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Monday, October 14, 2019

A Book No One Will Ever Read: Honey in the Mouth

"One cannot hold honey in the mouth without tasting it." So says Arthashastra, an ancient Sanskrit text. A monarch might employ agents to manage his money. Those agents, in the handling of money, will be tempted to pocket some of it for themselves. Once you experience something sensually, it's hard ever to release it.

Honey in the Mouth was my first book-length work, a fictionalized version of my service in Peace Corps on the Indian subcontinent. Peace Corps volunteers leave their own homes, families, and cultures, and enter new ones. They wear clothing that is, to them, exotic, they speak a different language, they eat different food. Then, as military veterans do, they hop a plane, and return to their previous lives. They are meant to "readjust" to America.

That readjustment is not easy. I lived in a village, reachable only by foot, without electricity, running water, telephones, telegraphs, or roads. I never heard a plane overhead. I went to bed when it got dark and I got up when the sun rose. I cooked the minimal food I could find over a wood fire I made myself. I bathed in a mountain stream, and I supported numerous internal and external parasites. One of my students died of a stomach ache. Another died from a bad tooth. A naked shaman was the closest the village had to a hospital. I contracted a deadly infection and I nearly died. I attribute my survival to a miracle.

Return to the US was not easy. I've heard, and told, this story many times. A returning Peace Corps volunteer had a nervous breakdown in the cereal aisle of the supermarket. I don't know if this tale is fictional or real, but I understand this character.

I wanted to write a book that would capture the Peace Corps experience, and to do that I wanted to communicate to readers what I left behind in the US; thus, Honey in the Mouth begins in the US.

I finished the book in 1985. I couldn't find a publisher. I had no reason to believe in myself as a writer. I was born into a poor, immigrant family and my addiction to writing was clearly interfering with my justifying my immigrant parents' sacrifice and my achieving the American dream. I felt incredibly ashamed for having devoted time to writing this book. Honey in the Mouth was stored on floppy disks. I destroyed them, and I thought that that was that.

Since then I have managed to publish books. They have been well reviewed, although they have not sold many copies. I became curious about Honey in the Mouth. I discovered one, remaining, hard copy, packed in a cardboard box. You are the first to read its introduction.


I wrote the above for Embark, a literary journal that publishes the openings of unpublished novels. 

You can see this intro, and the opening pages of Honey in the Mouth, at the Embark website, here

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Littlewood's Law of Miracles

So, today is my birthday, and, as ever on my birthday, I am alone. 

BTW, thank you to Patricia and Jeanne who were both kind enough to send me birthday cards. Your kindness means a lot. 

My life sucks, and it's utterly pointless. I'm alone, I'm a failure, and I've got chronic pain that almost a dozen doctors now have not been able to address successfully. They know what my body is doing (effectively tearing itself apart). They just can't figure out why. 

And I've never mattered to anyone. 

I keep going, at this point, just out of sheer inertia, and also the awareness that people in my family don't live long, and it will all be over soon enough. 

A few years back, I went to Skylands on my birthday. I generally treat myself to a diet coke when I visit Skylands. Diet cola is my drug of choice. It really helps with my dyslexia and ADHD. Without caffeine, my mind is a hot air balloon following its own blissful path away from focus. 

I stopped drinking caffeinated drinks years ago, to see if that would have any impact on the chronic pain. I miss caffeine terribly.  I do treat myself on visits to Skylands. 

So, a few years back, I was at Skylands on my birthday and I got my diet coke and the can was inscribed with the words, "You've got a friend in me." I found that very touching because, of course, I was alone. 

I put the can down on a bench and took a photo. That photo is above. 

I actually kept the can for a few years but finally relinquished it in the past few months. 

So, this morning, I got up, reminded myself that it is my birthday, and sat down to work at the computer. 

I have I would guess over a thousand photos that I use as desktop backgrounds. Word shuffles them and they appear on the desktop background for ten or thirty minutes or so. 

A lot of the photos are of dogs, birds, nature scenes, leaves, handsome men (Gary Cooper, Hugh Jackman, Richard Armitage, Cary Grant, etc), winter, autumn, deserts, flowers. 

This morning, out of all these maybe thousands of photos, the photo that popped up from the Word-juggled shuffle was this very photo, that I took a few years ago on my birthday, a coke can promising me that somewhere, out there, I have a friend. 

Littlewood's Law of Miracles states that so many things happen per day that you will experience a miracle at least once a month. 

