Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Lebanon, the Film

This is not a review, it is a recommendation. This Thursday and Friday, October 1 and 2, the New York Film Festival will be presenting Lebanon, a feature film that takes us—by tank—into the first 24 hours of the 1982 Lebanon war, i.e., when Israel’s troops entered Lebanon in pursuit of the PLO. For anyone who thinks war is anything less than horrific, or possibly that there is something heroic about sending young people into it, this film is obligatory.

Via one tank, one day and five soldiers, the director captures the claustrophobia and terror of the dank interior of an Israeli battle tank.

This tank stalls in war, gets lost, runs amok. It takes a hit, it takes on a captured, wounded Syrian soldier. “Treat him good,” an Israeli officer says, “He’s a war prisoner.” The tank’s driver panics, its gunner freezes at the sight of his first target, closes his eyes as he fires at the second one. Its commander has trouble controlling his men.

His men are boys. One asks a superior officer to call his home and let his mother know he’s all right.

None of this is the stuff of screenplays. In Lebanon in 1982, I saw a sign instructing Israeli soldiers to do just that. “Call Home. Call Your Parents—At Every Opportunity.” Such signs appeared with telephones installed along the Israeli-Lebanon border.

While I spoke with soldiers on Lebanon’s coastal road outside Damour, I kept an eye on a friend, a seasoned woman who was a prominent Israeli journalist, as she spoke softly with a young soldier. In the day’s twilight, I saw him help her up and then help her lower herself into a tank similar to one her son had died in during the Fourth Arab-Israeli War, the “Yom Kippur War” of 1973. When she emerged, not more than five minutes later, she seemed calmer than she had been all day. “Go ahead,” she said as she approached me, “Ask your question.” She was right, I had one. “How do you deal with it?” I asked gently as I could. She answered, “If you don’t, you go mad. Yes, I think you must go mad.”

Lebanon, an Israeli film directed by Samuel Maoz. Alice Tully Hall, Broadway at 65th Street. Thursday, October 1 at 9:30 p.m. and Friday, October 2 at 3 p.m.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Day of Awe

Every year at this time I ask myself the same question: why do I go to synagogue only at this time?

To my Jewish friends, I unapologetically acknowledge I’m a High Holiday Jew. To my Gentile friends I explain that in my religion it is every individual’s prerogative to worship God as he or she chooses; consequently, there are as many kinds of Judaism as there are Jews. That suits me. My way is to disqualify all meddlers and keep it between what’s in my head and what’s in my heart.

If one of my favorite aspects of Judaism is its limitless array of choices, one of my sources of wonderment is how all of its people tend always to answer a question with a question. Even one put to oneself. Why, I could ask, only at this time of year?—but I, of course, can anticipate my answer: Do you know a better time of year? Isn’t it because you always discover something new? A line in the prayer book you’ve been reading or reciting for years suddenly taking on deeper meaning? Incisive or provocative thoughts expressed in a rabbi’s sermon? Or, as happened on one momentous occasion, something so unexpected, so inordinate, so heart-rending and indelible that eight years later it’s still difficult to relate dry-eyed.

The congregation I don’t belong to but collegially join for the High Holidays is that of an American Reform synagogue. To my delight, it is traditionally free-thinking and liberal-minded. For most congregants, a half-day is sufficient to celebrate the Jewish New Year,
Rosh Hashanah, but the most solemn day of the year, the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, requires a full day.

A full day for Upper West Siders requires a break, one hour and fifteen minutes, between morning and afternoon services. Many years ago, the synagogue introduced a novel program, the “study group,” to fill the time productively (for Upper West Siders).

On Tuesday, September 18, 2001—exactly seven days after 9/11—we reentered the synagogue to find a different kind of “study group” seated in a row of eight chairs on the
bima, the raised platform in front of the ark. Six men and two women—five rabbis and three cantors who had conducted the morning service visibly in mourning and in anguish. One of the women, a cantor, had unavoidably wept openly every time she sang.

The topic was 9/11. The rabbi in the first chair, a noted scholar, spoke in mature tones and cerebral terms. He was followed by another rabbi and another, faces troubled, voices lowered, emotions guarded. So it continued until it became the fifth man’s turn, a rabbi visiting from another congregation, middle aged, face and spectacles round, nondescript. Until he spoke the unspeakable. In sorrow and censure, one sentence. “Today I think it’s God who should apologize.”

Stunned silence. A Day of Awe.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Watching What's Wrong

Jimmy Fallon said it well: “Instead of showing President Obama’s health care speech… Fox aired… “So You Think You Can Dance.” I guess they wanted to give viewers a choice between hearing what’s wrong with our country and watching what’s wrong with our country.”

If you’ve been watching, Joe Wilson’s contemptuous interjection during President Obama’s address to congress is “what’s wrong with our country.” Kanye West’s rude insertion of himself at the MTV Video Music Awards is what’s wrong with our society. Jane Fonda is what’s wrong with mixing the water of celebrity with the oiliness of politics.

