Archive for November, 2009

After my recent post about bleeding hearts, a lively debate took place in the comments section.  A card-carrying bleeding heart stepped forward and offered all the tired, worn arguments those of his ilk use, employing slogans and buzzwords, and accusing me and others of being unable to see the other side, reality, the truth.  Among his warnings was the following:

One must also be aware that any occupation brings a resistance and sometimes terrorism. In one word – violence.

Weeellll, sometimes.  I don’t see any Tibetans engaging in terrorism.  There wasn’t any violence in the Sudetenland before World War II.  And no one ever tried to liberate the American Southwest after the Mexican War ended in 1848.

But this commenter’s point went well beyond pointing out what he saw as a political fact.  In discussing the Middle East, his comment was tantamount to approval.

This brings me to one further point about bleeding hearts: Whereas interpersonal violence (rape, assault and battery, stabbing) is unjustified, the slaughter of innocents for political purposes is acceptable.  At least by some people, and against some others.

Here’s how it is: Arabs killing Jews is okay.  The slaughter of men, women, children, and the elderly is all right, whether they be shopping in the shuk, riding a bus, learning in yeshiva, on a school trip, or sitting in their cars at an intersection.  Because those Arabs want a country, have a right to a country, and it’s every Israeli’s fault they don’t have one.  It’s not the fault of the Arabs themselves who have refused numerous offers of a state from 1948 to the present day.  It’s not the fault of Israel’s Arab neighbors who went to war in 1948, 1967, and 1973 in the hope of grabbing what little land Israel was able to salvage for its own state and annihilating the Jews in the process.  It’s not the fault of the UN which has funded and maintained the Arab refugee camps rather than resettling the refugees permanently, making it the longest unresolved refugee situation in world history.  No, it’s Israel’s fault merely for existing, and for holding onto land that no one else will take.

And here is how it also is:  Jews may not kill anyone.  They may not kill terrorists, because terrorists are freedom fighters.  They may not kill civilians, because that is barbaric and a violation of “international law” (whatever that means).  They may kill convicted Nazis, but we all know what a rare breed that is these days.  And the poor things are in such ill health, they can’t make the journey to stand trial anyway.

Still don’t get it?  Let me sum up: The Jews deserve to die.  Period.

Don’t believe me?  Try this one out: Talk to a bleeding heart and present him or her with the following scenarios: If peace could only be achieved by either all the Jews or all the Palestinian Arabs being transferred, whom do you think should be transferred?  Or this one: If peace could only be achieved by all the Jews or all the Palestinian Arabs committing mass suicide, who do you think should do it?

I’ll bet you a pound to a penny that in either situation, it’s the Jews who should cave.  Why?  You got me.  Because we succeeded here, and they did not?  Because we have built a thriving state while they’re still stuck in refugee camps and refuse to get on with their lives and build a state?  Because we have an economy, industry, and a government that (sometimes) serves our interests while they still subsist on Israel’s economy, Israel’s power grid, foreign donations, and still scream for more?  Because we are a tiny minority, in the Middle East and in the world, and it’s just not worth the trouble of taking our side since the rest of the world faces unabating oil dependency, fear of terrorism, and the expansion of Islam (including fundamentalist Islam) in their own countries, and they’re afraid of what will happen to them if they don’t pander to their own Muslim populations?


Guess what, Mr. Commenter.  September 11, 2001 had nothing to do with occupation.  Neither did Madrid, or London, or Bali, or Mumbai.  Terrorism is not only “resistance.”  Sometimes it’s religious fanaticism, and the insistence that everyone share your twisted view of God.  Sometimes it’s jealousy of the success of non-Muslims.  And sometimes it’s the sheer pleasure of the sight of blood, the terrified screams, and the rush you get when you end other people’s lives in an instant.

Now, what’s the difference between terrorism and that person-to-person crime you dislike so much?