I'm underwhelmed by Littlewood. With a name like that, no wonder he felt a need to establish his own superiority to others. 

This photo greeting me as I sat down to work, alone, on my birthday, is a miracle to me. 

Or chance. 

Or a miracle ... 

Not really sure. But I liked it. 

Friday, October 11, 2019

"How to fight Anti-Semitism" Bari Weiss's New Book Misses the Mark

How to Fight Anti-Semitism
Bari Weiss's New Book Misses the Mark

America needs a good book entitled How to Fight Anti-Semitism. Though Jews make up 2.2 percent of the US population, Jews constitute 60 percent of religiously motivated hate crime victims. Recent months have seen a surge of violent attacks on Jews in New York City. The attacks are often recorded on video. Attackers are often black or Hispanic. The attacks have gone underreported and little discussed; one theory is that blacks attacking whites is not the kind of hate crime the media wants to emphasize.

We require instruction in fighting anti-Semitism because Israel is a valued US ally, and Israel's very right to exist is questioned on college campuses and by new congress members. We need it because though many have considered anti-Semitism to be a right-wing phenomenon, this hatred is found on the left as well as on the right; witness British Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. There are too many anti-Semitic events on university campuses to list. Various watchdog organizations keep records; one such account is here.

We need to prepare to fight anti-Semitism because the US has a rising Muslim population, and as The Pew Research Center reports, "Anti-Jewish sentiment is endemic in the Muslim world." Muslim anti-Semitism distorts American history. Significant percentages of Muslims believe that Jews carried out the 9-11 terror attacks. Amiri Baraka, once New Jersey's poet laureate, PEN award winner, and father of Newark's mayor, repeated this conspiracy theory in his poetry.

We need to understand how to fight anti-Semitism because ignorance of the Holocaust is a "global crisis," including among highly "educated" American millennials. We need to understand the Holocaust for the same reason we need to fight anti-Semitism. The villains who begin by attacking Jews never end by attacking Jews. Anti-Semites are a menace to us all.

Bari Weiss seems well-positioned to write a groundbreaking book defining and combatting anti-Semitism in the 21st century. She became bat mitzvah at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue, scene of the 2018 mass shooting. Weiss is a New York Times editor. She's pretty, charming, and young, and has been a guest on Bill Maher's Real Time HBO show. Though she says she doesn't want "points" for her sexual identity, she earns them anyway for once dating Saturday Night Live superstar Kate McKinnon. Weiss describes herself as a centrist, and she has been praised for criticizing anti-Semitism from both the left and the right, from both Christians and Muslims. What's not to like?

Alas, Weiss's How to Fight Anti-Semitism is not the book America needs right now. It reads more like a Facebook post by a bright, passionate, but not particularly scholarly, rigorous, or fair Facebook friend. How to Fight Anti-Semitism, like a Facebook post, focuses on current events. It offers currently popular whipping boys: Western Civilization, Christianity, and President Donald Trump.

Much of the book consists of one account after another of recent anti-Semitic incidents: Tree of Life, the attack on the Hypercacher supermarket in Paris, the kidnapping, torture and murder of Ilan Halimi, the decapitation of Daniel Pearl, anti-Semitic incidents on American campuses, and others. In a short while all of these contemporary anecdotes will be dusty and dated. Weiss's insistence that all incidents involving violence against a Jew can be understood using the same paradigm is questionable. Are the young black men violently attacking Jews in New York City really driven by the same motivations as Pearl's murderers and pogromists in medieval Germany? No evidence is offered to support this.

Weiss doesn't get around to her suggestions for fighting anti-Semitism until the final 37 pages of the 210-page book, and her tips feel grounded more in the self-help movement than in any serious scholarship, boots-on-the-ground activism, or skilled self-defense. "Lean into Judaism … Stop blaming yourself … Tell the truth … Trust your discomfort … Allow for the possibility of change … Praise those who do the right thing … Maintain your liberalism" are some of her methods. The suggestions are for Jews, not for non-Jews who are dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism. Prayer and devotion are not among Weiss's suggestions. Weiss "resonates" with a self-definition as a Shinto Jew, that is a Jew who honors her Jewish ancestors. She is not sure about belief in God.

There's been a great deal of serious scholarship on the topic of hate in general and anti-Semitism in particular. There's a massive amount of lived experience on how to survive as a member of a targeted minority. Ethnographers and former hate group members offer veritable MRIs of haters' brains. Those abundant resources are not reflected here.

