Saturday, October 28, 2006

My life with a blog

When I began blogging more than 1-1/2 years ago, the blogosphere was an unknown and mysterious world to me. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I wondered who if anyone would ever read the stuff that I wrote. To my great delight, I have discovered a "community" out there, inhabited by interesting, intellectually curious people who enjoy exchanging ideas and life experiences with each other and who are dispersed widely here in the U.S. and abroad.

I have made contact with a Holocaust survivor, Ivan, who is a Slovak-born electronics engineer living in Ontario; Claude, a lady English teacher in Paris; Theo, a Dutch farmer with an extraordinary knowledge of American literature and politics; and Peggy, an American living on a farm in Scotland.

In this country, Ronni Bennett (Time Goes By), Saz, OldOldLady of the Hills, Chancy, Joared, goldenlucyd, Milly Garfield (My Mom's Blog), Norma (Collecting My Thoughts), Ginny, and a female rabbinical student are all frequent respondents. And, of course, there are those countless comments from apparently bashful readers using "Anonymous" as a cover. (One anonymous critic of my political views turned out to be a right-wing Republican cousin of mine who eventually sheepishly exposed himself to me.)

There have been two highly intriguing responses to this blog. In a piece published last year, I wrote that I was in the same college economics class 60 years ago at New York University as Alan Greenspan, the retired Federal Reserve System chairman. I made a brief but favorable reference to our professor, the late Dr. Jules Backman.

This produced a heated exchange between two of my readers. One anonymously disagreed with my opinion about the professor. He called the professor "an arrogant, pompous ass who bored the class when I was his student in 1951." Suddenly, the professor's grandson appeared on my blog to defend his grandfather. "With all due respect to your age," he wrote, "my grandfather won the Great Teacher Award from New York University not once, but twice. I suggest it was your mind, not the class that was 'bored'."

The other intriguing response to this blog was generated by an article about Leon Volkov, a Soviet air force colonel who defected to the U.S. after World War II and became a Newsweek magazine writer. The respondents were the former colonel's son and daughter. Their father died when they were young, and they were eager to know more about him. The result was a lengthy and fascinating conversation I had with the daughter in which we exchanged fond recollections about her father.

I have been fortunate to have such lovely people as Claude and Ronni who tout my blog on their own blogs. I have also benefited by being featured in articles about "elderly bloggers" in the New York Times and the Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) Sun-Sentinel and by receiving plugs in the AARP Magazine and WXPNews, an excellent on-line computer newsletter.

The result of this publicity has been overwhelming and very gratifying. I have software entitled "Blog Hot or Cold?" installed on my blog, which supposedly records the number of "hits" the blog receives daily. The program today reports that I had 42,811 "visits" during the past week, or an average of 6,115 daily. So far today, it has recorded 3,564.

In all candor, I am extremely dubious about these figures. I find the results so astonishing that I cannot believe they are credible. I have no way of knowing how long the "visitor" remained on the blog or whether he or she actually read the contents. I access my own blog several times a day myself, and these are undoubtedly among the "visits" that are recorded.

Nevertheless, my aged ego has been well massaged by the reception this blog has received, and I thank everyone who reads it and has e-mailed me comments. The blog has been a great source of pleasure and has brought a new world of ideas and personalities into my home.

I also thank my wife Sybil, a former high school Latin and English teacher, who functions as my editor, for her important role in publishing this blog.

Monday, October 23, 2006

MEMOIR: How "looking Jewish" landed me a dinner invitation in Capetown

Shortly after New Year's Day in 1944, I sailed out of Hampton Roads, Va. aboard a troopship heading south in the Atlantic Ocean. I was one of at least 5,000 GIs crammed aboard the vessel, the HMS Emperor of Scotland, a converted luxury liner. We departed without a warship escort, and we had no idea where we were going.