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Shiva and redemption

I’ve been to a number of shiva houses since “getting religion.”  While a few have been grueling—families mourning mothers of young children, a 4-month-old baby—most are for adults who have lost parents.  The mourners in these houses are sometimes surprised, even shocked, by their parent’s sudden death, but in most cases, the mourners are resigned, philosophical, accepting of their loss.  By the time we see them at the shiva, they have dealt with the death and made it through the funeral, and are settled down for a week of praying, sitting and talking to visiting friends, family, and community members about their loved one.

The Cap’n and I recently paid a shiva call to a neighbor of ours in Efrat who lost her mother.  She was sitting shiva with siblings, her father, and aunts and uncles in her parents’ house in Geula, an old neighborhood in Jerusalem’s New City, north of the shuk.  We made our way through tiny streets, many too narrow for car traffic, lined with old buildings (some of them crumbling), and the sound of schoolchildren shrieking at play in the grounds of a school.  When we finally reached the shiva house, we stepped into a courtyard filled with flowers, fruit trees, herb bushes, and mourners and callers seated on chairs.  Visiting a large family of mourners often means bypassing clusters of callers gathered around listening to bereaved family members you don’t know, and it was a minute or two before we found the woman we had come to see.  We sat in the sun on a bright autumn morning, the last morning crispness being warmed out of the air, and the walls of the courtyard hemming in the quiet, shutting out the bustle of life’s daily routine.

Our neighbor told us how her mother had never been healthy, but how it had been a stroke that had taken her suddenly.  She told us how her children were coping with their loss, who had attended the funeral (the older ones) and who had chosen not to attend (the younger ones).  She told us how her grandfather had bought the original house (built ca. 1905), a high-ceilinged stone edifice, and how as the family grew they had built the other smaller house and extra room around the courtyard, Mediterranean-style.  She told us how the home was really the family compound, and how every week after Shabbat went out, her extended family would gather for a meal together in the large building, spreading out a table for the 50 grandchildren, and how each child had a job at the meal (bring pita and hummus, clean-up duty, etc.).

Leaving the house, I felt something I occasionally experience after paying a shiva call: I felt uplifted.  Of course I felt sad for the family that had just lost its matriarch, someone who had meant a great deal to her family.  But I also felt like I had received a wonderful lesson in Jewish life.  Our conversation with our neighbor had been a combination of condolence call, Jewish and family history lesson, and lesson in what is important.  The neighborhood, which is a crowded haredi enclave now, was once an area of more moderately religious Jews.  There had once been trees and orchards there.  Where there are busy streets and dilapidated buildings, children had once played.  Despite all the changes to the neighborhood, our neighbor’s extended family had continued to use the family compound as a regular meeting place, where the children grew up with their cousins, saw their aunts and uncles regularly, and built a close relationship with their grandparents.  It was clear that change and loss would occur throughout life, but that the family’s closeness and regular contact with one another were a mainstay of their lives.

That Cap’n and I don’t have those things ourselves.  We made aliyah, leaving our immediate and extended families in the U.S.  I email my mother regularly, and we Skype on the computer occasionally to get a glimpse of each other.  But what our neighbor’s family had, we have never had.  My family always lived spread out all over the country, and now we’re spread out over the world.  But my hope is for the next generation of our family—our children and b”h our grandchildren—to build something like our neighbor’s family had in Geula (aptly translated as “redemption”).

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The Cap’n and I spent Thanksgiving of 1996 on a program in Arad where we and a group of fellow students managed to cobble together a quite respectable dinner.  We were joined by a few British and Australian friends who enjoyed the repast, but were hard pressed to discover the meaning behind the holiday feast.  What did Americans typically do on Thanksgiving Day?  Our friend Dory answered, “Eat until you’re sick.  Then watch football.  Then eat some more.”

I’m not sure the Pilgrims would have agreed with Dory’s summary, but nowadays that’s a pretty accurate description of the holiday.  The holiday of Thanksgiving was established in 1863 (in the middle of the Civil War) by President Abraham Lincoln, creating what Nathaniel Philbrick (author of Mayflower) describes as “a cathartic celebration of nationhood that would have baffled and probably appalled the godly Pilgrims.”  (Oy, what would they have thought of us scarfing turkey in Israel all these centuries later?)

