Friday, June 2, 2017

Pascal's Wager, or The Futility of False Dichotomies.

          Blaise Pascal:  mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer, and theologian—truly a polyglot.  Most of you probably associate him with his laws of fluid dynamics.  As a scientist, he was quite important to the then fledgling enlightenment.  He even had a unit of pressure, the Pascal, named for him.  As a lover of the sciences, he probably would be turning over in his grave if he knew how his “wager” was being misconstrued by many professional “kiruv klowns.”
          The wager can be stated as follows:
1.      Either god exists or he does not.  Reason cannot decide between the two alternatives (nb:  remember this part.  We will get back to this later).
2.     A game is being played…where heads or tails will turn up (like the flip of a coin, where there are ONLY two possible outcomes).
3.     You MUST wager (it is not optional).
4.     Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is.  Let us estimate the two chances.
a.     If you gain, you gain all.  (that is, if God exists, and you wagered that he exists, you have some “eternal reward” to gain).
b.     If you lose, you lose nothing.  (that is, if God does not exist, and you wagered that he does exist, then it doesn’t matter, what did you have to lose by acting like he does exist?)
5.     Therefore:  It is better to wager that God exists, because there is an infinite reward to gain, and a finite reward to lose if he does not.  (to use the analogy a Seventh-day Adventist preacher once used in a sermon that I attended, “it’s like betting a paper clip and gaining a house.)
6.     As for those who cannot believe:  endeavor to convince yourself that you believe.

We begin by analyzing the false dichotomy set up by Blaise Pascal.  At best, the wager is a great introduction to “decision theory.”  That is, when analyzing the opportunity cost of any major decision you have to make, when you weight what you have to gain/lose by each decision, assigning it a mathematical probability, you can determine which action is the best to take.
     Of course, the simplest illustration of this is doing a coin toss.  The assumption is that in a coin toss, you have exactly a 50% chance of flipping heads and a 50% chance of flipping tails.  In this situation, there is no advantage to picking either heads or tails.
A more sophisticated example would be the classic “Prisoner’s dilemma.”  There are many ways to approach this problem, so pardon me for dumbing it down for the sake of this exercise.  Let’s say Rueben and Simeon were both accused of committing a crime and were interrogated separately.  Rueben and Simeon have exactly two choices:  They can either stay silent or betray the other party.  The following table shows what happens with each choice.

Reuben stays silent
Rueben betrays Simeon
Simeon stays silent
Both serve one year in prison
Simeon serves 3 years, Reuben walks off with no sentence
Simeon betrays Rueben
Rueben serves 3 years, Simeon walks off with no sentence
Both serve two years in prison

I do not want to go through the many ways to approach this dilemma.  However, I have seen some websites use this dilemma as a philosophical “rock-paper-scissors” type game to see how people would “play each other” if they could recursively reenact this scenario.  Although in reality, there are more than two options, this still serves as a stellar example on how to teach “decision theory.”
Pascal very likely did not intend for his theory to be used as a baseline for praxis at all.   In fact, the only thing this wager could actually establish at all is that one cannot rationalize their beliefs, and in the end, they must resort elsewhere to justify their beliefs—not logic.

Let us look at the first proposition of the wager.  Either God exists, or he does not.  Reason cannot decide between the two.
          Of course reason cannot actually determine if god exists.  After Pascal’s time, Karl Popper would establish the concept of “falsifiability.”  The fact is, one cannot falsify most theological arguments.  I cannot set up an experiment or test to empirically disprove that Russell’s Teapot exists.  Therefore, for me to decide which of the many possible deities or faith systems are more correct than others, I have to rely on means that are beyond the scope of science and reason.  I must rely on semantical arguments, conjecture, and faith. 
          This is key in understanding the real intention of Pascal’s Wager.  I cannot use logic to find God.  So I must rely on faith.
          And so, since I am relying on faith, Pascal decides to make it interesting.  Let us forget about the fact that Pascal was a practicing Catholic, so he was probably speaking of a Catholic faith system.  Would Pascal have believed that one who practiced Lutheranism also had an infinite to gain?  What about the Jews?  Muslims?  Hindus?  Zoroastrians?  Buddhists?  Jainists?  Find yourself a deity, and assume it exists.
          Remember, you only have two choices here.  Your choices are like flipping a coin—heads or tails.  Either your preferred deity exists, or it does not.
          If you do what that preferred deity says, you have infinite to gain. 
          In reality, there is no universally accepted belief in one deity that will get you and infinite reward no matter where in the world you are. 
          That’s right.  The Seven Noachide Laws?  Nope.  Not if you are a Catholic.  The sixth law, not eating a limb from a live animal, is not an issue for them. 
          What about not eating fish on Friday during Lent?  Jews don’t have a problem with that.
          There are so many laws, rules, regulations, and bylaws specific to each faith system.  Why should a Jew waste their time praying three times a day every day and extra on Sabbath when it might be enough to just receive communion and confess your sins?  And why should a Catholic confess their sins when perhaps what God really might want is for you to shut the f..k up and just meditate for a few minutes each day? 
          I mean it’s one thing to assume that either God exists or does not.  But what does that have to do with Praxis?
          Repeat after me:  JACK and SQUAT.  In that order.