Weiss says that the New Testament provides the "template" for anti-Semitism. "Christianity" is "responsible for the murder of more Jews than any other ideology on the planet," she writes. Weiss is wrong on three counts. First, as I'll argue, below, Christians have killed Jews, but Christianity has not. Second, Nazism, not Christianity, is the ideology that is responsible for the murder of more Jews than any other. Weiss could benefit from reading "Against Identifying Nazism with Christianity," found here. Third, Weiss makes this statement as part of a whitewash of Islam. More on that, below.

In today's world, every serious person, Christian, Jewish, secular, or other, must understand the following facts. These facts must be stated not just to Weiss but to any anti-Semite who seeks rationale for anti-Semitism within the New Testament. They must also be stated in relation to Islam, which Weiss also addresses.

The New Testament was written by Jews, with the possible exception of Luke, who may or may not have been Jewish. The New Testament was written about a Jew, Jesus. Jesus and the apostles were Jews, descendants of Abraham, living in Israel, speaking Jewish Aramaic and using Hebrew in their religious lives. They followed the Levitical commandments, and they, as do Christians today, regarded the Old Testament as inspired scripture.

Further, the New Testament is rooted in the Old. Open to any page of the New Testament in an annotated Bible and find footnotes directing the reader to parallel passages in the Old. Mary, the mother of Jesus, recites a song called the Magnificat. The song's style is that of the synonymous parallelism of Hebrew poetry. Specifically, Mary's song echoes The Song of Hannah from the Old Testament book of Samuel. Jesus is asked to identify the greatest commandment; in his reply, Jesus echoes Deuteronomy and Leviticus. As Jesus dies on the cross, he speaks words from Psalm 22.  

Jews, no less than Christians, have to wrestle with difficult verses. The Old Testament contains many hair-raising proclamations where an angry God promises total devastation to his chosen people. In Hosea 13-14:5-15,1 God says he will be like a lion or bear and tear Israelites' hearts from their breasts and fetuses from pregnant wombs. This is terrible stuff, but depicting God as so angry at sin that he exerts graphic punishment is part of the Jewish scriptural tradition, a tradition in which the Jews writing the New Testament were steeped. Jews and Christians must work together to interpret these verses.

There are no verses in the New Testament calling on Christians to kill anyone, including Jews. Rather, the message of the New Testament can be summed up in one verse: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life." The Parable of the Good Samaritan is groundbreaking. Its message is that we are to love those unlike ourselves, including the most hated other. Jesus, after torture and near death, said, "Father forgive them." This is the message of the New Testament.

Yes, haters have used verses from the New Testament to rationalize anti-Semitism and violence against Jews. While acknowledging this, we must not elevate haters' twisted logic.

The Old Testament, no less than the New, has been blamed for atrocity. For centuries, those who support slavery and serfdom cited the Biblical "Curse of Ham." Eve's eating the apple, precipitating exile from the Garden of Eden, has been cited as the source of misogyny. Exodus 22:18 has been blamed for Europe's witch craze, and Leviticus 20:13 has been blamed for all homophobia.

I don't have to wonder how Bari Weiss would feel if I were to advance the Old Testament as the "template" for slavery, for misogyny, for crazed mob killings, or for homophobia. I know she would feel the outrage I feel when I read her citing the New Testament as the "template" for anti-Semitism. Not just outrage, but logic, renders all these arguments invalid. Clearly the message of Exodus, of "Let My People Go," is one of a God who wants people to be free, not enslaved. The Old Testament is alone in world scripture for featuring real, named, average women as driving characters: Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Ruth, Naomi, Judith, Esther, Hannah, Hagar, Rahab, Deborah, Jael, Tamar, Shiphrah, Puah, and Jochabed. When it comes to the Biblically-mandated death penalty for witchcraft or homosexuality, Jews mention the Talmud's anti-death penalty stance. Further, we know that slavery, misogyny, homophobia, and mob killings are found in cultures untouched by the Bible.

Anti-Semites' distorted interpretations of the New Testament are not the alpha and omega of Jewish-Christian relations, but that is all Weiss talks about. She does not mention that again and again popes and everyday Christians have put their lives on the line to fight against anti-Semitism. The sixteenth-century Council of Trent insisted that humanity, primarily Christians, are responsible for the death of Jesus. The twelfth-century papal bull Sicut Judaies insisted that Christians must not harm Jews; this bull had several antecedents and descendants. Weiss mentions France's persecution of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, but not his defense by devout Catholic Charles Peguy.