After several days at sea, I lost my wrist watch. For most of the troops on the ship, the loss of a watch would have been only a minor nuisance. For me, however, this was a big problem. My compartment on the ship had been arbitrarily selected to be the vessel's MP company.

A schedule was posted daily showing personal assignments for guard duty at specific hours. I needed a watch so that I could know when to report for duty. I was becoming weary having to constantly ask my bunk mates for the time. After about two weeks at sea, our troopship landed in Capetown, South Africa, where we were docked for nearly a week to refuel and to replenish supplies.

One of my closest friends in my compartment was Jerry Schaeffer, a Jewish man from Newark, N.J. who had been a high school industrial arts teacher in civilian life. (His identity as a Jew is relevant to this story.)

Jerry was very knowledgeable about watches and jewelry. He said that Capetown was a well-known international jewelry center, and he offered to help me buy a wrist watch if and when we were given shore leave between guard-duty assignments. When we both finally had a day off for shore leave, we rushed into the city searching for a jewelry store.

We quickly found an upscale establishment that could have passed for Tiffany's. A man behind the main counter wore a white bow tie and was elegantly attired in a morning coat. After we told him what we wanted to buy, he brought out a huge selection of wrist watches. As we examined the watches, I noticed that he was staring intently at Jerry and me. He seemed to be carefully studying our physical features, which made me slightly uncomfortable. After a few minutes, he said to us: "You're Jewish chaps, aren't you?"

He identified himself as the store's proprietor and told us that he was also Jewish. My recognition skills were obviously not as acute as his, for I hadn't given a thought as to whether or not he was a co-religionist.

He had never seen American soldiers before, let alone Jewish-American soldiers. He was obviously delighted to meet Jerry and me, for he was eager to discuss the war and to compare Jewish community life in our respective countries. After I had finally purchased a watch, he invited us to his home for dinner that evening. I don't recall the details about how we got to his home and how we got back to the ship before the end of our day's shore leave.

But I still clearly remember that he was an exceedingly gracious host. Our dinner with his family was an enjoyable interlude in a voyage that ended nearly three weeks later when our troopship finally arrived at our destination, Bombay, India.

I was to spend the next two years in India, and my memories of military service there are dimming. But I will always recall the dinner invitation I received in Capetown just because I "looked Jewish" in the eyes of a local jewelry merchant.


I once told this story to a non-Jewish friend who may have been a bit naive about such matters.
"How can you tell a man's religion by just looking at him?" he asked. "After all, you can't tell a Baptist, a Methodist or a Catholic just by his looks."

I explained to my friend that Jewishness is more than a religious faith and that it contains an ethnic element. And as it is in so many Jewish matters, the situation is complex. There are three basic sub-ethnic groups among Jews: Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrachi.

Ashkenazi Jews are of northern and eastern European origin and spoke Yiddish and German. Sephardis are descendants of the Jews who were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th century and who settled largely in the Mediterranean region. Their primary language is Ladino. Mizrachi people are Jews from Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Uzbekistan and other Middle Eastern countries. (The term "Mizrach" means East in Hebrew.) Their native languages are Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Persian.

In addition to a religious faith, the three groups share historical origins and traditions and use the Hebrew alphabet for their distinctive languages. All of them now largely speak the languages of the countries in which they live.

The concept of Jewish ethnicity has been a controversial one. In the U.S., for example, the American Council for Judaism was once an influential organization that more than a half-century ago aggressively opposed the establishment of a Jewish state. It argued that Jewishness is strictly a religious faith and contended that there was thus no justification for Israel to exist as a Jewish national state.

Some Jews still hold this view. I believe that they reject the idea of Jewish ethnicity, particularly in the U.S., because of the fear of being accused of dual allegiancies and divided loyalties. In contrast, Americans of Irish, Italian, Polish and other foreign origins do not appear deterred from enjoying emotional links to their forebears' foreign cultures.