          Final thought:
          There is a simpler problem with Pascal’s Wager.
          Is it better to genuinely disbelieve or disgenuinely believe?
          Let’s say I only keep kosher and pray three times a day because if I don’t, then the scary invisible pink unicorn in the sky is going to kick my ass when I die?  If I were an omnipotent and omniscient being, would I give two shits about whether or not said person actually refrained from eating pork?
          Food for thought.
          “Bring no more vain offerings.  Incense is an abomination to me.  New Moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.  Your New Moons and your appointed feasts, my soul hates them.  They have become a burden to me.  I am weary of burdening them.”
          --Isaiah 1:13-14.
          I believe that the prophet Isaiah hit the nail on the head here.  This can apply to anyone who thinks that life is about kissing some deity’s ass to get into heaven.  If you believe, great, tzeit gezunt.  But If you don’t believe, don’t think that just because you are winging it and feigning devoutness, that the same deity who was quite bloodthirsty in the Old Testament cares about you.
          If you can’t bring yourself to believe, don’t force yourself. 
          Search for the answers.
          Don’t buy into the bullshit of the people who want to impose their beliefs on yours.
          Search for the truth. 
          And if you’re frustrated because you can’t find the truth, don’t take it too hard.  You need to find what works for you.  Consider it a challenge.  Enjoy it. 

          And remember, faith is not a coin toss.  It can be a beautiful thing.  But not if it is forced upon you or disingenuous.  

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Kuzari--a Proletarian Approach.

     Reading through the first chapter of the Kuzari again, I have tried to come to terms with his hypothesis for why Judaism is the Truth.  Some version of his rationale is one of the simpler arguments commonly used in the kiruv industry when trying to convince people to be Jewish.  Between that and Pascal's Wager, I've seen even educated people fall into a sophistic claptrap and be unable to pull themselves out.

           Before I continue, I would like to firmly state my intention.  I come not to tear down the walls of the yeshiva.  For those who genuinely believe, and for those who use their beliefs to bring light into the world, I say render unto yourselves that which you find sacred.  But for those who use pseudoscience and fallacious logic to try to impose your views on others, I am speaking to you.  I, the self-righteous heathen, speak to you.  And to those of you on the fence, I encourage you to read up on those more learned than me.  

           There are many people more learned than me who can take apart the common kiruv arguments using math, using logic, using science, using archaeology, using many disciplines I don't have the sitzfleisch to master.  So I will attempt to deconstruct it using my proletarian understanding of the subject.
IN THE BEGINNING, THERE WAS A WORD.  The word was spread throughout mankind.  But mankind could not seem to remember the word.  They eventually began to use their words to create new words.  And with those words they worshiped other entities.  The word begat other words, and the one begat many.

             Along came an archetype, a shiekh called Abraham.  He was very likely a Northern Semitic expatriot from Ur or Elam.  From there his family migrated to Haran.  And from there, he moved to the land of the Canaanites.  In that land, there were many local deities, and some grand ones.  The one he chose to worship was known by many names; He revealed Himself to Abraham as El-Shaddai.  He stayed with Abraham for many years.  Abraham begat a son named Isaac, and Isaac a son named Jacob.  Jacob begat 12 sons.  Eventually, the 12 sons migrated to Egypt to escape a famine.  The second-youngest, Joseph, became a vizier named Zaphnath Paneach.

            As far as I know, there is no actual archaeological or historical evidence to back up much of the above.  That there was a Semitic influx around the time, that is true.  That a group commonly called the "Hyksos" ruled Egypt for a time is agreed upon.  Modern scholars doubt that the Hyksos were the Hebrews.  There was another group called the Hapiru (or Habiru).  That sounds more like Hebrew (or Ivri), but the jury is still out on that one.

