Saturday, September 29, 2007

How would we define "victory" in Iraq?

President Bush claims that we're on the road to "victory" in Iraq. I wonder how we would define an American military victory in that chaotic land. A "victory" requires a "winner" and a "loser." We have so many different Iraqi enemies that it would be hard to figure out who is the primary loser.

Can you picture Muqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric who leads the Shiite militia, the Mehdi Army, sitting down with Lt. Gen. David Patreaus, the U.S. commander, to surrender? Or the leader of the Sunni insurgents or the head of Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia acknowledging defeat at a formal surrender ceremony?

The President and his war-hawk supporters are in fantasy-land when they treat Iraq as a conventional war in which one side surrenders to the other. We are engaged in guerrilla warfare. And it is unlike other guerrilla conflicts in which insurgents fight against an established central government. In Iraq, two different wars are waging.

In one, Shiite forces are battling Sunni forces in what is essentially a civil war. In the other war, Sunni insurgents and radical Shiite factions like the Mehdi Army are fighting the U.S. And all the while, anti-American elements are infiltrating the Iraq government's official army and police units to aid the Shiite guerrillas.

Meantime, the Maliki-headed central Iraqi government, which we installed and for whom we are shedding American lives to protect, plays footsie with Iran, the country Bush fears would take over Iraq if U.S. forces withdrew.

President Bush recently boasted that we have won the allegiance of a handful of Sunni tribal sheiks willing to help fight both the Sunni insurgents and Al-Qeada in Mesopotamia, the homegrown terrorist group inspired, but not necessarily linked to Osama Bin-Laden's original Afghan-based terror organization.

Within days, our new "allies" were assassinated. Other Sunni tribal sheiks are highly unlikely to cooperate with us. Those same Sunni insurgents are now systematically killing loyal commanders of Iraqi police and military units.

In their recent testimony before Congressional committees, both Lt. Gen. Patreaus and Ryan Crocker, our ambassador to Baghdad, appeared reluctant to agree with President Bush's absurd argument that our involvement in Iraq has made the U.S. more secure.

In fact, the invasion and the subsequent bloody occupation of Iraq have made us more vulnerable to terrorism. Agitated by what they see as the suffering of their fellow Muslims, Islamic extremists are pouring into Iraq from other Muslim countries, eager to kill American "infidels." Iraq has replaced Afghanistan as the primary training ground for Islamic terrorists.

Just as important, many defense experts worry that American military capabilities have been so weakened by our involvement in Iraq that we are ill-prepared to contend with new threats to national security.

This is the situation that President Bush will bequeath to his successor in the White House. As the next President wrestles with Iraq, Bush expects to be on the lecture circuit, as he told the author of a new Bush biography, to "replenish the old coffers." He envies how Bill Clinton has cashed in on his Presidency.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Elie Wiesel and the U.S. Open tennis tournament

I recently experienced a fascinating demonstration of the old cliche that we do indeed live in "a small world." My son was invited to attend the U.S. Open tennis tournament in Flushing, N.Y. by the CEO of a corporation with whom his own company does business. When he arrived at his host's stadium suite, the CEO introduced him to the guest seated next to him.

The guest was the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor who has become a world-famed writer, lecturer, and a political activist on issues related to intolerance and ethnic and racial hatred. The CEO host was evidently a contributor to a foundation established by Wiesel to combat these evils, and the two men have become friends.

In 1976, when my son was a teen-ager, I wrote a profile about Wiesel that was published in Present Tense, a now-defunct Jewish literary and political magazine. The article was later included in a 1991 book entitled "Jewish Profiles: Great Jewish Personalities and Institutions of the 20th Century," edited by Murray Polner.

I had interviewed Wiesel in his Central Park West apartment and had sat in on a class on Hasidic literature that he was teaching at the City College of New York, where he was then on the faculty. (He is now the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University.)

After being introduced to Wiesel, my son said to him: "Perhaps you remember my father, Mort Reichek, who once wrote a magazine article about you."

Wiesel said that, of course, he remembered me. I have had no contact with him in the past 31 years, so perhaps he was just being polite. Two years after my article about him in Present Tense, however, we both had articles published in the same issue of the magazine.

Mine was a profile of the late Chaim Grade, a noted Yiddish author, who was Wiesel's friend and a fellow staff writer for the Forward, a Yiddish newspaper, many years earlier. My son had mentioned Grade's name to Wiesel, which may have triggered his recollection of me. I had talked to Wiesel at some length about Grade while preparing my article about him.