Weiss blames the Rintfleisch massacres, a medieval German pogrom, on the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and, as she puts it, "a wafer," that is, to me and other Catholics, the Eucharist. Weiss claims that "one hundred thousand Jews were murdered." I cannot find her number supported in other sources.

In fact the pogrom to which she refers was sparked by debt. A man indebted to Jews invented a story of abuse of a Eucharist in order to excuse a pogrom. Weiss does not mention that some Christians attempted to assist persecuted Jews, or that when the local monarch regained lost power he put the man who stirred up the pogrom to death.

Why do these details matter? Why must we mention that Catholic doctrine does not mandate that Christians murder Jews, that communion is indeed holy to Catholics and that attributing to communion the power to murder Jews is profoundly inaccurate, that not all Christians, even in the midst of a medieval pogrom, were murderers? Why must one mention the class elements at play? 

These details matter because Christians like me are on the front lines in condemning anti-Semitism wherever we encounter it, no matter the social cost. It matters because Christians like my father risked their lives fighting, and defeating, anti-Semitic fascism in World War II. It matters because Christians are the most persecuted faith group in the world today, and when you equate a religion – Christianity – with a crime – anti-Semitism – you make Christians less safe. Why bother protecting Christians if their belief system is the font of worldwide evil? These details matter because Weiss's analysis is wrong. The New Testament is not the template for anti-Semitism, and one must understand the historical factors at work in hate.

Weiss's tendency to leave out key facts occurs more than once in How to Fight Anti-Semitism. She bashes Breitbart as anti-Semitic. Proof? Breitbart called Bill Kristol a "renegade Jew." Weiss does not mention that the author of that very column was David Horowitz, who is himself Jewish.

Weiss insists that she was subjected to internet abuse after her appearance on the Joe Rogan show because she is Jewish. During her appearance, Weiss smeared Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard as an "Assad toadie" and as a supporter of conversion therapy. Rogan challenged Weiss. Weiss floundered, acknowledging that she didn't know the meaning of the word "toadie." She continued to insist that Gabbard was pro-conversion therapy. In fact Gabbard supported conversion therapy when she was a teenager. She has since renounced that support. The most popular critical comments on YouTube accuse Weiss of being arrogant and unaware of facts. The most popular comments do not mention Weiss's Jewishness.

Weiss cites Nathan Hannover, the seventeenth-century chronicler of the 1648-1657 Khmelnytsky Uprising of Ukrainian Cossacks against Polish domination. Weiss describes tortures committed by Ukrainians against Jews. It looks, again, like what we have is those evil Christians doing bad things to Jews because they are Christian and Christians hate Jews. Weiss does not mention that the Khmelnytsky Uprising, which, to her, is all about Christian Ukrainians expressing their innate, Christian anti-Semitism, is recorded in Polish history as part of "The Deluge," a catastrophic series of attacks against Poland in the seventeenth century. She doesn't mention that Christian Ukrainians tortured Christian Poles, thus, it can't be explained away as "Those awful Christians inevitably acting out their innate anti-Semitism caused by their religion." The tortures of the Khmelnytsky Uprising were repeated centuries later. In the 1940s, during the Volhynian Slaughter, Ukrainians again tortured and murdered Poles. One hundred thousand Poles were killed. Priests were crucified. The genocidal goal was to obliterate any biological or cultural Polish presence. Weiss doesn't mention that the very historian she cites, Nathan Hannover, himself speaks of Jewish oppression of Ukrainian peasants.

My friend John Guzlowski's family members were raped, tortured, dismembered, and murdered by Ukrainians and Nazi allies. I do not hesitate to acknowledge that the people who tortured my friend's family were, in their own minds, exacting revenge on Poles for previous mistreatment. Acknowledging this history does not justify Ukrainians torturing and murdering my friend's family. Acknowledging this history contributes to understanding. Weiss, though, rejects any integration of historical details into her analysis of anti-Semitism. "This kind of logic" she says "excuses anti-Semitism." No, placing attacks in context does not excuse anti-Semitism or any other violence. Rather, fully understanding atrocity is perhaps the only way out of atrocity.

Weiss extracts events from historical context. Those atrocities are simply just more examples of Christians hating Jews just because they are Christians, and that's what Christians do. Weiss also extracts anti-Semitism from the context of other hatreds. Anti-Semitism, she insists, has nothing in common with hatred of any other people from any other group. Study of hate and atrocity in general, she seems to feel, cannot add to understanding of anti-Semitism.

