Thursday, August 28, 2008

The American dream

The nomination of Barack Obama, an African-American with highly exotic roots, as the Democratic candidate for the Presidency is the most heralded example of the realization of the American dream.

On a far less dramatic level, the American dream has also been achieved in my own family. A century ago, my two sets of grandparents immigrated to this country from Poland and Belarus, both then part of the Czarist Russian empire. They came with few resources and no knowledge of English.

They fled to escape the pogroms and religious persecution that their ancestors had endured for many hundreds of years. In America they sought and found a refuge and a tolerant environment in which their children could employ their talents and fulfill their ambitions.

During the two generations that have followed my grandparents' arrival here, the family has produced two doctors (one of whom is a medical school cardiology professor), four school teachers, two artists (one of whom was also a college professor), a dentist, an art historian, a pharmaceutical chemist, a social worker, an investment banker, a Republican politician, three wartime soldiers, an Air Force career officer, a lecturer at the former Royal Iranian air force academy, a musician, several corporate executives, and this humble journalist.

For me and my relatives, the "American dream" is a magnificent reality.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

MEMOIR: A portrait of my father (continued)

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(I published a memoir about my father, entitled "My father was a rebel," on July 12, 2007, relating how he refused to continue his rabbinical studies and follow his father's footsteps to become an Orthodox rabbi. More recently, July 6, 2008, I posted a piece entitled "My grievance against my father," complaining about my father's negative attitude toward my childhood obsession with sports.)

My father was brought to this country in 1906 as an 8-year old from a small town in northeastern Poland then under Czarist Russian rule. After spending nearly a year in Antwerp, Belgium, the family settled on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Dad, who died in 1990 at the age of 92, was named Meyer. His Hebrew name was Yehiel Mayer. Bestowing English names on their children, most Jewish immigrants transformed Yehiel into Charles. But my grandfather frowned on the name "Charley." He turned the Hebrew name Mayer into the English Meyer, using it as his son's first name and leaving my father without an English middle name.

My father

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Georgia and a truculent John McCain

Sen. John McCain has seized upon the crisis in Georgia as an issue that supposedly
points up the importance of his experience in national security affairs. In such crises, he claims, he is far more prepared to be commander-in-chief than Barack Obama.

Considering the complexity of the situation in Georgia, however,I would feel more comfortable with Obama in the White House. Judging from his truculent reaction to the Russian invasion of Georgia, I fear that if McCain was now President, we would be shipping troops to Georgia. "We are all Georgians!" he declared emotionally when the war there began.

What makes the crisis in Georgia so complex is that this isn't a simple issue of "good guys" versus the "bad guys."

Both the Russians and their South Ossetian allies are clearly the bad-est of the bad guys. But the Georgians, who are now victimized by the Russians, provoked the crisis by moving troops into South Ossetia to reclaim a separatist region that had declared its independence.

Russia, which contains the semi-autonomous, related state of North Ossetia, responded with overwhelming force, crushing the Georgians. It continues to occupy part of Georgian territory.

I wonder whether either President Bush or the truculent Sen. McCain even knew where South Ossetia was located before the crisis began. And if they did, they probably failed to appreciate the Ossetians' desire for independence from Georgia to join North Ossetia as a unified state.

Bush squandered America's moral authority by invading and occupying Iraq, which weakens his ability to react to the Russian aggression in Georgia. Moreover, he is stoking Russia's traditional paranoia by insisting on an expansion of NATO, which would have included Georgia, and planning to install an anti-missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic.

McCain may boast about his national security credentials, but he has displayed a hot-headed approach to foreign affairs. Only a decade ago, he was calling for an aerial attack on North Korea's nuclear facilities. He is probably now in favor of doing the same in Iran.

Bush has planted the seeds for a renewal of the cold war with Russia. McCain appears ready to "harvest the crop" if he is elected as Bush's successor.

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Friday, August 08, 2008

MEMOIR: Remembering my high school days

My grandson has just entered high school, which reminds me that it was exactly 70 years ago this year that I entered high school. For four years, I attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, which probably had more students than any high school in the country. (The school was named after New York's first governor.)

The school, which was then nearly a half-century old, had about 12,000 students--all boys. It was so big that separate morning and afternoon sessions were required to accommodate the student body.

The school also had an annex, several miles away from the main campus, which I attended during the first half of my freshman year. The annex was then closed and and later became the initial site of a new specialized school, the Bronx High School of Science.

Clinton's main campus was located in a tranquil neighborhood close to the Westchester County line, far removed from the city's crowded streets. Virtually all the students had to take the subway to get there.

I attended Clinton largely because most of my friends and male relatives went there. We received an excellent education, but we never had the kind of active school social life enjoyed by students at a co-ed school.

Clinton always boasted top-notch football, basketball, and track teams. Strangely, however, it didn't have a baseball team. Baseball was my favorite sport, and if the school had had a team, I would have tried out for it. I did, however, try out for a spot on the track team as a sprinter.

I didn't make it, largely because I had the misfortune of having to compete against twin African-American brothers named Calendar, who were such spectacular performers that 10 years later they were members of the U.S. Olympic track team. (One of them eventually became a municipal judge.)

Although I failed to achieve success as an athlete, I was essentially content with my high school experience. I recall that many of my teachers were superior to many of my college professors. But hanging over me and my classmates was the strain of the Depression. My father was frequently unemployed, and economics played an important role in my life during my teen-age years.

Considering Clinton's size, it is not surprising that the school produced countless men who became internationally prominent in their respective fields. The celebrities ranged from movie star Burt Lancaster to fashion mogul Ralph Lauren.

I can still recall the special assembly that was held for incoming freshmen. The main speaker was the head of the school's alumni association. He was Richard Rodgers, the famed composer of classic Broadway musicals.

Rodgers may have been an inspiration for the school's theatrical tradition. When I entered the school, Paddy Cheyefsky, who graduated a year or two before me, was writing the school shows. After he graduated, Neil Simon, who graduated a year or two after me, succeeded Cheyefsky as Clinton's primary student playwright.

Clinton's student body was predominantly Jewish. I would estimate that about 20% of the students were African-American. Clinton, which had an excellent academic image, was known to be the high school of choice for boys in Harlem who aspired to attend college.

Two of the most prominent members of my 1942 graduating class were African-American, the author James Baldwin and Basil Paterson, who became New York's secretary of state and is the father of the state's current governor, David Paterson.

Sugar Ray Robinson, the famous world champion boxer, was also a student while I was in the school. As the lightweight Golden Gloves champion, he was already a celebrity. I can still recall seeing Robinson pridefully wearing a jacket bearing crossed boxing gloves on the back. This was the emblem of the Salem-Crescent Athletic Club, a noted Harlem boxing club, many of whose members were Clinton students.

I believe that the lure of a lucrative professional boxing career probably induced Robinson to quit school before graduating. I seem to remember reading an interview published in the school newspaper, however, in which he claimed that his ambition was to become a doctor.

As an aspiring journalist, I applied to become a writer for the school paper. The paper was a hallowed institution at Clinton. A venerated English teacher (I remember only his first name, Raphael) was the paper's faculty adviser.

Applicants for the paper's staff were required to attend lengthy journalism classes that he conducted after regular school hours. I was either too lazy or busy to attend, and I never did become active on the paper. My record of extra-curricular activities in high school was therefore quite thin. I can recall being a member only of the History Honor Society and the Library Squad.

I pray that when my grandson graduates from high school, he will not face what clouded the future of those of us who graduated in January 1942, a month after Pearl Harbor. The following year most of us were in military service.


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