The overwhelming majority of the world's Jews, however, recognize that Jewishness involves more than a belief in a religious faith. Indeed, the creation of Israel reinforced the concept of Jewish ethnicity. The essence of Zionism, of course, was an ethnic one. Many of the movement's founders and Israel's leaders have been secular in their outlook and even religiously agnostic. One does not have to be religiously observant to identify as a Jew. Jewish atheists were not exempted from the Nazi death camps.

It is generally acknowledged that certain physical features are characteristic of some ethnic groups. For example, many people of Scandinavian, Slavic or Latino backgrounds have distinctive features that provide hints of their ethnic origins.

What the Capetown jewelry merchant saw in Jerry Schaefer and me 62 years ago was a reflection of his own Ashkenazi origins as shown on the faces of two American soldiers.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Why it's time to get out of Iraq now

An average of three American soldiers are being killed daily in Iraq. More than 60 have died so far in October, making it one of the bloodiest months for U.S. forces since the war began. At this rate, American casualties will exceed 3,000 in a matter of weeks. And yet President Bush still proclaims that we need to "stay the course." Some politicians even argue that we need to send more troops to Iraq because our forces are badly stretched out. I wonder how many of these warhawks have sons or daughters serving there.

James Baker, the former Secretary of State who co-heads a committee set up to review Iraq strategy, warns that if we leave now, "Iraq will be a failed state and the center of the war on terrorism." What does this eminent statesman/politician think the shape of Iraq is now?

A more sensible appraisal was recently made by Great Britain's military chief of staff. He called for the coalition troops to leave now because "their presence there is making things worse." (The term "coalition" is a joke because it suggests that, other than Britain's tiny detachment, the U.S. still has allied foreign forces in Iraq.)

The U.S. is now an occupier rather than a liberator in the eyes of most Iraqis. According to the latest opinion polls, a majority of them want us to get out now. We are stuck in the middle of a civil war. And when we initiate operations, we are often unable to distinguish friends from enemies.

The situation is so chaotic that not only are Sunnis fighting Shiites but Shiites are battling among themselves. The Iraqi army and police forces are riddled with militia members organized into "death squads" that are responsible for the surge of sectarian bloodshed.

An op-ed columnist in the New York Times recently interviewed several of the top U.S. officials responsible for planning and conducting operations in Iraq, asking whether they know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. The columnist was astonished that none of those he interviewed could intelligently answer the question. If it weren't so tragic, the findings would be comical. They show how woefully unprepared we were to handle the post-invasion situation in Iraq.

I find it pathetic to hear those poor souls who favor the war still arguing that we need to fight in Iraq in order "to keep the fighting from coming to the streets in America." The sad truth is that our involvement in Iraq has increased the threat of Islamic violence in our country. Our invasion of Iraq, causing the death of hundreds of thousands of civilians, has so inflamed the Muslim world that the ranks of anti-American Islamic terrorists are growing rapidly.

U.S. armed forces have been reduced to a police role. Our effort to build up reliable native Iraqi military and police forces is in shambles, largely because of the infiltration of both pro-Saddam insurgents and the pro-Iranian Shiite militias. The primary victor in the Iraq war is Iran, a Shiite nation, which is a far more serious threat to our national security than Iraq ever was.

A former Iraqi enemy, Iran now wields extraordinary influence over a Shiite-led Iraqi government, set up by the U.S. in our naive effort to introduce democracy. The Iraqis' violent behavior and the civil chaos it has created demonstrate that Iraqi society is ill-prepared or simply unwilling to recognize how to practice democracy. And all the while, American soldiers are needlessly dying.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

An unknown cousin emerges from the Internet

I recently received an e-mail message from a man in Vermont named Howard, informing me that he is my second cousin. My first reaction was that this was just an Internet scam. But it quickly became evident, after reading the family names Howard listed, that he is indeed my second cousin. His maternal grandfather and my maternal grandmother were brother and sister.

Our contact was established after Howard, out of curiousity, typed the name "Sivin" into Google. That is the maiden name of both his mother and my maternal grandmother. The name was "Americanized" from Tsivin by my grandmother's older brothers when they came to the U.S. in the 1890s from Czarist Russia.

