My latest thoughts on the Jewish festival of Shavuot, as presented in the Jewish Exponent: https://www.jewishexponent.com/consider-how-revelation-happens/. Please visit the link, or click on the image above, to head over there and read it. Would love to hear your comments too!
My Israel/Palestine Learning Curve Is a Zigzag
Part 1: My Moroccan-Israeli family
I am the child of a family of Moroccan Jewish refugees who found refuge in Israel. My mom was 16 on the day in 1956 when her entire life in Morocco abruptly ended — the day that her father was tipped off by an Arab friend that he was marked for death by the Moroccan liberation fighters (who were trying to oust their French colonizers) because he was discovered to have assisted other Jews to emigrate to Israel. She and her many siblings and their parents packed what they could take with them in suitcases and left their home in the middle of the night, taking their place in steerage on a ship loaded with livestock and other Jewish refugees. They headed to a refugee camp near the southern French coast, penniless and waiting to figure out their future.
Israel gave them that future. The Israeli government settled them, at first, in a small town just south of Tiberias called Poria. After some years, they moved to Shkhunat Hatikvah, which at the time was a heavily Mizrahi Tel Aviv neighborhood known for poverty, rat infestations and street gangs. The family grew — a new baby almost every year until there were 12 siblings in all. My grandfather rebuilt his furniture-making business in Tel Aviv. My mom, who had avoided being married with kids by age 20 like many of her sisters, valued her independence and ventured to America in 1961, eventually marrying my Midwestern American Ashkenazi father in 1966. He helped her parents finally move out of the slums and into an apartment in Bat Yam. Over the next two decades, most of the rest of the family made similar treks, moving into apartments in Bat Yam, Holon and Azor, residential enclaves of southern Tel Aviv. Today, the Elkouby family is a classic Moroccan-Israeli clan, a multigenerational web of 80-plus people mostly still centered in Holon and Bat Yam, but with branches in Rishon Letziyon, Herzliya, Eilat, Los Angeles and Miami. The reigning matriarch of the family is my Aunt Soulika, now in her 80s, who lives on the second floor of a house in Azor above her daughter and son-in-law, and their young-adult kids below.
Part 2: Azor
Since my high school days, I’ve spent lots of time at my Aunt Soulika’s house. Many of my happiest memories took place there — afternoon al ha-esh (barbecue) gatherings, late nights eating fresh fruit on the balcony with chain-smoking cousins, the first time my wife came to Israel with me. I’ve walked all around the neighborhoods of Azor, past the mini-grocery stores that are open at night, past the schools and community center, and along narrow streets with cars half-parked on sidewalks. It’s not a particularly beautiful part of Tel Aviv, but I love it, and it is one of the places on earth where I have felt most loved.
The name Azor has its origins in antiquity. There is an archeological tel (hill or mound) at the town’s center and a layered history, including battles between Crusaders and Muslims. The town’s current name is the Hebrew version of its pre-1948 Arabic name, Yazur, a Palestinian village of 4,000 residents that was attacked by Irgun forces and forcibly depopulated in April 1948, about two weeks before the British Mandate formally ended and Israel declared independence. In 2000, the Israeli historian and political scientist Meron Benvenisti published Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948, in which he noted that at the time, a synagogue in Azor was meeting in a building that was a former Muslim shrine, and that an adjoining Muslim cemetery was in disrepair and was being used as a garbage dump for local yard waste.
This is the intersection in my life where my growing awareness of the Nakba meets my own family’s story of survival. I struggle to hold this dual consciousness and these competing emotional impulses every day — in my conversations with my relatives, in the Israel-related parts of my job, in my activist choices and in my private thoughts.
TO CONTINUE READING THIS ESSAY, VISIT https://evolve.reconstructingjudaism.org/my-israel-palestine-learning-curve-is-a-zigzag/
Remembering Monty Lazar
A poorly attended funeral marks the end of an improbable life
Last week I was sent by my editor at Rolling Stone to chronicle the funeral of one of the most unusual of entertainment impresarios of the mid to late 20th century, Monty Lazar, who died at the age of 93 in Laguna Hills, California of complications relating to a severe case of Foreign Accent Syndrome. On a brusk and windy day, a young and well-intentioned rent-a-rabbi presided over a boilerplate funeral ceremony attended by a handful of guests. It was an anticlimactic farewell to an enigmatic man who leaves behind a massive fortune and a lot of confusion as to how he ever managed to amass it.
Lazar, who was born Moshe Lavitsky Fliegelman in Queens, NY on February 14, 1929, gained fame in 1959 with the release of a novelty recording that rose to #2 on the American pop charts. The words and music to Bing Bada Boop Dee Boop Baby, Baby Boop Dee Boop Bada Bing were written by Lazar on a dare by an army buddy from his service days in the Korean War. His platoon-mate had bet Lazar a month’s PX scrip that he couldn’t write a 3-minute-long song whose entire lyrics would be palindromic by word. Lazar finished the song 3 months later, collected on the bet, and then submitted the song to several music agents in the summer of 1957 after remembering the composition some years after the war.
