters were really serious about boycotting everything Israeli, their lives would be rather primitive, and likely significantly shorter.
Yesterday, it was announced that Palestinian 'diplomat' Saeb Erekat, one of the most strident Israel-bashers, and disseminators of blood libels* and lies about Israel, had requested to be placed on the waiting list to receive a lung transplant in Israel.
Let's pause a moment to let that register.
Here is a guy who has made a career out of trying to vilify and isolate Israel through calls to boycott diplomatic, commercial, educational and medical cooperation with the Jewish State.
Yet now that a lifetime of heavy smoking has caught up with him, he fully expects that the very Israeli medical establishment that he has tried to strangle, and which he has accused of illegal organ trafficking (and even of having killed Palestinians in order to harvest their organs!), will let bygones be bygones and give him a new lease on life.
The crazy thing is that he will probably get his wish.
For decades the powerful and wealthy among our enemies have been quietly sending their family members to Israel for life-saving surgeries and treatments. Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas sent his wife's brother to Israel for life-saving heart surgery [source]. Hamas leader and former Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh sent his sister's husband to Israel for life-saving surgery [source]. Senior Hamas member Nayef Rajoub received spinal surgery in Tel Aviv. Last year a member of the Bahraini royal family came to Israel for life-saving surgery [source].
The list, like the hypocrisy, goes on and on.
However, unlike many of the other medical treatments that Israel has offered to those calling for our isolation and destruction, the pending transplant requested by Saeb Erekat is slightly different in that it requires more than just skilled surgeons and world-class hospitals; it also requires a donor.
Therefore, in addition to sending a formal letter of protest to Israeli Minister of Health, Yakov Litzman and the National Transplant Center (you can click on those links to be able to send your own emails of protest), I have taken my Adi Donor card out of my wallet and locked it away in my safe. I have also given clear instruction to my wife and family that in the case of my untimely demise, I do not authorize the harvesting and donation of any of my organs so long as Erekat remains a potential recipient.
This parasitic behavior must stop. The very definition of a parasitism is when one entity benefits at the expense (and to the detriment) of another. So long as our enemies portray their struggle for a Palestinian state as a zero sum game where one side can only gain at the expense of an equal loss on the part of the other side, anything that is done to benefit the Palestinians can only hurt Israel.
The world is silent when the Palestinians make cynical use of ambulances to transport fighters and weapons, and hospitals to house their military headquarters. I won't remain silent while this scumbag incites terrorists to kill Israelis with the full expectation that his own life will be saved by an Israeli donor, surgeon and hospital.
If someone wants to talk about peaceful coexistence, you know where to find me. But if you call yourself my blood enemy, don't come to me for a donation.
* During the Second Intifada, Erekat called the IDF operation to uproot the terror infrastructure in the town of Jenin a "massacre" and a "war crime", alleging in interviews to multiple international media outlets that Israel had killed more than 500 Palestinians in the Jenin refugee camp. After the incident was investigated, it was determined that the Palestinian death toll was between 53 and 56, mostly combatants. [source]