Google directed him to an article in the Jewish Geneology Society's on-line newsletter: ""

My cousin, David Fox (see Sept. 30 posting "A tribute to my cousin Bea Fox at 90") and I had collaborated on the article. Dave, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, is an ardent genealogist. A few years ago, he embarked on a search for our family's ancestral home in what is now Belarus.

He discovered a 1903 business census of the Minsk region, where my mother and Dave's maternal grandfather were born, and arranged to have it translated. Listed in the census was a miller named Moshe Aharon Tsivin (shown above with his wife Basha). Moshe Aharon was my maternal great-grandfather and Dave's great-great-grandfather. I bear Moshe Aharon's Hebrew name.

The census provided the exact location of Moshe Aharon's mill and his adjoining house, encouraging Dave to fly to Belarus and visit what remained of both structures. The local farmers confirmed that a Jew had leased land from a Russian nobleman and had operated the mill on that site more than a century ago.

Dave wrote an account of his visit for the on-line Jewish Genealogy Society newsletter, and I added a brief family history to his report. I posted a summary of the newsletter article on this blog ("The search for our family's ancestral home") on April 3, 2006.

Howard, my Vermont correspondent, was stunned by the newsletter article. He recognized the name of Moshe Aharon Sivin as his own maternal great-grandfather. The article noted that among Moshe Aharon's five sons was a dentist in Gomel, a town near Minsk. The dentist was Howard's maternal grandfather.

Ever since Howard's initial e-mail message, we have had an extensive exchange of e-mail messages comparing notes about the Sivin family. Howard, who is about 15 years my junior, never knew his grandparents. In contrast, my maternal grandmother lived with my parents as I was growing up. Obviously, I am thus far more familiar with the Sivin family background than Howard.

Although I never met Howard's mother, Dora Sivin, I knew that she was a concert singer and a voice coach. As a highly educated professional woman, she was not close socially to my mother, a first cousin, who was a bookkeeper and later a mere housewife. Dora was regarded as a celebrity in a Russian Jewish immigrant family eager to assimilate into the American culture. I recall that as a teenager being taken to a concert of hers. Although I was already a classical-music lover, I confess that her German lieder did not win my favor.

I did know Howard's maternal grandmother, Helen Sivin. In fact, she was a midwife who had delivered me at home. Apparently, my mother was more comfortable with her aunt's birthing skills than with the doctors at the famous Mt. Sinai Hospital, located only a couple of blocks from our apartment. I remember the aunt as a stout, cheerful lady who wore a perpetual smile, distinguishing her from my more dour elderly relatives.

I also knew Dora's two older spinster sisters, Luba and Nettie. They frequently took their mother to visit my grandmother in our Bronx apartment. I remember that they usually spoke Russian with Grandma rather than Yiddish. Howard recalled that his aunt Nettie worked at what he called the "Homler Brothers Credit Union" on Manhattan's Lower East Side. He apparently was unfamiliar with the nature of the organization. I told him that it was a landsmanschaft for immigrants from his mother's birthplace in Gomel. The Yiddish name for Gomel was "Homlya."

Howard's mother Dora also had a brother, Joe Sivin, who was a legendary figure in our family. I never met him but knew that he was a Wall Street stockbroker and a "financial adviser" to some of his relatives. Not surprisingly, the 1929 stock market crash had an adverse impact on his family relationships. Howard told me that Joe ended up in Austin, Texas as a finance officer for the American Red Cross during World War II. "Various rumors, all of them [unsavory], float around his name," Howard wrote.

Howard knew his maternal grandfather's name as Herman in English and Chaim in Hebrew. I remember that my grandmother, his sister, called him Muni, which I assume was a Yiddish nickname. Howard was aware that his grandfather had four brothers but was surprised to learn that he also had three sisters, one of whom was my grandmother.

