Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Saying It Now

I remember being young enough to say, “I don’t know anyone around my age who has died.” That was a long time ago. Sadly, bad news not only travels fast, it starts biting at your tail.

These days I read the obituary page braced for news of yet another person it’s too late to call. More than remind me, death notices reprimand me never to put off ‘til tomorrow someone who might not have a tomorrow. Whatever under the sun you should say to anyone, say now.

The recent death of an old acquaintance and the sudden, distressing news of a medical threat to a dear friend prompt me to recall…

My first job in New York was as the resident lyricist for a music publishing company. My two bosses professed knowing nothing about Broadway but “really liked” a score I had written, music and lyrics, for an original musical. They gave me the green light to do what needed doing to present it to agents and producers; they would foot the bills. The first thing I needed to do was find someone who knew what I didn’t. That’s how I met John Wallowitch.

John, a superb pianist on his way to becoming a noted songwriter, knew to hire, first off, a vibrant actress/singer with sultry good looks to present the songs with him. My two mavens took charge. They arranged the material, painstakingly rehearsed it and, to my wide-eyed admiration, created a polished performance that illuminated conference rooms at William Morris, MGM, the Shubert Building and more.

It wasn’t long before I elected to free-lance, which meant taking leave of my “underwriters” and consequently, my stellar “cast.” Over the years, John and I occasionally would run into each other for five minutes at a time. In later years, we would find ourselves seated at the same table for mutual friends’ cabaret shows, but with scant opportunity to chat at length. One of those friends informed me that John was ill, and on another day, how ill he was, and cautioned me that if I wanted to see him, I’d better not wait too long. This being New York, I might have put off what I had been putting off far too long for only the weakest of reasons—we’re always so busy. But if we live and learn, then I have, and I didn’t wait.

I invited John to lunch at "Alice's Tea Cup," which I knew he loved. To the one nearest him, but on that day, the weather was blisteringly hot and his voice was thin, and when I offered to bring “Alice’s” to him, he thanked me by saying, “Oh, would you?”

We sat in his living room and in his garden, nibbled scones in his kitchen, and talked and talked. We exchanged confidences about ourselves and our careers that we’d never broached; disclosed our personal disappointments and divulged what we perceived as each other’s triumphs. We talked songs, but John never went to his piano. We were interrupted only when it became time for him to take his medications. He never acknowledged how ill he was and never complained.

Deep into the afternoon, he reminisced about how excited he and his friend, the lady singer, had been about the auditions they did for me. “Excited?” I questioned. “Why were you excited?” He explained, “You were taking us in to meet and perform for all these important theater people we had never met and didn’t know how to.” All these many years, I had believed I’d put myself in the hands of two pros who knew the ropes and were showing them to me, and suddenly I was discovering they had been the green ones who considered themselves so lucky. “Yes,” John said, “We were so grateful to you!”

With the long, late-light summer day drawing darker, and John visibly tiring, I prepared to leave. He said he’d loved the day and thanked me. I said it wasn’t necessary, I’d loved the day as well. He asked if he could give me anything. “Not a thing, John,” I said, “nothing I could possibly think of.” He said, “Wait, I’ve got just the thing.” He went into a cabinet and withdrew a songbook,
Songs From Manhattan/John Wallowitch. “That I’ll take,” I said, “and with the greatest pleasure, John.” He inscribed it: “After all these years—an afternoon of glory.”

Weeks later, I learned of John’s death from his New York Times obituary.

I saw our sultry actress/singer over the years as well, much more occasionally, usually backstage, always limited to warm greetings, a hug and kisses. I saw the announcement of her death on-line several weeks ago. She was Dixie Carter.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

In A One-Eyed World

Note: Due to technical problems of a browser’s making, many readers were unable to access the two related entries that preceded this one. The situation remedied, the following entry is intentionally briefer in hope you will read “Peace For Peace” and “Bad Timing,” preferably first.

If you know your Shakespeare, you’ll recognize this quote from Julius Caesar: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in our settlements. Any adherent of Taoism knows, A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single settlement. The answer, Bob Dylan fans affirm, is blowin’ in the West Bank.

I confess I almost missed it. Right there under my nose “forever” and I almost missed it. The key to all the world’s problems is the settlements! By settlements, I mean the only definition of the word in the world’s vocabulary, Israeli settlements.

Wars, famines, natural disasters, economic crisis, suicide bombings and mass murders, epidemic outbreaks and infectious diseases—all and more routinely threaten every corridor and distant corner of the earth, but the eye of the one-eyed world only brings settlements into focus.