Other scholars have taken a different approach. One such scholar is Edna Bonacich; another is Amy Chua. Bonacich is a rabbi's daughter. Chua's aunt was murdered by her Filipino chauffeur. Both scholars struggled with the problem of hate. Their work describes a variety of populations that have experienced prejudice, atrocity, and exile. Bonacich calls these populations "middleman minorities." Chua calls them "market-dominant minorities." Bonacich, Chua, and Thomas Sowell, who has also taken up this topic, write not just about Jews in Europe, but also Chinese in Malaysia, Indians in East Africa, Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Koreans in Los Angeles, and others. My own take on the middleman theory at play in Polish-Jewish relations can be seen here. Weiss never mentions these scholars' work. Even if Weiss wanted to reject Bonacich's theory, she should at least have addressed it.

Rather, Weiss chooses an ahistorical and disease-model approach. She says anti-Semitism can't be defined because it is a "shape-shifter" that "slithers" away from definition. Anti-Semitism cannot be understood alongside any other hatred. Rather, anti-Semitism is "an intellectual disease," "a deeply rooted and highly infectious thought virus carried in the DNA of Western culture." Every participant in Western civilization carries this virus. When stress affects the immune system, you break out in a case of anti-Semitism. "The virus will out." "Anti-Semitism is baked into the very foundations of the world we inhabit." Anti-Semitism is "an essential scaffolding for Western civilization." It is "one of the basic tools with which that edifice was constructed." Thus, anti-Semitism is "a culturally inherited disease."  

If you think you are not infected with the anti-Semitism virus, if you think you actually like Jews, Weiss will correct you. "A philo-Semite is an anti-Semite who likes Jews." Did no one reviewing this book at the editing stage realize how offensive this is, or how close it is to Nazi ideology that compared Jews to a disease?

Weiss misrepresents the Jewish experience in the United States, and her misrepresentation is not a minor matter. Jews succeeded in America without having to sacrifice their Jewishness, she says. Their success proves that America is better than, say, Poland, a country she mentions several times, always disparagingly . In fact Jewishness in Poland and America were completely different phenomena. In Poland, Jews spoke a different language, Yiddish, than the rest of the population, they wore distinctive dress, they did not marry non-Jews, and they occupied a caste-like status in the primitive economy. Those conditions don't exist in the US. Where they are even slightly replicated, tension erupts.

Weiss mentions the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia. She depicts Frank's murder as an unchanging expression of Christian hatred for Jews. She does not mention the economic and regional tensions at work. Frank was a Yankee, and Mary Phagan, the girl he was alleged to have killed, was a 13-year-old local girl working in his factory. She'd gone to work at age 10. There was much tension among poor, Southern whites because their children were doing hard, low-paying work in factories owned by non-locals. None of these economic and social details excuses the lynching of Leo Frank. All of them must be adduced fully to understand what happened to Frank.

University of Iowa Professor Stephen G. Bloom's superb 2001 book Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America offers a contrast to Weiss's approach. Bloom describes cultural and economic tension between non-Jewish Iowans and newly arriving Orthodox Jews in one rural town. Bloom offers a thorough history and rich ethnography based on his penetration of the local community. He does not write off tensions as resulting from "diseased" Christian Iowans just giving in to their innate, undefinable, anti-Semitism virus. He describes daily interactions that go wrong, and that can be addressed and changed for the better for everyone involved.

If there is one antagonist in Weiss's book, it is President Donald Trump. He has, she argues, eroded standards of civility that protect minorities like Jews. She categorizes as anti-Semitic Trump telling The Squad to go back to where they came from. I'm no Trump apologist and I acknowledge that Trump is uncivil. But Weiss misses that Trump's successful incivility is an epiphenomenon, a backlash against a more powerful social force. Trump did not invent incivility. Have a look at the utterly vile, misogynist and classist insults that liberals hurled at Alaska Governor Sarah Palin when she first appeared on the national stage. Look at how liberals use the word "white" to denigrate human beings. Listen to what squad members Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar say about America. When Trump supporters hear Trump's incivility, they hear a champion standing up for them against an all powerful Political Correctness that has suppressed and demonized them.

Similarly, Weiss could, but she does not, cite ethnographic research on those online hate group members she rants against. Christian Picciolini, a former hate group member, says that young men are susceptible to hate groups because they need identity, community, and purpose. Modern schools, popular culture, and other socializing forces in America all too often do not provide these vital gifts to young white men. Rather, the powers that be drill into them that they are shameful racists, sexists, and responsible for all the world's woes. Weiss does acknowledge that the left creates a vacuum by refusing to create a healthy patriotism and pride. But she insists that Western Civilization is inherently diseased, so she undermines her own argument.