            Our story really begins with an Exodus of 600,000 men, roughly 2 million people total.  The Exodus was spurned by one Moses.  Moses bore the name of a deity who claimed to be the Lord of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  He was known by many names.  He revealed himself to Abraham as El-Shaddai.  He told Moses "Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh", or as Popeye would say, "I 'yam what I 'yam."  He revealed to Moses his ineffable name YHWH (perhaps Yehovah, or one really knows).  Bearing this name, Moses and his brother Aaron sent 10 plagues on Egypt.  When that was over, the Pharaoh let the 600,000+ slaves go to their promised land.

               There are many holes that can be poked into this one.  For starters, a slave rebellion of that size would not go unrecorded.  The population of Egypt itself was barely larger than a million at the time.  If that many people actually escaped Egypt, it would have been a bigger deal.

               Assuming the Exodus happened around the time it allegedly happened, then Egypt would have ruled Canaan at the time, and would have had garrisons throughout.  It would not have been safe to run away there.

               They were afraid to escape the route of the Phillistines.  But the Phillistines would not have been in the picture yet.  Clear anachronism.

               I am purposely leaving out the problems brought up by higher criticism, such as the notion that Moses and Aaron were rivals, that the P narrative is supporting Aaronid, and D supports the Mushites (supporters of Moses and a monarchy, not a priestly caste).  I am also leaving out the split narrative of J (Judah, the southern tribes), and E (Joseph, the Northern tribes).  I will address those at a different time.  

          And so, the Children of Israel wandered in a desert for some time before approaching a mountain alternatively known as Horeb or Sinai.  It was on this mountain that the Children of Israel had a massive epiphany.  It wasn’t like when Jesus went in the desert all by himself, got tempted by the Satan, and overcame him.  It wasn’t like when Muhammed went up the mountain all by himself and heard the word of Allah from the angel Jibril.  No, it wasn’t like any other epiphany in recorded history.   All 600,000 men, plus the women and children were there in front of Horeb/Sinai.  Each and over one of them heard the word of God as He recited the Decalogue.  And oh yeah, the midrash takes it further.  Not only that, but did you know that the souls of every Jew who would ever be born was there too?  Yep, it was a spectacular epiphany.
          And then came the Golden Calf.

A brief pause.
          Ladies and Gentlemen, let us pause to soak in the magnitude of this epiphany.  600,000 people saw the same thing.  Not one.  And thus, this narrative must be true.  Why?  Bear with me. 

          I am purposely reducing the elegant argument to its bare bones, so please feel free to provide me with a link to a more fleshed out version of the argument in the comments.

          So we have a choice.  A dichotomy if you will.  Either the story happened, or it didn’t.  True or false.

          Let’s say it’s false:  If only one person saw it, then you only need to falsify one person.  If two people saw it, that’s two people to falsify.  600,000 men is pretty effing hard to falsify.  Because I could lie about one person or two people or even ten people seeing something crazy.  But to lie about 600,000 people seeing something crazy such as a big fire on a mountain?  No one in their right mind would buy that.

         OR WOULD THEY?

I propose a few thought experiments for those who think that the Kuzari hypothesis is incontrovertible.

1)      Never underestimate human gullibility.  As Einstein allegedly said, “two things are infinite: the universe, and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”  I don’t know if Einstein ever really said that, but bear with me.
a.      Are you familiar with Stanley Milgram’s experiments? If not, here is a good link.  Humans will believe all sorts of asinine things when told by a well-modulated authoritative voice.
b.     Nickelback has sold over 50 million records worldwide.  That means how many people out there actually think Nickelback sounds good?  (I kid, but seriously?  Nickelback?)
c.       Another post for another time is how many people every year get sucked up into cults.  Don’t get me started here. 
2)     But it’s impossible!  600,000 people can’t be deluded into believing something false?
a.      Consider this.  If you are a Jew, then you think that your way is the only authentic way.  Given that, 2.17 billion people worldwide identify as Christian; 1.6 billion identify as Muslim; 1.13 identify as unaffiliated; 1.03 identify as Hindu, and only 0.01 billion identify as Jews.     (source:  Pew Forum)

How could such a large chunk of the world believe in “false idols”?  If theirs is such a lie, and is so much more easily falsifiable than Judaism, then why do so many more people believe in it?
b.     Ever played a game called telephone? 

You know the rules.  Everyone sit in a circle.  The first person in the circle gets a message.  He or she whispers it to the person next to them.  That person whispers it to the person next to them. Keep going until everyone in the circle hears the message.  The last person must say aloud what they heard.

In the end, the last message is rarely ever the same as the first.  At least I’ve never seen it happen.

Now let’s change the game a bit.  How stories change over generations. 