I was then an editor and writer for Business Week magazine. But I did free-lance writing on the side on subjects far removed from my day job.

My son had planned to call me on his cell phone after he arrived at the tennis matches. When he called, he put Wiesel on the phone to talk to me. I was in the middle of dinner and was stunned but very pleased to hear from him.

"I don't know what I'm doing here," Wiesel said jokingly. He had never seen a tennis game before, and he was bewildered by what was happening on the court. We conversed briefly and exchanged Jewish New Year greetings. The stadium's background noise discouraged us from having a longer conversation. But this was the first time that I had ever enjoyed being interrupted by a phone call during dinner.

My interviews with Wiesel were among the most interesting that I have ever conducted in my career as a journalist. I still remember his response when I phoned to tell him that I wanted to write a profile article about him. "I have a question that I am embarrassed to ask you," he said shyly. "Are you familiar with my work?"

I assured him that I was. I had read many of his books dealing with Judaism, the Holocaust, and the moral responsibility of all people to fight hatred, racism and genocide. He was not well known to the general public, however, until he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

Wiesel has become a major force in American literature. Critics have compared him to Sartre, Camus and Malraux. His novels tend to be more theological parables than realistic fiction. His primary theme--seeking faith in a world so insane and absurd as to make faith difficult, if not impossible--has attracted the serious attention of Christian theologians, particularly those with an existentialist bent.

My interest in meeting Wiesel and writing about him had been stimulated by my son's reaction to "Night," Wiesel's first book. My son was 15 at the time, roughly the same age as Wiesel when he was shipped to Auschwitz from his home in Transylvania. In the book, Wiesel describes the horrors of the concentration camps--a pious boy surrounded by a mound of corpses, accusing
God of abandoning His creation.

I had encouraged my son to read the book, pointing out that if his great-grandparents had not fled Russia and Poland at the turn of the last century, the fate of the boy in "Night" might have been my own. The book had a stunning emotional impact on my son, whose normal reading diet leaned heavily to sports literature.

"While I read it," my son told me, "I tried to think it really didn't happen, that it was a story some one made up. But when I paused, I realized that it wasn't fiction. Is [Wiesel] a sane man now?"

Sanity, in fact, is a subject with which Wiesel is obsessed. As a student at the Sorbonne in Paris for almost three years, he specialized in clinical psychology. The New York Society of Clinical Psychology has honored him for his perceptive treatment of the insane in his writing.

It was an extraordinary coincidence that, three decades after reading Wiesel's book, my son met the author personally in the strange setting of the U.S. Open tennis tournament.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

MEMOIR: The synagogues on 169th Steet and other matters

My parents lived in the same apartment in the Bronx for 42 years. It was located on the Grand Concourse, one block north of 169th Street. The Grand Concourse used to have an exalted image as a boulevard where only affluent people could afford to live. To debunk the idea that my family was wealthy, I have always explained that there were two types of apartment houses on the Concourse--those with elevators, doormen and canopies at the front entrance and those without such signs of elegance.

We lived in the latter type of apartment house. It was a five-story, walk-up tenement with 90 apartments and a shabby front courtyard. It had seen better days before we moved in during the late 1920s. I lived there from the age of three to 18, until military service removed me from an overwhelmingly Jewish immigrant neighborhood and exposed me to a new world.

The focus of my old world was the formidable array of synagogues ("shuls" in Yiddish) located on 169th Street, the block around the corner from our apartment house. There were five different congregations on the street, each with its own unique characteristics.

At the southwest corner of the Concourse and 169th Street stood Temple Adath Israel, a huge, handsome edifice that exemplified the old joke about the "edifice complex" of some religious institutions. The temple was affiliated with the Conservative Jewish movement, and its members tended to be more prosperous than those of the other congregations.

My pious Orthodox grandmother, who lived with us, was offended that men and women sat together in Adath Israel, and that it employed an organ and a choir with both men and women. Grandma frowned whenever I went there to attend a friend's bar-mitzvah or to be taken to Yankee Stadium by the temple's youth group.

I never had the heart to tell Grandma that I saw the temple's rabbi, who usually accompanied the boys to the ball game, eat non-kosher hot dogs in Yankee Stadium. Grandma, who never accepted any form of Judaism other than Orthodoxy, would have questioned the validity of his rabbinical credentials.

For many years, the temple's cantor was a man named Reuben Tucker. He later became known as Richard Tucker, the world-famed Metropolitan Opera tenor. He was an observant Orthodox Jew who declined to wear Christian religious symbols required for some of his operatic roles. But he was obviously less concerned than my grandmother about the temple's non-Orthodox religious practices.