What did the Pilgrims themselves eat for their first major harvest feast in the New World?  Philbrick says the crops that would have been harvested shortly before the feast would have included corn, squash, beans, barley, and peas.  Since barley had been harvested, it is possible that they were able to brew beer.  There would have been no pumpkin pies or cranberry sauce—those delicacies came later—but a wealth of fish and game were possible.  Striped bass, bluefish, and cod were in plentiful supply, and ducks, geese, wild turkeys and deer were likely roasted on spits and stewed in pottages with vegetables.  (Massasoit and other Indians brought 5 freshly killed deer to the meal.)  Interestingly, while we romanticize the turkey as being a New World bird at the time, Philbrick states that

[t]urkeys were by no means a novelty to the Pilgrims.  When the conquistadors arrived in Mexico in the sixteenth century, they discovered that the Indians of Central America possessed domesticated turkeys as well as gold.  The birds were imported to Spain as early as the 1520s, and by the 1540s turkey had become a fixture at English Christmases.  The wild turkeys of New England were bigger and much faster than the birds the Pilgrims had known in Europe and were often pursued in winter when they could be tracked in the snow.

My mother, living in Vermont, often reports on the progress of the wild turkeys across their vast lawn, and the appearance of the poults (or chicks) in late spring joining the parade.  So New England.

In high school and college, I discovered that Americans do not all have the same menu at the festive dinner.  While turkey may be a staple at most tables, side dishes are determined by the family’s ethnicity.  A Chinese-American friend of mine and I once made a joint Thanksgiving dinner (while we were both in England) with turkey (basted with soy sauce), stuffing, cranberry sauce, and stir-fried vegetables.  Italian-American friends of ours in California told us about their niece who had married a Mexican-American man, and how the two families had combined forces for Thanksgiving, roasting a turkey and accompanying it with homemade ravioli and handmade tamales.

Thanks to my New England mother, my family’s Thanksgivings growing up were pretty traditional: roast turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, peas, cranberry-orange relish.  We had two kinds of stuffing (never cooked inside the bird, but in casserole dishes to avoid slowing the turkey’s cooking time down): apple-celery-onion, and a strange but surprisingly tasty dish invented by my Jewish great-grandmother, made with Corn Flakes, Rice Crispies, grated potato and carrot.  Despite my fondness for the latter stuffing, I’ve found the apple-celery-onion stuffing has more staying power with me, and I make it with cubes of fresh, delicious multi-grain bread, rosemary sourdough, or whatever looks aromatic and flavorful.  I’ve ditched the molded gelatin salad my mother used to make; never liked that.  The Cap’n doesn’t like peas, so I usually make green beans.  Last year I made a chocolate pumpkin tart, but found that the chocolate completely shouted down the taste of the pumpkin, from which I learned a valuable lesson: Sometimes two great tastes do NOT taste great together.  (This year I’m sticking to tradition.)  And when I was very young, my mother put hot rolls on the table with the meal, but after a few years she stopped, since there was quite enough starch on the table already.

A friend asked how Americans in Israel celebrate the holiday.  There is a spectrum of observance.  Some never got into it that much in America, and don’t observe it at all now.  Some keep to a turkey-and-stuffing meal at the end of November, but aren’t particular about which day exactly, most moving it to a Shabbat meal, either Friday night or Saturday lunch.  And a handful, I’ve heard, keep to a strictly fourth-Thursday-of-November plan.  The Crunch family follows the middle road, getting together with other American (or partially American) families and loosely commemorating the day.  Because we combine Thanksgiving with Shabbat, I have returned bread to the table, and we make Kiddush.  Beans once suggested I say the candle blessing thus: “Lehadlik ner shel Thanksgiving,” but I haven’t gone that far.