What did we do prior to the establishment of the State of Israel? Who were the bogeymen and where on earth were they settled? What yarns did the old folks hand down to the children from cave to desert sands to rolling seas, from open fire to open porch?

Today’s tellers of tales are TV’s talking heads, parrot heads as I’ve come to think of them. They are paid—highly—to spin pap and propaganda rather than deliver news. And they know, left and right alike, no one likes settlements. It’s the dirty word they can punctuate their drivel with as much as they like without running afoul of sponsors or the FCC (in that order). You can read it on their stress-furrowed brows before they even open their mouths. Mute your TV and read it clearly on their lips: set-tle-ments. Getting rid of them would be the Second Coming. But of what?

If the Israelis flat-out stopped building settlements forever, would it bring peace on earth? Peace in the Middle East? Peace between Palestinians and Israelis?

Ask Israel’s leaders what they want and when they answer shalom, i.e., peace, they mean security. The two words are synonymous to them. Ask the Palestinians what they want until you’re blue in the face and you can’t get an answer. Peace must roll off the lips as easily in Arabic as it does in English or Hebrew, but who has heard it? Palestinian Arabs certainly know how to say jihad, intifada and shaheed distinctly, and how to indicate unequivocally what they mean by them. Know what’s Arabic for “peace”? As I thought.

With the usual arrogance of the western world, we in the United States insist on asking and expecting other peoples to think the way we do. While I’m not in favor of Israel creating more settlements, I am in favor of letting those chosen to govern do what they sincerely believe is best for the security of their people. They know now, as never before, Israel can’t rely on the United States for its survival.

Brilliant Israeli pianist/writer/government spokesman David Bar-Ilan chose his own words for peace quite some time ago: “Semantics don’t matter. If Palestinian sovereignty is limited enough so that we feel safe, call it fried chicken.”

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Bad Timing

I’m collecting overstatements.
“Israel is rapidly destroying any chance of there being anything to talk about.”
“It was an act of hostility, antagonism, and diplomatic terrorism against its single most valuable ally.”
“The Israelis really blundered this time. The whole world is against them.”
Not so fast. When, since statehood, has “the whole world” been anything but against “them,” the U.S. on most occasions the exception? The lesson was learned in Israel early: “To be or not to be is not a question of compromise. Either you be or you don't be,” according to Golda Meir.

All right then, the announcement by Israel’s Ministry of the Interior of its intention to build new settlements in East Jerusalem, coming as it did while Vice-President Biden was in Israel to herald another go at peace via “proximity peace talks,” was bad timing. That’s all it was. It shouldn’t have surprised anyone, certainly not anyone who listens to Israel. Building Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem became policy immediately following the 1967 War, a war, not so incidentally, lustily launched and resoundingly lost by Israel’s four surrounding Arab neighbor-states while “the whole Arab nation” egged them on from the sidelines. Anyone listening to Israel, including the Palestinians, recognizes its commitment to the policy and grasps the significance of the facts on the ground: the land, the neighborhoods, will remain Israel’s.

Even the timing shouldn’t be so surprising—the Israelis have made such pronouncements in the face of power often. They can’t be accused of being coy or conducting a whisper campaign; to the contrary, they want to be sure everyone knows their intentions. Say what others will—they're not guilty of tact.

The response from the media is auto-overstatement.
“Israel's Snub of Biden: More Than Just Bad Timing.”
These exact words, and the placement of the colon, resembling nothing so much as a snake’s fangs, with the words to follow hissing, “More Than Jusssst Bad Timing,” constitute at least five headlines. And that’s only in English.

So how do our diplomatic leaders, people of reason, our people of impeccable western manners, react? With snubs. With so’s your mother posturing. With mine’s bigger than yours swagger. Don’t laugh, but it starts coming down to whose snub is bigger. Is it Netanyahu’s or Biden’s? Is it Joe’s buddy, Barry, and their gal Hillary flexing hyperbole? When, oh when, do our government leaders get out of the schoolyard?

I’m on the outside looking in, witnessing the fracas and perplexed by both sides. Through the haze, I can’t help observing that for a president who doesn’t believe in not talking to your enemy to snub a time-tested good friend is bad policy, bad taste and… bad timing.

And since the subject is bad timing, let’s acknowledge, looking back on six decades of Arab-Israeli encounters, that there’s been much less fuss over much worse timing.

Leaving your house and land behind at the instruction of your Arab leadership so you and your family are out of the way while they drive all the Jews into the sea or “wipe Israel off the face of the map” is bad timing.

Premeditatedly attacking an elementary school in Ma’alot in Israel’s Western Galilee and killing 22 students in their early teens is bad timing.