I’ve already dealt with Joe Wilson, but inadvertently neglected to include that he’s amply and ably demonstrated he’s a racist. I’m going to deal with Kanye West summarily: in my eyes, he’s a reverse racist, calling the kettle whitey, so to speak—and a blatant sexist, whose seizing of the microphone from a stunned 19-year-old Taylor Swift was crassly intimidating and cowardly.

Which brings me to Jane Fonda. Who just won’t go away. So what’s wrong with her (this time)? Choosing her customary motley company, she joined forces with Wallace Shawn, Danny Glover and David Byrne to protest the selection of Tel Aviv as this year’s spotlight selection for the Toronto International Film Festival’s annual “City to City” theme.

It’s really not much of a spotlight. According to journalist Stephanie Guttmann, “A look at the festival’s home page includes no mention of Israel at all.” But that wouldn’t stop Calamity Jane. You haven’t arrived in American politics until you’ve been boycotted by Jane Fonda.

Seldom is an acronym a synonym for the string of words it represents. But thanks to a handful of uninformed actors and disgruntled walk-ons, the acronym for the Toronto International Film Festival, TIFF, couldn’t be more appropriate, because they stirred up a lulu of a tiff with this one.

Actors should stay out of politics. That should have included Ronald Reagan, but just because it’s too late to stop him doesn’t mean the folly should continue. Alexander Pope said, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” Some people should stick to learning their lines. I haven’t read Fonda’s biography, and won’t—I’m hereby boycotting it!— but her life isn’t exactly private, and I know of nothing in it that qualifies her for anything but acting (limited), exercise (passé) and outspokenness (unenlightened).

The subject is watching. I watched Jane in Israel in 1982. She and her husband at the time, Tom Hayden, were ostensibly there to observe “conditions.” But she mostly didn’t get off the bus. Tom did—to speak with the press, with Israeli soldiers, and one on one with me—and came off as a really nice guy. I didn’t learn until much later that he was running for the California Assembly and, here’s that uncomfortable mixture of show business and politics again, he was “back-dooring” it in Israel to get the heavy California Jewish vote. That November, he won the general election.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Two Little Words

Retired Army Reserve Colonel Joe Wilson dissed his commander in chief last night.

I can’t think of a famous one-word quote. But with two words, “You lie,” a relative non-entity, Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, became deservedly infamous.

In all likelihood, his two words also made him more of a loser in 2010 than he is now. Before he could say “I’m sorry” (exactly the same number of syllables and the cadence of “jack rabbit”), Republican Party leaders were apologizing for him. Before Rush Limbaugh could say, “I was ecstatic when I heard that last night,” the campaign coffers of Wilson’s Democratic opponent in 2010, Rob Miller, had swelled from a reported $150,000 in donations in the first hour after Wilson’s outburst to $500,000 and climbing this afternoon.

Little wonder. In style and substance, by any measure of civility, Joe Wilson was outrageously out of line last night. In sharp contrast to President Obama’s mellifluousness, Representative Wilson shouted. In contrast to the president’s show of respect for all people, the congressman showed unrestrained disrespect for the president who, according to Article II, section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, is the commander in chief of the United States—therefore of Colonel Wilson, a four-year reserve colonel and eighteen-year National Guard colonel (ret.). To make matters worse for Wilson, candidate Rob Miller is a former Marine. By shooting off his mouth last night, Wilson seems not only to have shot himself in the foot, but also to have taken direct aim on the other one.

With his two little words, he may have been the one who was lying (Rush the one swearing by it). Obama denied that his health care proposal would cover illegal immigrants. Section 246 of the House Democrats' proposal H.R. 3200 limits "federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States," but it’s inconclusive and still a work in progress. By no interpretation does it give anyone license to point a finger and use such pointedly strong language. Unless license is callously taken by one who deliberately intends to mislead others.

Wilson is apparently known in Congress for giving the briefest of speeches. Last night, he outdid and probably undid himself.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Brief Labor Day Brief

How did the GOP ever agree to a Labor Day?

In 1894, when Labor Day became a national holiday, the President of the United States, Grover Cleveland, was the only Democrat to hold the highest office in the land (twice) between the years of 1860 to 1912, a half-century of Republican Party political domination.

Legislation making Labor Day a national holiday was rushed through the 53rd U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Cleveland (
before Congress went on a “labor day” recess).

The inspiration and incentive for the creation of the national holiday was a labor strike, the 1893 Pullman Strike triggered by the railroad car company’s laying off of hundreds of employees—as it happens, a result of a dire economic downturn in the country.

Rioting, plundering and setting fire to railroad cars by unemployed union workers was matched by rioting, plundering and setting fire by mobs of non-union workers.

Seeking to quell the destruction and calm the fury, the leaders of the Central Labor Union of New York City proposed a labor’s day and saluted it with a parade and picnic. That they probably “borrowed” the idea from Canada might disturb today’s xenophobes, but no three-day-weekender from the Hamptons to Hawaii would object.

In addition to being a Federal holiday, a District of Columbia and U.S. Territories holiday, Labor Day is a State Holiday in all the 50 U.S. States. Can you imagine all 50 states agreeing on anything?

And that’s the end of my labor today.