This year we’ll be joining forces with friends for a Friday night Thanksgiving.  I plan to make my children nap that afternoon, as the meal will be lavish and leisurely.  We will have turkey, gravy, stuffing, the works.  I find the white, thin-skinned potatoes in Israel don’t boil well, so I bake them first rather than boil, then skin and mash them.  I may add roasted garlic and olive oil to give them an Israeli flavor and avoid excess margarine at the meal.  I have cranberries in the freezer which I will chop in the food processor with an apple, an orange, and half a lemon to make my mother’s relish (sweetening with sugar to taste).  And I plan to make a pumpkin pie, but since one of our guests is British, and they generally do not have the chops for that kind of dessert, I’ll be making my What a tart!® tart for his benefit.

What is on YOUR family’s Thanksgiving menu?

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I’ve struggled for much  of my life to find a pasta sauce I liked that wasn’t prohibitively priced.  In the US, our family liked Barilla sauce (to match our Barilla pasta, of course).  But here in Israel, we find, the pasta is still affordable, but the sauce is not.  (It comes in jars half the size of the ones in the States, at twice the price.)  We’ve tried a number of jarred sauces here, and they range from just okay to disgusting.

Of course, my children like the absolutely worst-tasting sauces on the market, and until recently I have been willing to buy them for them (while also buying the more expensive, better-tasting stuff for the Cap’n and me).  But then we have two jars of sauce sitting in the refrigerator, growing mold since I’ve cut down on the amount of pasta we eat.

I was grousing recently about the poor pasta sauce situation to Ilana Epstein, my friend and cooking guru, and she offered me a simple solution: Make it myself.  (Now why didn’t I think of that?)  She says she makes pasta sauce every week, and has found a balance of flavors and acidity that pleases her picky children as well as herself and her husband.  Below is her recipe:

2 large onions, chopped

Olive oil

6 garlic cloves, sliced

1 lg can (28 oz or 800 g) whole peeled tomatoes

1 lg can (28 oz or 800 g) chopped tomatoes

1 handful basil leaves (more, to taste)

A sprinkle of fresh or dried oregano

1 tablespoon brown sugar

Juice of ½ lemon

Salt and pepper to taste

Sauté onions in a little olive oil.  Add garlic, then both cans of tomatoes.  (Be sure onions are completely softened and cooked before adding tomatoes, as the acid from the tomatoes will stop the onions from cooking.)  Using a knife, break up the whole tomatoes while they simmer in the pot.  Season with herbs, and add brown sugar and lemon juice.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Simmer for 10 minutes.

This sauce makes a chunky sauce.  For those who like chunky sauces, you’re done!  If you prefer a smoother sauce, run it through a food mill for a more even texture, or whiz it in a blender for super-smooth sauce.

One can vary the recipe.  Ilana recommends including roasted garlic instead of fresh, or adding chopped celery and carrots to the onions for a nice Napolitana sauce.  Tinker with the acidity to get it to taste, either adding lemon juice to add acidity or sugar to decrease.

This recipe makes 1.5 liters, enough for one dinner’s worth of lasagna or baked ziti, and some left over for the children to have with pasta for lunches.

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On bleeding hearts

Disclaimer: This is a combination rant/analysis of a problematic type of person in the world today.  I acknowledge that the majority of the readers of this blog do not fit this description.  Therefore, if you do not see yourself in the post following this disclaimer, do not be offended.  If you do see yourself, you might give some thought to how you formulate and express your political views.

I occasionally find myself debating with bloggers and commenters in the blogosphere.  Most recently, I mixed it up a bit with someone on Westbankmama’s blog.

I am not the most eloquent spokesperson for Israel, and I am also not naïve enough to think that what I write changes anyone’s mind.  Someone who thinks that Israel was the aggressor in Operation Cast Lead, who thinks that the Goldstone Report is a valid document, or who bleats incessantly about Israel’s “occupation” of “Palestinian land,” is someone whose mind is made up, and the facts are unlikely to change that.

I should point out that I am not a critic of liberal politics in general.  I think it is no accident that, as Matt Santos on “The West Wing” points out, “Liberals got women the right to vote.  Liberals got African-Americans the right to vote.  Liberals created Social Security and lifted millions of elderly people out of poverty.  Liberals ended segregation.  Liberals passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act.  Liberals created Medicare.  Liberals passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act.”  Why did liberals effect all of these social and environmental changes?  Because they care about people.  I think that’s laudable, and I agree with it.