Assume, if you will, that the Torah was not finalized until the 6th century B.C.E (or so).  Perhaps by a man named Ezra.  Before that, there were many competing traditions.  Is it plausible, then, that over the 2 millennia or so between the alleged epiphany of Sinai and the times of Ezra that some parts of the story were embellished, perhaps made to be more grandiose? 
This is just the groundwork for what I hope to be a larger and more drawn out answer to those who try to shake my lack of faith.

Have a great week,


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Futility of It All

In the beginning, there was only a word.  But there was nobody to hear the word.  So the word reverberated in empty space.

The word was followed by other words.  Soon, the entire spacetime continuum was filled with words.  But alas, there were only particles.

Words in a vacuum are useless.

Yet somehow, those words still persevered.

The particles begat bigger particles.  And they begat atoms.  The atoms begat other atoms.  Those atoms begat molecules.  And those molecules continued to grow and proliferate.

Until finally, the Universe was bigger than fathomable even to the most omniscient of beings.

But the words were still null and void.

For billions and billions of years, there was no one to hear words.  Hell, I'm not even sure who was speaking those words.  But I do have faith that those words were there.  To the best of my recollection, words have always existed.

And with those words, my world has been circumscribed.

In the end, there are too many words.

And 99.9% of those words still are uttered in vain.

If silence is the canvas and perception is my easel,
my masterpiece is a cacophonous Jackson Pollock turgid philippic
about the futility of it all.

Monday, January 16, 2017

American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson Mid-season Analysis

I started watching American Crime Story this weekend.  

It was toward the end of my 8th grade year when the whole thing with OJ Simpson started.  I am too young to remember OJ's heyday as #32.  From what I'm told, he was to football in his day what Michael Jordan was to basketball in my day.  And so, it was quite the big deal when OJ became prime suspect in the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her boyfriend Ronald Goldman.

I never really did follow the trial.  I knew the basics.  He tried to escape.  There was a highly publicized car chase.  One of the NBA finals games was interrupted just to show this chase, and many fans were offended.  

I knew that OJ hired a "Dream Team" of lawyers.  I knew that they were calling the trial a media circus.  My father once said that if he was Judge Lance Ito, he would have put each and every one of those lawyers in contempt.  

In the end, OJ was acquitted.  However, there was later a civil trial where OJ was found liable for the murders of Brown and Goldman.  Many people I was raised around considered OJ to be clearly guilty as sin.

But one thing was clear.  In the end, this trial was not just about OJ and whether or not he committed double-homicide.  It wasn't about Nicole Brown or Ronald Goldman either.  And it especially wasn't about the showboating.  It was about the racial tensions in LA, especially with the police and the court system; it was about celebrity culture; it became much bigger than even OJ could fathom.


American Crime Story tries to show the story from the perspective of the multiple parties involved.  It's not just about OJ, who is adeptly played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.  I always pictured OJ as being more stoic and laconic than the way Cuba portrays him.  I guess I'm basing this on the Naked Gun movies but also the footage of the trials that I had seen.  Generally, OJ appeared to be strong and steadfast.  But this show portrays him as being very emotionally delicate.  He is seen having serious mood swings, crying a lot, being quite indecisive, but then going back to being strong and egotistical.  He is shown to have a scary side to him (one that pleaded Nolo to battery of the same woman he was accused of murdering).  He is also shown to have written a suicide note, attempting suicide (or feigning it...), and generally being at the whim of the many lawyers who were trying to help him.

On the other side, we have Marcia Clark.  She is a hard-working competent ADA whose hubris is that she thinks this case is a slam dunk for her.  When the case becomes the circus that it does, she is clearly overwhelmed, but she still rolls with the punches.  Even when it is pointed out to her point blank that her public approval ratings are quite low, that she’s commonly seen as a bitch with bad hair who needs to soften up her image, she hardly cracks.  Marcia is willing to do anything to get her win, even against a plethora of celebrity lawyers and with a media that is bipolar about whether they’re with her or against her.

At first, OJ has a lawyer named Howard Weizmann, who is clearly too small time for this case.  So per the advice of family friend Robert Kardashian (played by David Schwimmer), OJ hires Robert Shapiro (played by John Travolta).  It’s hard to divorce Schwimmer and Travolta from their previous roles.  Schwimmer, in particular, still has some semblance of Ross Gellar.  But soon, it is clear that Kardashian (who was also small-time) and Shapiro would not be enough.  One of Shapiro’s main Achilles’ Heals is that he is a negotiator who usually takes a plea bargain for his clients.  Though he has successfully defended many celebrities, it appears that OJ has too much to lose by accepting a plea bargain.