According to family lore, Howard's dentist grandfather continued to practice his profession, although unlicensed, among his fellow Russian Jewish immigrants in New York. But Howard owns a Czarist Russian document registering his grandfather as a licensed dentist. It bears a stamp from New York authorities authorizing him to practice dentistry in this country. So much for nasty family gossip.

Howard and I look forward to a personal meeting to reinforce the relationship we have developed via the Internet. Sadly, to our knowledge, there are no longer any males in our family line who bear the Sivin surname. It survives only as Howard's middle name.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

My candidate for the Presidency in 2008: Gen. Wesley K. Clark

George W. Bush's biggest accomplishment has been to make all his Presidential predecessors look great and heroic by comparison. It will take a new President in 2008 with extraordinary skills to undue the domestic and foreign-policy damage that he has caused.

Of all the Republican aspirants to succeed him, Nebraska's Sen. Chuck Hagel is the only one for whom I would consider voting. But he is highly unlikely to get his party's nomination. The very factors that attract me are just what would undoubtedly prevent him from becoming the Republican candidate--i.e., his opposition to the Iraq war and his relatively liberal economic and social views.

Of the other leading Republican candidates, I once highly admired Arizona's Sen. John McCain. But I have lost my respect for him. His recommendation, for example, to send more troops to Iraq is extremely unrealistic. The integrity that had always impressed me now seems less genuine. I'm saddened by his pathetic effort to sell himself to the right-wing extremists who destroyed him during the 2004 Republican Presidential primaries.

Another avowed candidate for the Republican nomination is Virginia's George Allen. I consider him a political clown because of his attempt, as a born-and-bred Californian, to project himself as a genuine Southern redneck. Apparently it works, for he's been elected governor and Senator. His clumsy reaction to the recent disclosure of his mother's Jewish origins reinforced my negative view of him.

I doubt whether Rudy Guiliani, who is touted as another potential Republican candidate, could get his party's nomination. His relatively liberal positions on key social issues clashes with his party's establishment forces. And I'm not convinced that the American electorate--particularly in the South--is ready for a President lacking a WASP surname.

As for the Democrats, Hillary Rodham Clinton obviously leads in the race for her party's nomination. But I don't believe that she could win a Presidential election. She is not exactly a flaming leftist. But for reasons that I have never understood, she angers so many people that it's hard to imagine her being elected. Actually, I find her political views quite moderate. Her staunch support for the Iraq war and her sudden concern for such marginal issues as flag-burning strike me as being a pathetic effort to establish centrist credentials.

Al Gore is belatedly behaving like a dynamic national leader, an image he failed to project in 2000. But I doubt whether he is willing to endure another Presidential election campaign. John Kerry does appear ready for another run at the White House. However, I think he bears the stigma of being a loser, largely because of his failure to defend himself more aggressively against the sleazy Swift-Boaters who, I am convinced, were largely responsible for his defeat in 2004.

That year I was impressed by Gen. Wesley K. Clark when he threw his hat into the Democratic primary race. Here was an intellectually talented war hero like Kerry who was a fresh personality untainted by a background as a politician. As a military professional, he was well positioned to demolish the Republicans' nonsensical and traditional claim that the Democrats are "weak on defense." More important, his positions on vital economic and social issues showed that he obviously did not regard liberal as a dirty word. He was also skeptical about the wisdom of invading Iraq and later criticized what he regarded as the war's mismanagement.

Unfortunately, he proved to be an inept political campaigner and never gained any momentum. More recently, however, I have followed his frequent speeches on C-Span and his increasing appearances on TV talk shows. He is coming across as a more mature and dynamic type of national leader that this nation desperately needs, while expanding on his views on such issues as abortion rights, gun control and the economy. His argument that the Iraq war is hampering the war on terrorism also demonstrates a realism that has yet to sink in at the White House.