The temple had a large finished basement used primarily as a ballroom. A section was partitioned off and leased to a tiny Orthodox congregation which was evidently comfortable sharing a building with a congregation whose religious practices were far less traditional than its own.

The basement-based congregation was composed of several dozen old men who faithfully appeared daily for morning and evening services. I never understood why they prayed apart from the much larger Orthodox shuls on the street.

They seemed to be living out the old joke about the shipwrecked Jewish man existing alone on a desert island. When a rescue party appeared, they were surprised to see that the man had built two shuls. When questioned why he had built two different synagogues, he pointed to one of them and explained: "Oh, that's the shul I don't go to."

Actually, my guess is that the old men in the basement congregation were all "landsmen" who had known each other in the same village back in Eastern Europe. They apparently wanted to continue praying together in their new homeland.

For much of my boyhood, the land next to Temple Adath Israel was an empty lot dominated by an enormous, tall rock that was a popular playground for the neighborhood boys. Our favorite game was called "king of the hill." It was the source of countless bruised knees and elbows as teams of boys struggled against each other to get to the top of the rock. (I bear a scar on my left knee from an injury suffered during of one of those boyhood skirmishes.)

In my very early teens a new synagogue was built on the property. I don't recall its formal name, but it included the word "Sephardic" in it. This identified it as a synagogue composed of descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain four centuries earlier and who had settled in the former Ottoman Turkish empire.

Its members were largely immigrants from Salonika, Greece and Smyrna (now known as Izmir) in Turkey. The Sephardic congregation was Orthodox, like the Ashkenazi shuls with which it shared the street. (Ashkenazi Jews originated in central and eastern Europe.) To me, however, the new synagogue had an exotic atmosphere because its rites of worship differed from my own shul's, and its rabbi preached in Ladino (also known as Judezmo) rather than Yiddish.

I still remember that the Sephardic rabbi was named Asher Marciano, and that he came from Sarajevo in Bosnia. (I am confident that he was unrelated to Rocky Marciano, the famous heavyweight boxing champion.) Rabbi Marciano wore a white turban when he was seen walking in the street, which for me emphasized the exotic quality of the new synagogue.

Next to the Sephardic temple was my family's Orthodox shul, Tifereth Beth Jacob. Our rabbi was a saintly, white-bearded man named Levitan. When I was very young, I imagined that God in heaven looked like Rabbi Levitan.

The shul conducted a religious school which I attended from the age of six until I had my bar-mitzvah at 13. I delivered my bar-mitzvah speech in Yiddish, a language I can no longer speak. Unlike the gala celebrations that are now commonplace, the festivities at my bar-mitzvah were quite simple. Following the synagogue services, about a dozen relatives gathered around our apartment's dining room table, drinking wine and nibbling gefiltah fish.

Only boys were admitted to the shul's religious school. Classes were conducted after public school hours at least three days a week and on Sunday mornings. I still remember the teacher, Mr. Halpern, who was an unemployed CPA.

As is the custom in Orthodox synagogues, men and women did not sit together. In our shul they were separated by a curtain. Behind the barrier, my grandmother would meet informally with a group of women after Sabbath services, reading Bible stories to them in Yiddish.

Unlike the other ladies, most of whom were barely literate, my grandmother had received a religious education at home in Russia. In our shul in the Bronx she was regarded as the congregation's unofficial matriarch.

Another Orthodox synagogue--this one a Hasidic congregation--was located further down the street, on the northwest corner of 169th Street and Walton Ave. The Hasidim are a mystical Jewish denomination whose religious practices are marked by exceptional emotional fervor. There are dozens of Hasidic sects, each based largely on East European geography and the leadership of individual charismatic rabbis.

My father had been raised in a Hasidic environment on Manhattan's Lower East Side, but he was no longer religiously observant. He was curious about the Hasidic shul on 169th Street, however, and visited it once or twice.

He encountered an even more emotional--almost boisterous--religious fervor than he had known in his youth. Half in jest, he attributed that to the "crazy Hungarian" origins of the sect that had founded the shul. He claimed that the Polish Hasidim with whom he was raised were more sedate.

I was last on 169th Street about 25 years ago. I was saddened to see that Temple Adath Israel was vacant and boarded up. I don't remember what happened to the Sephardic and Hasidic synagogues. But the saddest sight was seeing that my own synagogue, Tifereth Beth Jacob, where I had read to the congregation from the Torah at my bar-mitzvah, was now an "Iglesia Pentacostal."

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