And so, it comes to a point where the team consists of some of the biggest names, but also the biggest egos, in the legal field.  I’m told that Alan Dershowitz is not fond of Evan Handler’s portrayal of him.  Indeed, Dersh is made out to be a snooty Ivy League intellectual who can’t go 15 words without mentioning something about Harvard.  But there are some things this show definitely got right about Dersh.  For one, Dersh has a reputation as being a whore, a man who has no scruples about whom he will defend, and how he will defend them at all costs.  Plenty of people I know castigate Dersh freely for the fervor he has defended alleged rapists, and the way he comes down on the alleged victims, trying to invalidate their testimonies—they say Dersh is the embodiment of “rape culture”.  On one hand, everyone does deserve legal representation, and Dersh is consistent about that.  On the other hand, people do consider a lot of his methods underhanded. 

And then we have Johnny Cochran.  Yes, he was famous before the trial, but OJ made him a superstar.  I had a Hebrew teacher in high school who used to call him “Johnny Cockroach.”  He had a reputation for playing the “race card”, for making Mark Fuhrman out to be racist, for rhyming “if it don’t fit you must acquit.”  But this show gives him some dimension.  Like at first, he didn’t want to accept the trial; but he was outspokenly on OJ’s side.  Eventually, Kardashian and F. Lee Bailey convinced him to join.  And once Cochran was on board, they finally had a solid litigator—one who could potentially make OJ a winner.

And so, we do see plenty of “clash of the egos.”  Marcia Clark did predict that it would happen.  And so it did.  It came to a head when Shapiro (as predicted) suggested they plea for a charge of manslaughter.  This pissed Cochran off to no end, and he in a very backhanded way got Shapiro removed as lead council (with Bailey and Kardashian talking OJ into following suit).  We see that OJ never wanted it to be that way.  He wanted it to be like back in his days playing football, when he could put his differences with his teammates behind him every Sunday when playing the game.  He didn’t originally want a guy like Cochran to play the race card.  He just wanted to go home and be with his family.

But then, when Cochran was point blank accused of playing the race card, he delivered a very powerful monologue about how history has been one big racial tension, and that if his pointing that out means playing the race card, then so be it.  It does amaze me that here, Cochran is seen as a man of principle—manipulative, but still principled.

To be continued when I finish the series.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

What Does It All Mean?

Another night.  Another White Russian.  Lost count of how many I’ve had tonight.
          Lost count of how many random conversations I’ve had tonight.
          She left me hours ago.  She was sick and tired of my bullshit.  Hey, she’s the one who invited me out to this watering hole in the first place. 
          Somewhere in Bushwick.  Or is it Bed-Stuy?  Or is it some extension of Williamsburg?  Who cares.  It’s all gentrified North Brooklyn to me.  One thing I’ve learned about asking directions in Brooklyn—don’t do it.  Even the locals can’t give you a straight answer for “excuse me, how do I get from point A to point B?” 
          I forget the name of the dive.  All I know is that someone’s got Tom Waits on heavy rotation tonight.  I’m too shitfaced to make out the lyrics.  But I recognize that voice anywhere.  Sounds like Cookie Monster on Ketamine. 
          She gave me a handjob under the table.  Lucky me, I can keep a straight face, because damn that felt gooood.  But I was more interested in my Jack Daniels Sour than I was in the conversation we were having.
          How will I get home?  Honey, I’ve found my way home on larger quantities of alcohol and with a further commute.  A short L-train (assuming it’s functioning tonight) to 8th St. and then an A-train to Hamilton Heights—been there, smoked that.  Don’t worry about me, I’m alright.
          No, seriously.  You don’t need to call me a cab.  I got this monthly Metrocard, and I plan on squeezing every nickel out of it.  I’m good, I promise.
          I mean seriously.  Other than the fact that she flashed me her tits, what does she have going for her anyway?  Not a whole lot.  But it’s not like I have much going for me either.  I look like shit tonight; I look like I just crawled out of bed (which I did); and I pretty much couldn’t get laid in a brothel with a suitcase full of money.  So yeah, if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with; I have no one I love, so this is as close as I will get.
Act 10:30pm (mezzo piano)
          “What does it all mean?”
          I don’t know where he came from.  I don’t remember him sidling up to me.  If I could choose any random bar patron to sit down next to me, he’d probably be one of my last choices. 
          He had a heavy pink face, like one of them old portrayals of Paul Bunyan from those picture books I used to love when I was a kid.  His hair was some grizzly mahogany that clashed with his orangish beard.  And for fuck’s sake, he was wearing coveralls and a red flannel shirt.  Who dresses him in the morning?
          What does it all mean?  He asked.  So I answered the only way I knew how to answer.
          “What does what all mean?”
          “You know, it!  What does it all mean?”
          Oh shit, there’s only one thing worse than a sentimental philosopher; and that is a sentimental philosopher on alcohol.   And he just had to plop himself next to me, a simple man who doesn’t even know what he’s doing in one hour, let in this incarnation.
          So I gave him the most honest answer I could provide given the circumstances:  “Nothing,” I spat as I took another swig of my Moscow Mule.
          Unflinchingly, he took a swig of whatever that bright red thing in a highball glass was.  I’m afraid to even ask what he ordered.
          “You never wondered why you are here?”
          “Nope.”  And that was the truth.  Truth be told, I couldn’t even tell you why I got out of bed this morning. 
          “What if I told you I know the secret: life, the universe, and the meaning of it all?”
          “Will it help me pay my rent this month?”  I asked
          “Rent?  What I’m going to tell you will last longer than your rent money and make you feel more fulfilled than you ever have in your life!”
          “Do me a favor and please tell my landlord how frivolous my rent money is.  If he doesn’t evict me for that, I’ll buy you another round of whatever that shit you’re drinking is.”
          “Cosmo on the rocks.  But that’s not important.  What I’m about to sell you will change your life forever.”
          Um, no.  I’m not taking advice from a man whose choice in potent potables comes from the Carrie Bradshaw School of Being an Insufferable Bourgeoisie Nag.
            I just twitched and said “well, I’ve already lived three different lives in 37 years.  So I’m pretty sure there’s almost nothing you can say to change my life forever.”
          He took another quick sip of his Cosmo. 
          “But I already have changed your life.  Look behind you.”
          The interior had changed.
          I was no longer in the dusty dive bar.
          Maybe he slipped something in my drink.  Or maybe the room was more colorful than I remembered it being.
          And who replaced Tom Waits’ voice with Enrico Macias? 