Weiss opens her chapter on Islam with her description of the Rintfleisch massacres. Holy communion makes Catholics kill Jews: a Politically Correct way of opening a chapter meant to discuss Islamic anti-Semitism. Weiss goes on to indict Christianity as the "ideology" that is responsible for the murder of more Jews than any other. She relativizes. The New Testament is just like the Koran because both contain "terrible lines about Jews." Weiss says that Jews lived comparatively well in Muslim lands until recently, when Christian colonizers arrived, bringing anti-Semitism with them. Surprisingly, she also cites the creation of the state of Israel as a cause of Islamic anti-Semitism.

I sent my impressions of Weiss's comments about Islam to Robert Spencer. As far as I know, he has not read Weiss's book, so his reaction is to my summary of it. He wrote back to me, "This is howlingly false. Antisemitism is deeply embedded in the Quran and Sunnah. See the citations here. There is also a great deal of antisemitism in Islamic tradition and Islamic history. See my book The History of Jihad."

In addition to the anti-Semitism in the Koran, one must be aware of the following. Mohammed, the founder of Islam, unlike Jesus, was not a Jew. He did not live in Israel. He did not speak Jewish Aramaic or understand Biblical Hebrew. Islam denigrates the Bible, saying that Jews and Christians corrupted the message they received from Allah. Mohammed was sent to correct that corruption. Christians read the Old Testament every day. People in Muslims countries have been tortured for being in possession of a Bible. Islam rewrites Jesus as desiring to destroy Christianity. The Koran insists that Abraham was not a Jew. Weiss mentions none of this.

And this is one of the reasons why every citizen, no matter their personal faith life, must understand my lengthy comments, above, about Christianity and anti-Semitism. If Weiss is correct, Christianity is evil and should be eliminated. She's not correct. The New Testament is not like the Koran. In Jesus's sayings and behavior, there is no exhortation to, or celebration of, killing Jews or anyone else.

The same cannot be said about the Koran, hadith, and Sunnah. Readers should expose themselves to the sources Robert Spencer cites, above. The Koran repeatedly and explicitly calls for the killing and torture of non-Muslims. It says that Allah turned Jews into apes and pigs. As part of daily prayer, Muslims repeat seventeen times a day that Jews anger Allah (and that Christians go astray.) There is no comparison between the Islamic approach to Jews and Judaism and the Christian approach.

Christians like me, indeed Polish Catholics like me, oppose anti-Semitism with everything we've got. We do so because of, not in spite of, our Christian faith and investment in Western civilization. I am not diseased because I am a Christian and a Westerner. I am blessed. My faith and my civilization give tools I would not otherwise have to dismantle hate. I hope those who see the world as Weiss does learn to recognize people like me as allies.

Persons who are neither Christian nor Jewish need to understand, as well. We live in the age of the Clash of Civilizations and that clash is taking place in local schools. Young people need to know that their heritage is worth cherishing, and they need to understand the challenges presented by other worldviews.

 This piece appears in Front Page Magazine here

Thursday, October 10, 2019

"God through Binoculars" Took Me Outside Myself: Father Dwight Longenecker in the Imaginative Conservative.

Father Dwight Longenecker was kind enough to review God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery at the Imaginative Conservative website. You can read Father Dwight's review below or at his website, here

Escaping from Myself
by Dwight Longenecker

Books should take you outside yourself. They should introduce you to new people, new worlds, new thoughts and new ideas. They should give you new ways of seeing and new ways of being.

Unfortunately, my life has too often been filled with books that do no such thing. I am sent two or three books a week to read and review. Because I have a blog authors and publishers seem to think that I have nothing else to do but read their books and write wonderful reviews. It is assumed that the blogger must be a full time book promotion and publicity machine—and all completely free of charge!

Unfortunately, with the advent of print on demand, the price of producing books has fallen. The number of books has therefore shot upward, at the same time the number of serious readers has plummeted. Alas, most of the books therefore are disposable and forgettable.

What is that tart comment? “Everyone has a book inside them, and for most people that is where it should stay…”

Consequently, I have developed a cunning plan to deal with the steady stream of books that wash up on my desk. If the cover is interesting I open the book. If the table of contents is interesting I start to read the book. If the second paragraph still holds my interest I read on. I stop reading the book when I am no longer interested.

