The Bluebird of Happiness

I wasn’t going to let it happen, end 2020, that is – a year universally acknowledged as the worst in recent memory – on a downer. Not if I could help it. The only thing we had planned for New Years Eve was Barbara attending a Zoom funeral. (You see where I’m coming from.) Arnold, one of her second cousins, a man in his mid eighties, had died of, what else, COVID. Once the funeral is over, I suggested, let’s watch something a little more upbeat together and I’ll make us some White Russians (maybe with a little more vodka than usual).

Would it surprise anyone if I reported that the Zoom feed was over-subscribed, and Barbara couldn’t watch the live version? (She settled for watching a replay several days later.) Remember, we were still in the waning hours of 2020, a year when the only direction was downhill. Definitely go heavy on the vodka, while we watch The Maltese Falcon. Barbara had no recollection of ever having seen it, meaning I had fallen down on the job. I am, after all, supposed to be the family film curator.

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But the Question Remains

Prologue

It’s not clear to me why they chose to print the article now (unless they considered it a cautionary tale, which it might well be), but last winter, The New York Times had sent a reporter, Andrew Higgins, and a photographer, Emile Ducke, back to Kolyma, ‘the most frigid and deadly outpost of Stalin’s gulag.’ The two men traveled on the Kolyma Highway, an upgraded version of the road originally built by slave labor, called ‘the road of bones,’ which enabled the Soviets to send even more prisoners – over a million in total – to the gold mines and prison camps of Kolyma. But, as the article points, memories of this horror are fading, raising ‘Stalin’s popularity to its highest level in decades.’

Higgins interviewed Antonina Novosad, a ninety-three-year-old survivor who, as a teenager, spent ten years at Kolyma. She remembers a fellow prisoner who wandered off to pick berries and was killed by a guard. The other prisoners buried the body, but the corpse was dragged away by a bear. ‘Yet she bears Stalin no ill will…’ As she put it, ‘Stalin was God. How to say it? Stalin wasn’t at fault at all. It was the party and all those people. Stalin just signed.’ (Right!!! He was just doing his best.) As I said, possibly a cautionary tale.

Wherein I endeavor to piss off a lot of people

Poor Sally (his name is pronounced ‘Solly’); he just can’t catch a break. He spent a good part of this last U.S. election cycle ‘above the fray,’ in his self-appointed role as grand pooh-bah, ostensibly unhappy with both major candidates. He was spending a lot of his valuable time posting stuff of questionable merit on Facebook, only to be shot down by his children and other interested parties – until at some point, I just changed the channel.

There he was, along with his wife Mira, one of his sons, and another family member, joining us for lunch in Ma’ale Adumim the week before the U.S. presidential election. We all sat around the dining room table, enjoying a modest repast and some freshly ground coffee, chatting amiably. It was inevitable that sooner or later there would be some mention of the elections. Sally expressed a negative opinion of Biden’s plans for the U.S. economy, whereupon I leaned across the table and said with great interest that this was something about which we could actually have a rational discussion.

How about that! With a few notable exceptions, most of what I had seen, heard, or read about Trump v. Biden did not meet my minimal standards of discourse. Please understand, I don’t expect everyone or even anyone to agree with me, especially about such a contentious issue as electoral politics. In fact, it’s no fun at all if everyone agrees about everything. But there are minimum standards: 1) Does what you’re saying make any sense at all; 2) How do you know what you’re saying is true; 3) What does it have to do with anything? Failing these benchmarks, don’t waste my time. I don’t ‘do’ stupid; life’s too short. As a result, I’ve reluctantly had to switch the channel on a whole bunch of people I know, friends, acquaintances, and random people posting on Facebook, for the duration of the election season. Trust me, it’s better that way.

The thing about Trump is that everything he’s said and done over the last four years has been recorded, even his idle thoughts at two in the morning, all preserved for posterity. Talking points for his supporters; fair game for his opponents. With Biden it’s not that easy, unless you want to insist he’s Barack Obama or Bernie Sanders. Frank, the British fellow who cuts our hair, asserted with some semblance of certitude that ‘Trump as done more in forty-seven months than Biden has in forty-seven years.’ As our barber was cutting my hair at the time, I refrained from making a sarcastic comment like, Did you think of that all by yourself?  Instead, I calmly and gently explained that the conductor of a symphony orchestra has more to do with the quality of the performance than any of the violinists. Also, he alone gets to decide on what they’re going to play. I don’t know if Frank understood what I was driving at, but it was the best I could come up with at the time. However, Biden does have a long record as a legislator; again, talking points for his supporters and fair game for his opponents. However, much of what I was seeing and hearing on social media and from the mouths of many who should have known better was woefully deficient in meeting minimum standards (see above). A lot of what was out there was designed to portray the contender as either a doddering old man awaiting his nightly dose of Ovaltine before being tucked into bed by his nurse or as a rabid revolutionary waiting to turn Minnesota into his version of a gulag. Then there were the conspiracy theories. Barbara’s friend, otherwise a wonderful companion, vehemently insisted that the saintly Dr. Fauci was somehow in league with the Chinese government, in the process, stealing millions of dollars (probably to finance his extravagant lifestyle). Or the anti-maskers, with their complaint that they have the right to infect other People, it says so in the Constitution. The same friend of Barbara sent her the following bit of Aristotelian logic: insofar as the American government has been unable to prevent thousands of people from dying every year from second-hand smoke, it shouldn’t ask people to wear a face mask. Yes, that makes sense……