To be continued.

Monday, July 11, 2016

A Very Uncomfortable Post for Comfortable Americans

Whose lives matter? 
This day in age, one cannot answer that question without making a political statement.  If I were to give an honest answer, I would surely be cashing in on my “liberal stripes.”  Surely, as a liberal, I must adhere to #blacklivesmatter.  And I do. 
Clearly, no matter how hard I try, I will never truly understand the struggle of being a person of color in America.  I have worked several jobs where I was the only Caucasian in the room.  I have as good as immersed myself in non-White America as one who was raised an upper-middle class Jewish American can. 
And yet, as the saying goes, When in Rome, no matter how much pasta I eat, I will only be a second-class citizen at best. 
But does that mean I shouldn’t try?  Does that mean I shouldn’t align myself with #BLM?  Absolutely not.
There are a few uncomfortable truths I would like to air out in this post.
1)     Yes, white privilege exists.  Anyone who disagrees is lying or in denial.  I have more than once experienced this.
How many times have I been in a group of black people, and people thought I was “the boss”, in charge, or some figure of authority thereof?  And in none of those situations did I explicitly state that I was any of the above.  People merely assumed that the white guy with the stiff posture who walks with a gusto must be the man.  Body language, sometimes unintentional, can be damning. 
I’ve been accused many times of being racist.  Sometimes it was “race baiting.”  A customer didn’t like the way I looked at her, so she assumed I must have a problem with black people.  It happens.  But most of the time, it was what we call microaggressions.  Little things that weren’t intended to be harmful, but still made me look like I was not comfortable being around black people.  For example, seeing a group of black teenagers conversing loudly and vibrantly, quickly walking the other way.  I wasn’t doing it to be racist, but it was obviously perceived as such.  Those who know me would know that wasn’t my intention; but those who didn’t would think I’m being like George Zimmerman. 
Yes, white privilege exists.  And it is the duty of all white people who aspire to have meaningful coexistence with black people to be aware of this. 
2)     White Guilt.  What is wrong with #AllLivesMatter, #BlueLivesMatter, or anything else like that?

It’s that many people who espouse views like that have traditionally been using it for racist purposes.
What’s wrong with being proud to be white?  Nothing.  But bear in mind that if one searches for “White Pride” on Google, they will find plenty of websites supporting KKK, Neo-Nazis, et al. 
Some would suggest taking back whiteness.
I would say the climate is not ripe for that.  After all, it would be perceived as being an affront to #BLM.  It wouldn’t add to the conversation.  It would only further drive a wedge. 