In the policy changes listed above, liberal politicians and activists identified the vulnerable, the underprivileged, the oppressed—in short, the underdog—and sought to change the social equation to give that underdog an advantage.  That habit of identifying the underdog and championing those who appear to be weak or put-upon has continued.  But something I have found disturbing in recent years is the fact that while liberals claim to care about people, they don’t always care about facts.  Well, not all of the facts.  And only about SOME people.

If I’m a liberal thinker, my first job is to find the underdog.  And these days, quite frankly, it’s hard to pick out the underdog in a line-up.  The guy who appears to be the underdog may not be right.  He may be immoral, or devious, or hateful, or oppressive, or just plain wrong.  Sometimes the guy who looks like the underdog is not really the underdog at all.  It takes a well-informed person with a critical eye and the ability to ask questions and scrutinize the situation to spot when this is the case.

I don’t believe that liberal-minded people are unintelligent.  Most of them are very bright, thoughtful people.  But I have noticed that there are some liberal-minded people who have serious blind spots in the way they view the world.  They are underinformed.  They don’t ask questions.  They don’t know which questions to ask, or even how to ask questions.  They assume that the people they think are underdogs are all truthful and sincere.  They assume that those who have any power over the underdogs are heartless, self-serving, and bloodthirsty.  In short, they are as ignorant and prejudiced as they accuse others of being.

At the conclusion of the Six Day War in 1967, Israel was the darling of Planet Earth.  The world had just seen a tiny country with very limited resources go head to head with its much better-supplied, better-trained neighbors intent on destroying it utterly, and crush them in less than a week.  What happened between 1967 and 2009, when Israel is without question the pariah of Planet Earth?  Has Israel’s essential nature changed in the intervening years?  Has the Arab world’s?  No, and no.  But in the last 42 years, Israel has grown from a small developing nation to a world leader in science, technology, and agriculture.  Even in its worst years, with buses blowing up, tourists staying away, and high unemployment, it has had the capital to continue to build its cities, its roads and railway system, and its industry.  Meanwhile, the Arab world has changed very little from the cluster of “monarchies” and despotic regimes, where the haves live in palaces and the have-nots live in squalor; where non-Muslims have few (if any) rights; where women cannot drive or vote or walk out of their homes unaccompanied; where gays and adulterers are stoned in public; where peaceful protesters are gunned down in the streets by lawless thugs hired by the government to keep the “peace.”

So why doesn’t the world’s liberal-minded populace still champion Israel?  Because they cannot.  In their view, economic success precludes “underdog” status.  Rooting for Israel would be like rooting for Microsoft (in the Cap’n’s words)—an impossibility for someone who can only see the underdog as poor, third-world, non-White.  The worldview of many liberal-minded people has become very simple.  Too simple, in fact.

I’ve given considerable thought to what would actually transform such well-meaning people from champions of terrorists and despots to champions of the actual underdog.  Here are some of my conclusions:

-Refrain from automatically romanticizing the underdog.  Love of the disenfranchised has traditionally been a strength of liberal activism.  It worked many times in the past few hundred years and allowed Western civilization to advance in fairness and equality, but the world has changed, and things are not always what they appear to be anymore.  Some wealthy, successful white people use their money and influence for great good in the world, while some non-Western poor people spout hatred and relish spilling the blood of innocents.

-Let your values be your guide.  When judging other societies, take a look at what their core values are.  If you value freedom, civil rights, tolerance, rule of law, and democracy, look at how the people you sympathize with view these same values.  Do they share them?  Do they embrace them?  Do they treat each other and their neighboring societies the way you believe human beings ought to treat one another?  And if they don’t share your core values, ask yourself why you support them.