Invading a nation on its people’s holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur—a day, it should not go unnoted, when those people are most likely to be reflecting on and atoning for their sins, customarily in a house of God, is bad timing.

Infiltrating Munich’s Olympic Village by night and under hoods, and using the quadrennial premier sports event as a platform to attack and terrorize, murder or take hostage, a team of young amateur athletes in their prime, is bad timing.

Hijacking an Air France airliner, directing it to Entebbe, Uganda, holding 105 Israeli’s hostage for a week and threatening to kill them unless Palestinian terrorist demands are met is bad timing. (Commander Lieutenant General Jonathan Netanyahu, the 30-year-old older brother of eventual Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was the only Israeli killed in the legendary rescue mission.)

And, possibly trumping all strictly from a political point of view, saying no to getting 96% of your demands when you represent the Palestinian people because you insist on 100%—and more, if you can pass a camel through the eye of a needle—is bad timing, and mind-numbingly self-defeating.

There you have just a few of the low points. Do you hear a rueful murmur from anywhere in “the whole world”? Neither do the Israelis.

Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Israel’s Jews learned that lesson in history from the Holocaust. It may be the only history lesson they need. Bad timing? Someone (possibly Golda Meir) said: Better a hundred bad editorials than one obituary. Who better than those responsible for the security of the people of Israel to know that?

To be continued...

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Peace for Peace

The United States and Israel at odds? Nah, can’t be. Must be for show, a tactical maneuver, a game-changing strategy. Right?

Either that or The President of the United States and his administration are making a bigger blunder than the Prime Minister of Israel and his cabinet.

Facts first. While the United States is promoting “proximity talks,” indirect negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and the government of Israel; while the White House expects Israel, as a unilateral trust-building gesture, to maintain a total freeze on settlement construction in East Jerusalem (with a partial freeze in the West Bank); while Vice-President Biden is visiting Israel: the coalition government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces eventual plans to build 1,600 new homes in an East Jerusalem settlement, Ramat Shlomo. Biden is offended, says so and returns home. George Mitchell, the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, cancels his trip and stays home. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, are, if you know your Casablanca, “shocked… shocked.”

And President Obama, emboldened by victory after what still seems like the Thirty Years Health Care War, feeling and showing his oats, starts swaggering in the wrong direction. What is it about prioritizing that eludes him? If he wants to talk tough, he ought to be unleashing his rich rhetoric and efficacious tones on Iran or North Korea or Afghanistan’s Karzai. The Jews in his administration, all of whom must know better, should talk tachlis (“brass tacks”) to him and tell him he won’t beat little Israel into submission. It is written—in stone: David doesn’t yield to Goliath.

Let’s set aside for the moment the biblical claim to the Land of Israel, and consider the land Israel acquired in 1967 from the Six Day War after being invaded by the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon while Egypt’s President Gamal Nasser boasted, “…standing behind us are the armies of Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan and the whole Arab nation.” If someone drove a tank into your life with the stated intent of wiping you and your family “off the face of the map,” [President Aref of Iraq], what would you be inclined to give back—as much as one rock hurled at the heads of your children? “To the victor belong the spoils” is not only a U.S. Senator’s coinage, but also exclusively a western concept in the eyes of the eastern world… when the victor is western. Now add to that the biblical claim.

So what do these intransigent Israelis want? Peace. What are they entitled to? Peace, as in freedom from attack. Peace not for land or 250 imprisoned terrorists in exchange for one captured Israeli soldier or his remains. Peace for Peace. This is what both sides, the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, should be asking for, demanding, agreeing to exchange and genuinely exchanging. Peace for Peace. Written in stone.

Frankly, I don’t care for Netanyahu—didn’t when I met him shortly after he came to the U.S. to join Israel's diplomatic mission here and found no reason to like him any better when, several years later, he became Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations. Israel’s 9th Prime Minister from 1996 to 1999, he’s not the man I wanted for Prime Minister in 2009. The man I wanted is a woman, Tsipy Livni, despite her questionable claim, “…we need to give up parts of the Land of Israel.” My reservations stated, I give Netanyahu this: he’s as qualified to lead a nation as any other world leader I can think of, and far more qualified than most of them. Resolute under pressure, and eloquent in a recent address, he gets the last word today.

After citing solid evidence of a significant Jewish presence in Jerusalem and the Land of Israel 4,000 years ago, he went on to say:
“Ladies and Gentleman, the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel cannot be denied. The connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem cannot be denied. The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. Jerusalem is not a settlement, it’s our capitol.”
To be continued…