Therefore, the thought of having a real conversation with my old friend Sally – even though Economics is not one of my strong points, and I have little knowledge and no opinion about the Democrat’s plans – would have been a welcome diversion. Unfortunately, with all the conversation whirling about the table, we never got a chance to delve into the matter.

Sally had to return to The States a few days later, but Mira stayed on. (She could conduct her Zoom classes for her students at the City University just as easily from Efrat as from Passaic.) She graced us with her presence for Shabbat the following week (which was after the elections and it was becoming obvious the challenger was going to win), and we had our chance to have a discussion, mostly about the pre-election polling data, which seemed to be, shall we say, unreliable. Mira, who teaches Political Theory, was concerned about the pollsters’ methodology. You might assume she meant that the sampling of voters was at fault, but, no, she was conjecturing that the pollsters were asking the wrong questions. What do you mean, I responded, questions like, Who are you voting for, or who do you think would do a better job of X or Y?, are pretty straightforward. And what should they be asking instead? Maybe, people weren’t telling the truth when they answered the questions, which casts a rather serious shadow on polling data in general. We batted that one around for a while, with neither side emerging victorious.

There were other questions that I’ve never had a chance to discuss with anyone. When I cast my absentee ballot months ago, was I doing so as an Israeli who was allowed to vote in an American election, or was I an American who happens to be living elsewhere? – which might have affected what I thought was most important. (Where you stand depends on where you sit.) Barbara’s friend (the same one) thought to inquire, Why do you care what’s going on in The States, you’re living in Israel? (Do I have to explain this one?)

One thing about Trump, he keeps his promises.  I heard that a lot, and I always let it slide. Some yes, some no. But there’s one promise he made that everyone agrees he has kept. As you know, back in August, he gave his assurance that he would win reelection. And if he didn’t, that would mean there was something wrong with the vote count and he would contest the election. Has any president – short of the country being at war – been more assiduous in carrying out a promise in the face of such adversity? None that I can think of. The upshot, however, is that all the noise about the election continued unabated, even intensified, and I was forced to continue changing the channel on people I know.

A lot of effort has been made to prove voter fraud, although, frankly, if I wanted to mount a legal campaign going all the way to the Supreme Court, I would not choose Rudy Giuliani as my lead lawyer. The arguments made by him et. al., the affidavits, the theories, the statistics offered were, shall we say, unavailing, the courts being uniformly unimpressed. Perhaps the American judicial system has a pro-Occam bias. (Click here for an explanation of ‘Occam’s razor.’) Some other line of argumentation needed to be made. Even Barbara’s friend, usually quick to point out some conspiracy that I would have otherwise missed, was silent on the matter. I would have to go elsewhere to find something that might impress at least one judge. Where would I turn? Facebook! What else? Sure enough, I found something amazing, Biblical in fact, from someone I know who’s a medical practitioner of sorts – although I don’t remember if he thought of this himself or was simply passing it on. Here goes: It was the week before the reading of Chaya Sarah on Shabbat, when the Haftorah is from the beginning of the First Book of Kings (but you knew that…..). It tells of the failed efforts of Adoniya, taking advantage of the age and infirmity of his father, King David, to crown himself king instead of his half-brother Solomon. Now listen to this! According to my source, believe it or not, the gematria of Adoniya is the same as Biden. That demonstrates, without a shadow of a doubt, that Joseph Biden Jr. was trying to steal the election!

Why this irrefutable proof was not brought to the attention of anyone who might have used it in legal argumentation is anybody’s guess. Probably, when it would have mattered, Mr. Giuliani was himself hospitalized with COVID and was otherwise occupied. What goes around, comes around, or something to that effect. The little things that determine history…

Epilogue

It was near the end of Nachum’s Shabbat shiur, somewhat shortened because of Channukah. We were a little ahead of ourselves in terms of the Biblical narrative. The question might be asked, when Joseph was taken from prison, brought before Pharaoh, and asked to interpret the ruler’s dreams, was it then that the young man came to understand that his own earlier dream (about the sun, the moon, and the stars bowing down to him) was prophetic? Perhaps that’s why the upstart began giving advice to this important personage about how to deal with the impending famine – his way of making his dream come true.