I’m afraid I rarely get past the first chapter. I do not blame the author. Some of the books are worthy and well written but simply not for me. Then there is my own increasingly short attention span and even shorter patience.

Therefore, if a book does get me…if I finish the darn thing it finally gets a review. This summer two books got me because they took me outside myself. I should explain that my world is what you might expect. It is the rather conventional and conservative world of a Catholic priest and writer. My conversations, my books, my viewing and my life, like most people’s, usually circle within my little world.

But God Through Binoculars - A Hitchhiker at a Monastery caught my attention. First it was the author’s name. Is Danusha Goska male or female? What is this foreign sounding name? I am guessing Russian, Rumanian, Ukranian or something thereabouts. I view the cover. Monastery is good and hitchhiker is good. In the summer of 1987 I hitch hiked to Jerusalem from England staying in monasteries all along the route so I was curious.

Danusha, it turns out is a feisty Polish American woman, and a devout Catholic. Down on her luck, she decided to hitchhike from New Jersey to a monastery in Virginia to seek God’s guidance. Her book is the account of that journey. Part travel book, spiritual journal, bird watcher’s guide, conversion story and delightfully eccentric grumble, God Through Binoculars took me outside myself on a curiously unpredictable adventure.

The author tells how she was brought up in an impoverished, devout but dysfunctional Catholic family and how she overcame all odds to pursue a career in academia. With detours to discuss the sex life of hyenas, the birds of North America and the disappointments of her experience of the Catholic Church, this is one hilarious, passionate, weird and wonderful tale.

Danusha is a person with no guile. She doesn’t pull any punches and has no time for the artificial, the phony and the fake. She is a non conformist and rages against the expected compromises of academia, the hypocrisy of churchmen and the betrayal of friends.

One of the highlights for me was her dissection of Thomas Merton. Far from paying homage to the famous monk, she pokes at Merton’s romanticized monasticism, observing his hypocrisy and the phony liberal Catholicism that his fake mysticism spawned. I’ve felt that way about Merton for some time, so it was refreshing to find a kindred spirit—someone willing to pop the Merton balloon.

Danusha is also refreshingly frank about sex. She discusses some of her love affairs with an explicitness that may make some readers blush. She is equally blunt about her love-hate relationship with the Catholic Church. She clearly loves God and loves her faith, but is impatient with clerical nincompoops, monastic frauds, incompetent establishment goons and all the pompous rigamarole.

God Through Binoculars is a smart, funny, refreshing and quirky read. It’s the best irreverently reverent religious book I’ve read this year.

Speaking of monasteries, Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight in England is one of my favorite places on earth. We were received into the Catholic Church there and I was there to research a book for a week last summer. While there, and old friend, Dom Luke Bell handed me a book to read and review. Love’s Many Names is a collection of poetry by Sam Davidson.

Davidson studied theology and philosophy at Edinburgh University and film studies at Exeter. He worked with Kurdish refugees and war veterans in transit camps in Europe and traveled widely in Europe. His poems reflect his travels and faith, and like Danusha, he took me out of myself because his approach to the faith is so vivid, personal, passionate and unconventional. Like Danusha he writes not only from the heart, but from the guts and from the groin.

These are not religious poems per se, but they are deeply mystical. Like all good poets and authentic mystics, Davidson wrings meaning out of his life. He sees with sacramental eyes and perceives the passion within his experience. Here a poem describes with painful objectivity the passion and despair of the homeless. There a poem subtly melds his love for a woman with the passion of Christ. Here he rages with the refugee, there he touches the hem of nature’s beauty with a masculine tenderness.

Davidson’s verse is sometimes free but often formal, with the subtle formality of the under appreciated Movement poets—that group of English post war poets who retained classical forms while integrating natural speech rhythms and idioms. When he is writing formally Davidsom echoes the style of Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn, Donald Davie and Elizabeth Jennings.

Like Jennings, Davidson’s poems hover around the subject of Catholic faith without ever being on the nose, saccharine or sentimental. The Christian faith is never obvious here. Instead it runs like life blood through the images, cadences and schemes of the poetry.

Like Danusha, Davidson writes simply and without guile. Both authors do not seem to care whether they please anyone. They are being honest and they write truth from the heart.

Did I say these books took me out of myself? They did, but only to open me more deeply to remember a man I sued to be.  I rediscovered that young man who hitchhiked to Jerusalem over thirty years ago, flirting with the call of the monastery. I got back in touch with the unconventional young man who fled America on a crazy notion of being a poet, like George Herbert in an English country vicarage.