-Let your opinions and positions be determined by ALL the facts.  In arguing with someone on Westbankmama’s blog, I argued that Palestinian Arab leadership has turned down three very generous offers of a state in the last 10 years.  My opponent ignored that, and blathered on and on about Israel’s “occupation” of Palestinian land and “aggression” against its people.  He either doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, about how the Palestinian Arabs ended up without a state in the first place, and which countries are actually responsible for their statelessness (Jordan, Egypt, Syria) and who is responsible for the failure to resolve their refugee status (the UN).  Buzzwords like “occupation” and “aggression” and “war crimes” trump the facts with such people every time.

-Learn the facts.  When I stop to reflect, I remember that when I first came to Israel in 1996 I had a very left-wing view of politics in Israel.  I believed that they had been harsh in their dealings with the Palestinians.  I believed that the handshake between Yitzhak Rabin z”l and Yassir Arafat y”s would put both peoples firmly on the road to peace.  When I heard someone on NPR read a news story in which the Israelis had demanded that the PLO renounce their goal to destroy Israel as part of the beginning of the Oslo Peace Process, I was angry that the reader added, “The PLO is not expected to agree to this.”  Why not?  I believed the Arabs wanted a peaceful conclusion to what I viewed as a simple turf war as much as the Israelis.  Then I set out to learn the facts.  In reading books about the history and background of the conflict by many different authors (journalists, diplomats, popular writers), I realized that the conflict is much more complicated than newspaper stories, radio and television segments make it out to be.  And those newspapers and other media outlets are often limited in their access to the events and facts, rely on not-always-reliable witnesses, don’t always check their facts carefully, and are naturally limited by deadlines and the ignorance and prejudices of their reporters.  In other words, those sources often present half-truths and cockeyed stories to the public, and don’t always print their retractions on the front page.

To gather the facts takes time, and many people find themselves pressed for time these days.  Nonetheless, if one feels strongly enough about a subject, one should do it the justice it merits to find out all they can about the history of the conflict or region, and weigh different perspectives in figuring out where their sympathies lie.  If I were sitting in my comfortable chair on the other side of the world from where the events are happening, I would make damned sure I’d done my homework before I started leaving comments on people’s blogs, defending a people about whom I know nothing against people about whom I know even less.

Since my debates tend most often to be about the Israeli-Palestinian Arab conflict, I will take the liberty of listing some recommended reading about the issue from different points of view, from insiders and outsiders, eyewitnesses, journalists, and academics, who look at the issue from many different angles.

Conor Cruise O’Brien’s The Siege

Hands down, best book I’ve read about the conflict.  Irishman O’Brien cannot be accused of belonging to either camp, and I am amazed at how well he “gets” both sides of the issue, and explains their motivations and actions.

Daniel Gordis’s Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End

The most up-to-date of these books, having been published just last year.  It describes the toll on the psyche of Jews both in Israel and abroad of the wars and terrorism, but also why those should not define Israel’s character or its sense of purpose.  Beautifully written.

Mitchell G. Bard and Joel Himelfarb’s Myths and Facts: A Concise Record of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

This small volume covers the history of Israel from shortly before the War of Independence to current events.  It lays out commonly held beliefs about the conflict—e.g. “Palestine was always an Arab country,” “The West’s support of Israel allowed the Jews to conquer Palestine,” and “Israel is militarily superior to its Arab neighbors in every area and has the means to maintain its qualitative edge without outside help”—and then debunks them with the facts.  (My volume extends to shortly after the Gulf War in 1992; I believe there is an updated version.  And Mitchell Bard has a less concise volume which may provide even greater depth.)

Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem

Friedman’s account of his stints as New York Times bureau chief first in Beirut during the First Lebanon War, then in Jerusalem during the Intifada.  Gives some dated, but valuable, background on the first direct conflict between the IDF and the PLO, as well as a look at what one might view as the turning point in how modern wars are fought (particularly between national and terrorist entities).

Larry Collins and Dominic LaPierre’s O Jerusalem

A thorough, slightly romanticized view of Jerusalem during the War of Independence, particularly the siege of the city and the role of the British who tacitly supported the Arabs during the war.  The reported massacre at Deir Yassin is presented here as fact; it has been hotly disputed through the years, and has been discredited by those who investigated it.