RCA Victor bit and brought the nervous (and recently married) 29-year-old grocer to their New Jersey studio, changed his name to Monty Lazar, put him in front of the house band, and cut the recording in 2 takes. The song got initial airplay on Minneapolis’s KCRP. Then the unexpected happened.
The 1959 Hubert Humphrey presidential campaign latched on to the song and played it at the start and end of all of the senator’s campaign stops, despite a steady flow of letters from his supporters urging the campaign to stop using the song because it was, to quote the most frequently recurring word in the letters, “asinine.” Humphrey would eventually lose the Democratic primary to JFK, and decades later an aide to JFK admitted to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that the Humphrey campaign staffer who selected Lazar’s song, Reginald “Bucky” McStandish, was actually a saboteur planted by the JFK campaign. The aide, who knew McStandish, claimed that “few Americans know it, but Monty Lazar is the reason JFK won that primary. Without that hideous song blaring out at all those Humphrey speeches, Humphrey runs away with the thing. It was the perfect weapon.”Continue reading “Remembering Monty Lazar”
M*A*S*H (the movie – 1970) and me
Somewhere around 1983, when I was 13, I discovered that my favorite TV show, M*A*S*H, was actually based on a movie that was loosely based on a book. My parents had recently bought our first VCR, a front loading VHS console that didn’t even come with a remote.
I was in love and obsessed with television’s M*A*S*H. It was the catalyst of my early adolescent discovery of humanistic, authority-questioning ideas in American popular culture. As I transitioned into my freshman year of high school in suburban St. Louis – about as Reagan-enthused a place as you could find in America at the time – I also discovered “the 60’s,” or at least a young, often lonely and depressed suburban middle class white teen’s romantic idea of “the 60’s.”
Knowing the cinematic parent of my beloved television show was a critically acclaimed late 60’s anti-war movie, I placed my hope of renting the movie in our neighborhood video rental shop, Mr. Movies. Mr. Movies had a lot of titles from the 60’s and early 70’s, and I devoured them amidst my parents’ general obliviousness about my growing fascination with and yearning for an era I imagined I would have felt at home in and regretted having missed. The Graduate, Cool Hand Luke, To Kill a Mockingbird, Planet of the Apes, In the Heat of the Night, Dr. Strangelove, and Hair were repeat rentals. So were 70’s movies about the major social conflicts of the 60’s: Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Harold and Maude.
But I couldn’t rent the original movie M*A*S*H because Mr. Movies only had it in Betamax. Other video rental shops didn’t have it at all. It was agonizing that I could hold in my hands the Beta cassette of the mysterious full-length movie version of my favorite fictional world, but all I could ask the owner every few weeks was “do you think you’ll get a copy in VHS soon?” I did what I could to find out more about the film – I asked my parents, my friends’ parents, and some of my teachers if they’d seen it and what they remembered about it. I gleaned very little.
Then, I found a paperback edition of the Richard Hooker novel/memoir, M*A*S*H, that had inspired Robert Altman’s 1970 film, bought it, and read it. I don’t remember much about it anymore, except that at the time I read it I was puzzled because it didn’t really seem like it had an Alan Alda-esque antiwar-movement soul. I think that in fact it did not – if memory serves, Richard Hooker was a pseudonym for an actual surgeon-veteran who served in Korea and who mainly wanted to write a memoir about the zany absurdist adventures that he and other medical personnel experienced during the war. I think the book did do a lot to portray some of the “futility-of-war” themes that also made it into the movie and the TV show, and it did so by presenting its readers with the insanely contradictory situation of doctors – people trained to heal wounds and prevent death – being put into service doing emergency repair work on healthy young men who, if healed, would often then be sent back out to get blown to bits again or else blow other human beings to bits. But I’m pretty sure it was not taking a political stand against the US decision to fight in Korea, or Vietnam. If I’m wrong, apologies to the author.Continue reading “M*A*S*H (the movie – 1970) and me”
My daily grind
Hi all. This is probably the most personal disclosure I’ve ever shared on this blog, which isn’t exactly read by millions, so perhaps this is really just a chance for me to share some of my daily struggle with a small semi-random cohort of people.
So, my day to day life is governed by several relentless fears. They mostly have to do with politics. I mean, it’s quite possible that my brain has learned to displace fears I may have about things that are much more immediately part of my life, like fear of losing loved ones, or fear of becoming horribly ill, and that these fears I have centering around politics are all some kind of cover for something deeper. I can’t say. What I can say is I don’t experience myself going into debilitating funks of fear worrying that something bad might happen to someone that I love or to myself. I worry about those things – sure – but to a pretty normal degree. What I do experience for many of my waking hours is a terrible fear – a dread really – about certain possible things happening in politics. For me, currently, that fear is that Trump will return to the White House, or that someone with a similar neo-fascist agenda will do it instead of him.