As the NATO commander during the wars in the former Yugoslavia and as a participant in the Dayton peace talks, he gained important diplomatic experience. He is a brilliant, intellectually curious man, wholly unlike George Bush.

Clark, who will be 62 in December, graduated at the top of his class at West Point, was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, and was briefly a professor of economics and politics at the military academicy. He is fluent in four languages. He is unlikely to have been visibly annoyed, as Bush was, when an American reporter questioned France's leader in French at a press conference in which the President was in attendance.

In the past, Clark usually voted as a Republican before he became a Democrat. He apparently decided that traditional Democratic positions were more ideologically compatible with his own. He has yet to formally declare his candidacy for the Democratic nomination in the next Presidential election. But an active political action committee, WesPAC, exists as a remnant from his unsuccessful 2004 campaign.

Clark says he is waiting for the outcome of this year's Congressional elections before declaring his candidacy for the Presidency in 2008. The outlook for a Democratic takeover of Congress seems to be favorable in the face of the Republicans' recent bonanza of bad news. The likelihood of Clark running for President thus seems quite strong. For what it's worth, he has the support of this aged, cranky citizen who wants our nation to be restored to its former glory and to regain the world's respect.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

MEMOIR: A guy who never met a Jew before

During the summer of 1943 I was an 18-year old Army recruit at Camp Crowder, Mo., a U.S. Army base located in the Ozarks near the tiny town of Neosho. I lived in a barracks with about 40 men, at least half of whom were roughly my age. But we also had an unusually large number of men in their late twenties and thirties as barracks mates.

Camp Crowder was a Signal Corps training center, and most of the older men had worked for the telephone companies and Western Union. They had been assigned to the Signal Corps because of their work experience. They were far more worldly and more rowdy than the younger guys who were fresh out of high school.

The man in the bunk next to mine was a farm-bred kid from Georgia who had been drafted during his first college year. I've forgotten his name. He was a clean-cut, boyish guy who, I noticed, spent much of his idle time reading the Bible. Unlike virtually all the other men in the barracks, he did not smoke, drink, use dirty language, or rush to the whorehouses in town during weekend passes.

Except for the regular Bible-reading, many of my personal habits mirrored his. I didn't smoke cigarettes; I had a pipe, a farewell gift from my former emplyer, that I rarely used. I didn't patronize whorehouses, and I had yet to develop a taste for alcohol and a tendency to use dirty language. (As time passed, I easily acquired the last two vices.) I believe that my proper behavior was based more on boyish innocence than on any religious restraints.

My clean-cut bunk mate was a loner and did not socialize with the other men in the barracks. But he apparently became aware of my "upright" lifestyle and adopted me as a sort of buddy. We began to compare notes about our school experiences, share our grievances about Army life, and play ping-pong in our free time while many of our barracks mates were out drinking or whoring around.

Shortly after we became friends, he invited me to go to services at the base chapel with him on Sunday. I told him that I didn't go to church on Sundays, and that if I were to attend religious services, I would go to a synagogue on Friday evenings and Saturdays. He was confused by my remark. He obviously failed to recognize that I was informing him that I was a Jew. I had to spell out my religious affiliation in more specific terms.

Suddenly our buddy-buddy relationship ended. He stopped chatting with me, and he seemed to carefully avoid any personal contact. It was as if he wanted to steer clear of an infectious disease. A couple of weeks went by, and we no longer took any special notice of each other despite the proximity of our beds.

Eventually, however, he apparently recognized that our shared "wholesome" habits were more important than our religious differences. He casually became friendly towards me again. As our relationship improved, he confessed to me that he had never met a Jewish person before. He was raised, he said, in an Evangelical Christian family in a farming community where Jews were unknown. Although he did not specifically admit it, I felt that he had actually believed that Jews had horns--a belief, I've been told, that is or was held by some people with his restricted background.

So I take credit for demonstrating more than 63 years ago to at least one innocent young man that Jewish people are as normal as the next guys, with both the same good traits and the same faults.

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