I may not agree with absolutely everything that every member of #BLM says.  But I agree with the message at large.  That black people have been unfairly targeted for long enough.  Even in our day when slavery has been abolished, Jim Crow laws are mostly banned, even in our day when segregation is no longer de jure, it still happens on a de facto basis; and it needs to stop!

So now is not the time for white people to speak.  That would be akin to when Kanye stole the mike from Taylor Swift.  Sit down, listen, you’ll have your time, this isn’t it. 

3)     On the acceptability of casual racism. 

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, it’s that for many Americans, bigotry is okay as long as it’s not against your own group. 

I am astounded at how many Americans can turn the other way at Donald Trump’s many infractions.  And his campaign too.  There are too many to list right now, but anyone who hasn’t been living in a cave for the past year knows what I’m talking about.

I speak especially to my Jewish brethren.  Once upon a time, there were Americans who used the same rhetoric against the Jews that Trump uses against Mexicans, Muslims, Chinese, et al.  There was a time that plenty of Americans associated Jews with communists, anarchists, Elders of Zion, and other pernicious stereotypes hellbent on unpending society as we know it.  Yes, there was a time that Jews were barred from the highest jobs in the country.  I’ve heard many stories about those days from my grandparents (and people their age).  Some of them still maintain a general mistrust of non-Jews because of those days. 

Don’t Do Unto Others….. not just a Christian concept.  Many world religions have a concept similar to this adage by Hillel.  There is a simple litmus test proposed by Abraham Foxman, founder of the ADL:  If you want to know if a statement is racist, make it about the Jews; if it now offends you, it is racist. 

Let’s try one on for size:  “We are going to deport every undocumented Jewish immigrant from this country.”  Or “When Israel sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re not sending you, they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bring crime. They’re rapists… And some, I assume, are good people.”

Catch my drift?

America has a long way to go before it fully embraces the dictum it was founded on, the dictum Jefferson said was self-evident, that all [people] are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator [whomever that may be] with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. 
Meanwhile, one cannot turn on the news without hearing of more atrocities being committed against peaceful protesters.  I cannot log onto my Facebook newsfeed without echoing the words of Ecclesiastes, all is vain. 
I cannot accept a world where people assume that because I am white, and because I sometimes slip up, that means I am on the wrong side of history.  And I have worked hard to eliminate my childhood biases from my system.  But I must accept that no matter how hard I try, I will never be fully accepted—not by either side of the spectrum.
I choose to stand with #blacklivesmatter.  I choose to stand with them because many people of color in America still have a very raw deal; and it needs to end. 

Uncomfortable as it is for me to state this, it must be said.  