I had an idea, which I expressed as follows. Shouldn’t we give some credit to Pharaoh for having the smarts to accept Joseph’s advice?  Nachum figured it was a no-brainer (my words, not his). Go with a good plan and appoint an outsider to administer it. You avoid dealing with your inner circle, your advisors, your brothers-in-law. If the plan works, you take the credit. If it doesn’t, you have a built-in scapegoat, with whom you can deal summarily. (As Nachum would put it, take him out and whack him.) But I persisted. What about in today’s world? Aren’t their leaders who are given a perfectly good plan on a silver platter, a no-brainer, but who haven’t the brains to accept it?

We could hear people gathering outside, getting ready to daven maariv. Time to end our discussion and join them. Shabbat was over, but the question remains.

Allegrophobia

It could be worse. Imagine surviving the pandemic without computers, without the internet, and (gasp) without YouTube. How awful would that be! Is there a legally more addictive way to while away the hours than to find a YouTube video that seems right up your alley, and then their search engine points to a dozen other similar videos that you just have to watch, which will point you to another dozen videos for each of the first dozen…… You get the idea.

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Far Out, Zaidie

A friend of mine told me a story that is, to say the least, disturbing. Their bank has mislaid $3,000, which was being transferred to our friends’ account. The branch manager at Bank Leumi said they would look into it but, somehow, her sense of urgency and concern seemed inadequate to the situation.  (Maybe we find it.) Another of my friend’s friends suggested that they switch to a different bank, either the competition in our local mall or an Anglo-friendly bank in Jerusalem. My friend and I mulled over the matter. For Barbara and me, it would be a nightmare to start changing banks this late in the game. So many of our financial arrangements, Barbara’s social security coming in and many of monthly payments going out, are tied part and parcel to our Israeli account, that to start figuring out what’s what and where’s where…… I don’t even want to think about it.

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I’ll Be Right Down….

I’m going upstairs for a minute, Barbara; I’ll be right down.

The last day of the festival, Shemini Adzeret, was over Saturday night, and by 10 or 11AM Sunday, our sukkah was taken down, the first on the block to be dismantled. (I take all the credit. After all, it was I who got on the phone and called Brian, our handyman, to come over and do the work. I’m not getting back on that ladder.) Wouldn’t you know it, once the holiday was over, and we no longer needed to sit in our sukkah, the weather started to take a turn for the better. We now gladly had our dinners out on our balcony, watching the sun slowly set over the hills between us and Jerusalem and witnessing the nightly routine of the crows.

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When Zman Simchateinu Lost Its Joie de Vivre

I always had the feeling, back in The States that there was more gusto to Sukkot than I was experiencing, especially on the intermediate days when I always went to work. Yes, I could have taken off, but there wasn’t much else to do that you couldn’t do any other day of the year – so why bother, why use up my vacation days just to make a point. Plus, Sukkot was usually in October, meaning it was starting to get a bit chilly, and there was often enough precipitation to rain on one’s parade. I remember one particular Sukkot when I was leaving our synagogue, noticing an enormous grinning plastic pumpkin on a lawn up the block. Halloween was everywhere, and our holiday, not so much.

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Eliminate the Frippery

Our regularly scheduled Wed. evening gemara shiur got put on hold a few weeks ago because Nachum was in quasi-bidud (‘bidud’ is what they call isolation here in The Land). He had visited someone in the hospital who may or may not have had COVID-19, but who definitely did wind up dying of something. Nachum was awaiting his own test results when he called me. Maybe we could reschedule for the next night? Turns out we couldn’t because, while his first test was negative, they wanted him to take a second test, which also turned out negative. And that prompted me to send him a link to a recording on You Tube of the Johnny Mercer- Harold Arlen standard, Accentuate the Positive (Eliminate the negative). Because my mind works in strange and wondrous ways, I thought that maybe we all should be focused on eliminating the unnecessary over the Hagim. Or better still, Accentuate the has-to-be, eliminate the frippery.

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How Ya Gonna Get Them Back in the Shul….

Let’s jump ahead to the morning of Sep. 19, which if you remember or have a calendar handy, was both Shabbat and the first day of Rosh Hashanah. By the time a friend showed up to our apartment, tallit and siddur in hand, I had already started davening. There I was in the living room with Shekhi curled up on my lap.

There are several questions one might ask about what I just wrote. What are you guys doing in your living room when you should be in shul? If your friend is not in shul, why is he davening at your place? And who or what is this Shekhi, assisting you in davening? Now that I’ve aroused you from your torpor, I can begin the next episode about this continuing tale of woe and disaster.

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All I Need to Know

Where should I begin this particular chapter: at the beginning, which was several years ago; the prologue, which is the beginning of the beginning, almost sixty years ago; the beginning of what’s important in the narrative, four or five months ago; or what’s happening now, starting, say, two months ago? Decisions, decisions…….. Let me tell it this way and hope you can follow along.

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