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.

This is a still photo from a Vietnam-era absurdist antiwar comedy film about the Korean War. I know, weird, right?

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.”

Betamax (above) vs VHS (below) was a popular debate among 80’s Americans

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.

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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.

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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.

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#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!

The Rise and Fall of the Reconstructionist Publishing Service House

(This is parody in case it’s not obvious.)

The Recon Publishing House’s 1998 resource book, Jewish, Alive & American was a smash hit that may have clouded the publishers’ ability to read the market landscape going forward.

Earlier this week, the Reconstructionist Publishing Service House (RPSH) announced the indefinite suspension of operations and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the district court of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. The news sent shockwaves through the liberal Jewish world, as RPSH had built a reputation as an innovative progressive Jewish influencer. RPSH’s profits used to soar on reissues of the works of Reconstructionism’s founding thinker, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. The publishing house holds the copyrights to all of his works, including his classics, Judaism as a Civilization, The Future of the American Jew, and the surprisingly popular Not So Random Thoughts. But even Kaplan’s lesser known works have done well, especially the “Judaism as a…” pamphlet series that reshaped mid-20th century Jewish thought with editions such as “Judaism as a Hypervigilant Neurosis,” “Judaism as a Needle Nosed Pliers,” and the forever beloved “Judaism as a Confusing Morass – Parts 1, 2, and 3.”

But the major success came in 1998, when synagogues of many denominations bought massive numbers of Jewish, Alive & American, a brilliant curriculum for a 30-week course that was simultaneously part “Intro to Judaism,” part conversion-to-Judaism prep course, and part sociological history of Judaism. Accessible yet well-researched, and filled with exciting group activities, JA&A, as it became known, raised the profile of the smallest liberal movement of Judaism, and brought unexpected profits to RPSH.

Perhaps the dazzling success of JA&A fomented the subsequent overreach that appears to have sunk RPSH. At first, Chief Editor Bartenura Bartzilam sought to amplify JA&A’s success by creating multi-media editions. This was the turn of the 21st century, so RPSH released a CD-ROM version as well as a DVD lecture series. Neither did all that well, but Bartzilam doubled down, committing millions to the development of an audio book series in 16 languages that lost money. Bartzilam nearly was fired, reportedly, after having funded a traveling puppet theater company tasked with the mission of bringing JA&A to untapped audiences among interfaith families with children ages 3 to 8. It turned out that there was no interest in the program at all, and in the lone public performance offered at a Jewish day school in Denver several of the children reported having nightmares in reaction to some of the scarier-looking puppets.

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