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

In Memory of Gertrude "Gittel" Feuereisen Chanis

          Assorted memories.
          Her picture sits on my desk in my classroom.  If not for her, I would never have become a teacher.  Or, I would have racked up so much debt in grad school, it wouldn’t be worth it.  Either way, I keep her in plain sight at all times when I’m on the job.
          She was known for her keep fashion sense.  To an outsider, she may have looked like a typical balabusta walking down the streets of Borough Park.  But to those who knew her, she was so much more. 
          First, there was her hat collection.  Oh, her hats.  The more colorful, the better.  It’s an old stereotype of Hungarians, they like things that are colorful.  But even by Hungarian standards, her fashion sense was ostentatious.  My mother tells me it embarrassed the dickens out of her late husband, my Zeide.  He was a quiet, simple man.  He typically wore the same white shirt, black pants, red suspenders, big black yarmulke, and white tzitzit every day.  There was not a lot of variety in the way he dressed.  Every year, his yeshiva had a weekend getaway for alumni.  Zeide would go.  He would beg Savta to please wear a tichel, like most of his cohorts’ wives.  She would never sully her head with such an ugly hair wrap.  But he would beg and beg and beg.  Savta would give in (or pretend to).  She would then go to the store, buy herself a new hat, and make sure it was as flashy as she could muster.  Sequins.  Rhinestones.  Feathers.  Oh yeah, she would get creative.  And poor Zeide always looked so embarrassed. 
          She never acted her age.  When I was a child, if I ever asked Savta how old she was, she would say “100.”  She nearly lived to 100.  But she did not look or act 100.  And she didn’t want anyone to think that she was almost 100.  She would not take a cane or a walker.  She had one of those foldable shopping carts; that was her walker.  To an outsider, she would look like she was just going shopping.   She would not get a home help aide.  Whenever the social workers at the hospital asked how she can live alone at her age, she would get very sassy with them.  No matter how much they told her that she should not be doing all her housework by herself, she still didn’t care.  She hated the way home help aides did housework.  As far as she was concerned, all they were good for was passing her a towel when she was in the shower.  And with a wave of her hand, she harshly said “I can get my own towel, thank you very much.”
          Nobody could drive you crazy the way Savta did.  Oh yeah, she was one of those people who could give Sophia from the Golden Girls a run for her money.  One time, she got in fight with her sister Yudit because Yudit suggested that Savta had cancer.  Of course, Savta gave her an unequivocal “leave me alone, I don’t have cancer!”  Yudit then had one of her sons print out some literature from the internet about how to fight cancer.  She slipped it under Savta’s door.  Savta was livid.  Then later, she found out that Yudit’s son, who is the sexton at a synagogue in Queens, recited a prayer for the sick for Savta.  That was all she could take.  For the next few years, Yudit was dead to her.  It was funny, but it wasn’t funny; that was Savta for you.
          One of my favorite stories was when three of Savta’s sisters decided to visit their father’s grave in Lakewood, NJ—and they didn’t invite Savta.  Before Yom Kippur, it is customary to get a blessing from your father; and if your father is not alive, you are supposed to visit his grave.  My father always drove to Staten Island to visit his father’s grave before Yom Kippur; I usually went with him.  So Savta’s sisters went to their father’s grave, and they didn’t invite Savta.  So Savta got pissed off at all three of them.  But here’s the funny part: even if they did invite her, she would have said NO!  She thinks this custom of visiting your father’s grave is stupid.  Knowing her, she was more upset that she wasn’t given the opportunity to chide her sisters.  They probably heard it from Savta so many times, that they decided just to go without telling her.  But Savta wanted them to hear her complain about how they shouldn’t visit his grave...
          Savta had many quirks.  And they made her the kind of person who was not always easy to get along with.  But I still took the time to visit her.  I wasn’t sure how much time she had.  So I learned how to not let her drive me too crazy.  And I’m glad that during those last years, I got to know her.  There was so much I wanted to ask her.  There was so much she wouldn’t tell me.  She told me a lot about her childhood in Hungary.  But her father was a topic she would never discuss.  She loved talking about her travels.  But her own experience in the Holocaust was mostly off limits.
 She had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Holocaust.  And she loved to argue about it.  One time, she randomly called me to ask how many people survived Bergen-Belsen.  She always heard that there were no survivors.  All her books (she had plenty) said the camp was completely liquidated.  I went on Google and looked it up.  Yes, the camp was completely liquidated.  But before that, there were prison transfers.  So there were a handful of survivors; but they were lucky enough to have been sent to other camps before Bergen-Belsen was completely liquidated. 
At her age, she had an amazing memory.  But sometimes, it was spotty to a fault.  One time, she called me about Sheldon Silver.  She wanted to know where Sheldon Silver was born.  I looked it up.  He was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  “But I thought he was a Holocaust survivor!”  I scoured Google trying to find anything about Sheldon Silver and the Holocaust.  He would have been a little child when the Holocaust occurred—living on the Lower East Side.  Nope, Savta still insisted he was a Holocaust survivor.  I threw the question out the Facebook.  Everyone who replied agreed that Silver was a LES native.  Some friends said she was maybe confusing him with someone else. What amazed me was how impossible it was to get her to back down.
Perhaps the funniest Savta story of all happened at a Passover seder when I was younger.  Her sister Edith survived Auschwitz.  We were taking a little break from the seder before the meal.  Savta asked Edith what stops the train made on the way to Auschwitz.  Edith had no idea.  Savta wouldn’t let it go and continued to badger her.  Edith yelled at her “WHAT STOPS DO YOU THINK THE TRAIN MADE?  DO YOU THINK WE TOOK THE A-TRAIN TO AUSCHWITZ, THE B-TRAIN TO BUCHENWALD, AND THE D-TRAIN TO DACHAU?”  To be fair, Savta had a bit of survivor guilt: she and her father were able to escape Hungary.  But the rest of the family was stuck in Europe after Pearl Harbor, when America closed its borders.  I’m still not clear on why that happened.  But Savta, who missed out on the travesty, was forever curious about what it was like.  So the funny thing about the story is that it takes someone like Savta to ask such a question; and it takes someone like Edith to answer the question like that (another post).
I could fill pages and pages with stories about Savta.  The most important lesson I’ve learned from her is to never take anyone’s word for anything.  Always question everything.  She took it to the extreme.  But in her world, nothing was ever de facto true. 
She will be missed.

May her memories forever bring a smile to all who knew her.