I realize that millions of Americans were traumatized by Trump’s election in 2016, were further traumatized by many of the terrible things he did while in office, and continue to be traumatized by his anti-democratic, demagogic, toxic, and narcissistic behaviors. I’m not trying to compare my suffering to anyone else’s.
But what I experience – on an almost daily basis – is a form of suffering. I can’t seem to stop my thoughts from telling me that the possibility of Trump returning to power may be increasing, that I should check various websites online to find out if in fact that seems to be the case, and that if it is true I literally will not be able to live. That’s the constantly repeating thought cascade pulsing through parts of my consciousness. A few things interrupt it (deep focus in my work; animated conversations with others; studying; sometimes writing). A few things help tamp down the intensity of the fear for a few hours (yoga when I manage to do it, a vigorous walk or mowing the lawn). But my brain’s steady state is one of anticipatory fear of possible futures.
I can’t explain it rationally. I just feel inside like if Trump gets elected again I will die. That’s the fear, and it feels immediate, like as if I was staring down the barrel of a gun about to blow me away. There’s a variation of this thought process, which is that if he becomes president again, I won’t die, but I will live in a state of intense fright and agony every day that will be so horrible that I’ll wish I was dead.Continue reading “My daily grind”
Under the Bombs (2007) movie review
A simple story that gently rips your heart out
Just watched Under the Bombs for the first time, a 2007 Lebanese feature film directed by Philippe Aractingi and written by Aractingi and Michel Leviant. Nada Abu Farhat plays Zeina, a wealthy Lebanese Muslim mother of a young boy, Karim, from whom she has been separated during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah (started July 12, 2006 – ceasefire took effect August 14, 2006). Zeina is recently divorced from her globetrotting businessman husband, and their marital difficulties had led them to ask Zeina’s sister, Maha, to host their son for the summer while they attempted to work things out in their marriage. Unfortunately, Maha’s home was in the south of Lebanon, the region that was hardest hit by massive Israeli aerial bombing raids. Zeina flies into Beirut just after the ceasefire goes into effect, and desperately offers lots of cash to any taxicab driver who is willing to take her into the devastated and still dangerous south in search of her son and her sister.
Enter Tony (played by Georges Khabbaz), the only cabbie willing to take the chance. The movie turns into an “odd couple on the road” film, as Tony, a Lebanese Christian who knows the villages of the south like the back of his hand, becomes Zeina’s driver, cheerleader, detective, entertainer, confidant, and eventually, attempted romantic suitor. Although there are some lighthearted moments, the mission they are on to find Karim and Maha gets off to a grim start. Filmed amidst the actual ruins and rubble in the months immediately following the war, they drive from town to town, often having to backtrack due to blown out bridges, finally making it to the town where Maha lives. That’s when they learn that Maha didn’t make it – her body was found under the rubble of her home – she died “under the bombs,” as the local expression goes.Continue reading “Under the Bombs (2007) movie review”
Review of my Leviticus book from Progressive Christianity Network Britain
This was written shortly after my book, Leviticus: You Have No Idea was published almost a decade ago. To read the full book review, click here or on the image below.
The Power of an Instant Flash of Compassion – Zoom Webinar
A teaching about the daughter of Pharaoh in the Exodus story
#TrendingJewish: The Accidental Rabbi
Interview I did with Rachel Burgess and Bryan Schwartzman of the Podcast #TrendingJewish
ABOUT THIS EPISODE
Taking a page from the Judaism Unbound podcast, Rachael and Bryan ask the questions: What does Judaism do and what it is for? What does it do for those who don’t feel compelled by God to live life according to Jewish law? Rabbi Maurice Harris fields these questions, and also explains why he avoids “outing” himself as a rabbi while he’s a passenger on a commercial flight.
To give it a listen, click here or on the image below!
Moses’s encounters with God – a podcast interview I did with Reconstructing Judaism
Dr. Elsie Stern’s interview with yours truly
Here’s the intro:
In this Community Learning call from November 21, 2017, Rabbi Maurice Harris talks about the strange way the Torah tells us about Moses’ up-close encounters with God, contradicting itself purposely within the space of nine verses. Two consecutive stories in the Book of Exodus confront us with a crucial paradox about how it is or isn’t possible to encounter the Divine, leaving us as readers with something like an “impossible” mental picture that we may be tempted to try to resolve or to hold as a fruitful paradox. Either way, the mental image these two texts generate beckon us to keep trying to look again and again, despite the endless loop the image generates in our minds.
Just click here or on the image below to give it a listen!