Ze’ev Chafets’s Heroes and Hustlers, Hardhats and Holy Men

A down-to-earth account of Israeli society in the wake of the Yom Kippur War (1973) and how it changed the Israeli government, its people, and ultimately, the Middle East.

Rav Meir Kahane’s They Must Go

Contrary to the accusations that Rav Kahane was a racist and a terrorist, I have never read anything by him that suggested he was either.  This book includes the most sympathetic analysis I’ve read of how Arab Muslims and Christians cannot be expected to take joy or wish to participate in the Zionist adventure that is the Jewish State, and what the options are.  It also includes a house-to-house description (very difficult to read) of the massacre of Jews in Hebron in 1929.  Kahane had no love for Arabs, but I believe he understood them better than most people, and did not shrink from turning a critical eye to their TRUE plight in Israel.

Solomon Grayzel’s A History of the Jews

A sparsely-written, yet somehow elegant history of the Jews, and one that takes as its starting thesis that when Hashem closed a door on the Jews in Jewish history, He opened another somewhere else.  A Jewish history with a decidedly Jewish perspective.

In addition to these books, I have found articles by others with expertise in various areas to be helpful:

J.H.H. Weiler is an expert on “international law” and its limitations.

Shmuel Katz z”l wrote incisive articles about Israel’s relations with its neighbors and the peace process.

Khaled Abu-Toameh, an Israeli Arab, is one of the best journalists on the Jerusalem Post staff, and is an eloquent critic of the Palestinian Authority.

Brigitte Gabriel and Nonie Darwish, two Arab women, have riveting stories to tell about their lives in Arab society, and the demonization of Israelis they witnessed firsthand.

Sarah Honig’s biting critiques of Israel in the Jerusalem Post don’t sound like those of most of the rest of the world, but they are nearly always valid, in my opinion.

Daniel Gordis’s essays, available on his website, detail his family’s struggles with the politics and realities of living in Israel, with discussions of the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the unresolved hostage situation of Gilad Shalit, the waning interest in Israel by Diaspora Jews, and the need in Israel for a new leadership training institute.

I have been grieved to see the European Union, the United Nations, and even many in the United States lose their moral compass.  Whether the excuse lies in political correctness, a natural antipathy toward Jews (i.e. anti-Semitism), fear of their own growing Arab/Muslim populations, or a hope of winning those populations over to them through appeasement, I don’t know.  But failure to tell the truth, look the facts in the eye, and stick to what they know is right cannot lead civilization to any good.

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The science of fall foliage

While this is not a Mayflower-specific fact, it is one that I gleaned from reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s book, and that interests me greatly:

Neither Bradford nor Winslow[two governors of Plymouth Colony] mention it, but the First Thanksgiving coincided with what was, for the Pilgrims, a new and startling phenomenon: the turning of the green leaves of summer to the incandescent yellows, reds, and purples of a New England autumn.  With the shortening of the days comes a diminishment in the amount of green chlorophyll in the tree leaves, which allows the other pigments contained within the leaves to emerge.  In Britain, the cloudy fall days and warm nights cause the autumn colors to be muted and lackluster.  In New England, on the other hand, the profusion of sunny fall days and cool but not freezing nights unleashes the colors latent within the tree leaves, with oaks turning red, brown, and russet; hickories golden brown; birches yellow; red maples scarlet; sugar maples orange; and black maples glowing yellow.  It was a display that must have contributed to the enthusiasm with which the Pilgrims later wrote of the festivities that fall.

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I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction in the past few months.  At the end of October, I decided at last to pick up a book I purchased a couple of years ago, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War.

Philbrick, a Nantucket resident, became curious about the Pilgrim story while researching the Wampanoag Indians native to his island.  He divides his book into three sections, reflected in the subtitle: the story of the small group of Separatists who left England (where their religious practices were outlawed) for Leiden, then sailed for America; the careful diplomacy with which the English and the Indian sachem, Massasoit, forged an alliance and partnership in Plymouth Colony; and the unraveling of that relationship as the next two generations of English grew and required more land, and Indian society found itself undergoing change, both internal (with the many Indian sachems in the region jockeying for supremacy) and external (with some Indians maintaining their alliance with the English, while others believed the English had outstayed their welcome and should be sent packing).  This latter conflict became known as King Philip’s War (June 1675 to August 1676).