Both books are a refreshing and heart inspiring read and for once I was glad for the unsolicited books that end up on my desk. Consequently I have decided to grumble a little less and view each new book as a possible fresh adventure and perhaps another pilgrimage outside myself.

Love’s Many Names is published by Angelico Press. God Through Binoculars by Shanti Arts Publishing.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Judy 2019 Heartbreaking Portrait of a Goddess in Decline

"Judy" is a heartbreaking portrait of a goddess in decline. It depicts the final year in the life of film icon Judy Garland, during her performance at the London nightclub The Talk of the Town in 1969. And there isn't much more to say about this movie than that. It's heartbreaking. You see Judy fall on stage. You see concert-goers throw their bread at her in contempt. You see her, a woman who had been addicted to pills by MGM when she was just a teenager, struggling to sleep at night. You see her grabbing for booze, cigarettes, and pills just to get through the day.

She marries Mickey Deans, a much younger, starstruck man she barely knows, whom the viewer decides is not good for her. She is unceremoniously kicked out of her residence, where she lives with her two children, Lorna and Joe Luft. She can't pay the bills. She's broke. She hands her kids over to ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell). Sewell's scenes are brief but he communicates that he's been around the block, the hard way, with Judy, and he no longer views her through a gauzy lens. Luft informs Judy in brusque, no-nonsense words that he wants custody of the kids. They want and deserve stability and friends, not the peripatetic, hand-to-mouth show business life Judy offers them.

All of this heartbreaking material would be easier to take, and would add up to a better movie, if there were a plot that allowed for Aristotelian pity, fear, and catharsis. Instead I'll remember this movie most for seeing Judy fallen on the stage, disgusted and betrayed fans throwing their bread at her.

The problem is, of course, is that this is a true story, a story that most people who will attend this movie know all too well. We can't change the details of the plot, so the plot has no place to go but down.

Judy Garland, born Frances Ethel Gumm, was one of the singular talents of the Golden Age of Hollywood. You can experience Judy's gift with a short visit to a YouTube video. Watch, for example, her televised rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." She delivered this soul-stirring, powerhouse performance just after JFK was assassinated. That's more than a movie star. That's a supernova.

Judy was born to a mother who didn't want her and looked into aborting her. Abortion was illegal and so Judy drew breath. Her father was gay and the family had to leave town after he faced morals charges. They moved to California. Her talent fell into the hands of Louis B. Mayer. Mayer, in photos, looks like a plump, elderly city councilman. If what we hear about his treatment of Judy is true, there is a special place in Hell for Louis B. Mayer.

He was – allegedly – a drug peddler and greedy exploiter. Mayer recognized that Judy had talent, but he also recognized that she was not attractive. When Judy was just a child, Mayer starved her, plied her with drugs, and, allegedly, called Judy "My little hunchback" because she was short and had curvature of the spine. At the same time, this – alleged – greedy perv used to molest Judy. He would, repeatedly, put his hand on his child star's breast. Finally, when Judy grew up, she told him never to do it again. We see all this in "Judy" in flashbacks. You just want to jump up onto the screen and rescue that child.

There are a couple of great scenes in "Judy." Late one night, she greets two gay fans at the stage door. They take her home for a meal. What happens in their apartment, and, again, close to the end of the movie, is very touching. I don't want to describe it here because I don't want to ruin it for you.

Another provocative aspect of the film is its treatment of performance, and the life of a performer or any creative person. "Judy" shows Judy in performance mode, in mask-is-off mode, and in performance mode even though she's not onstage. All of this is handled very deftly. You realize what incredibly hard work performing is.

I love Judy Garland. I see her as a martyr. I can't say that I've ever seen any other performer give so much, so consistently, in one performance after another, over the course of decades. Her rendition of "The Man that Got Away" in "A Star is Born," that sums up impossible sexual yearning, her dreamy, wistful, melancholy, defiant, resigned, ever-hopeful "Friendly Star" from "Summer Stock," her "Get Happy" from that same movie that feels like taking a bath in unadulterated sunshine, "Mack the Black" from "The Pirate," a performance both sexy and witty – no one else has racked up that depth and breadth of material. Watching her suffer through this new movie made me cry.

There's much talk about Renee Zellweger's performance. Zellweger is a fine actress and she gives a fine performance. The thing is, we already have Judy onscreen. Maybe what we need is a documentary. A question I'd really like to see answered is, by physicians, psychiatrists, accountants, Hollywood historians, did it really have to end the way it did?