The author has created an impressive work, thoroughly researched and documented in fascinating detail.  Some historical narratives that pack a large amount of information are dry and dull to read; this is not so.  (At least not for me.)  He attempts to understand the inner workings and motivations of both the English and the Indian communities, and does not take sides.  He himself makes the observation that

When violence and fear grip a society, there is an almost overpowering temptation to demonize the enemy.  Given the unprecedented level of suffering and death during King Philip’s War, the temptations were especially great, and it is not surprising that both Indians and English began to view their former neighbors as subhuman and evil.  What is surprising is that even in the midst of one of the deadliest wars in American history, there were Englishmen who believed the Indians were not inherently malevolent and there were Indians who believed the same about the English.  They were the ones whose rambunctious and intrinsically rebellious faith in humanity finally brought the war to an end, and they are the heroes of this story.

Perhaps the most refreshing thing in this story (besides the fact that it’s the first thorough account of King Philip’s War I’ve ever seen) is the focus in the last section of the account on Benjamin Church, perhaps one of America’s first true frontiersmen.  While his maternal grandfather had arrived in Plymouth on the Mayflower, Church was a true American: of Separatist Christian stock, but independent in the way he chose to live.  He settled himself on the edge of Indian country, befriended both Indian and English, and played a crucial role in the war that erupted between the Indians and the English, communicating with both sides, and relying on friendships and trusted individuals (both Indian and English) to lead him to success.

My mother tells me she did not care for the book.  Her interest lies in the story of the Pilgrims (from whom she’s descended), but I don’t believe it extends as far as the hostilities.  This is also not a very romanticized account of the English.  Philbrick acknowledges the Pilgrims’ place in the American pantheon of religious freedom-seekers, but insists that the history of the Plymouth Colony extends far beyond the First Thanksgiving.  He writes, “When we look to how the Pilgrims and their children maintained more than fifty years of peace with the Wampanoags and how that peace suddenly erupted into one of the deadliest wars ever fought on American soil, the history of Plymouth Colony becomes something altogether new, rich, troubling, and complex.  Instead of the story we already know, it becomes the story we need to know.”

As a former U.S. history teacher, I found this book incredibly relevant.  It seems very little attention is paid in history books to the time period between the landing of the Pilgrims and Puritans (in Boston) in 1620 and 1630, respectively, and the end of the French and Indian War, when England began a program of taxation on the American colonists.  Mayflower provides a detailed account of the delicate relations which existed between English and Indians, and the many events that both strengthened those relations and tore them apart.   European/Native relations in the U.S. are poorly understood by Americans, whose education exposes them to little more complexity in this area than Hollywood’s portrayals of cowboys and Indians shooting at each other, and (if they’re book-readers) Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.  Philbrick’s refusal to demonize either side makes this book a great source of light, and (mercifully) less a source of heat.

Having covered the main substance of the book, I want to add a few very interesting things I learned from the book:

At least 1000 Indians were sold into slavery during King Philip’s War, with ships—in direct contrast to how they would travel in the 18th and 19th centuries—carrying their human cargo from America to the Caribbean.  The English colonists did this not for profit, but out of fear of having Indians from rebellious tribes living among them.

While nineteenth-century Indians in southern New England regarded King Philip’s War as a conflict between the English and the Indians, earlier generations who had experienced the war first-hand (or knew those who had) remembered it not as an “us versus them” question, but “more like being part of a family that had been destroyed by the frightening, inexplicable actions of a once trusted and beloved father [King Philip].”

And while many Americans take great pride in the knowledge that they are descended from the Pilgrims of Plymouth, Philbrick writes, “In 2002 it was estimated that there were approximately 35 million descendents of the Mayflower passengers in the United States, which represents roughly 10 percent of the total U.S. population.”  Perhaps it’s not so uncommon after all.

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