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The American journey continues: Reflections on Obama

 
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Change was the mantra of this election and change is what is bringing Barack Obama to the White House. America’s capacity for change is different from the kind that exists in other countries, where change connotes a complete rupture from the past. Change in America is a continuing American revolution, rooted in the principles of the founders, a search for a more perfect union. Those two ideas — the need for change, but a search for something better rather than complete revolution — found expression in Obama’s elegant words on election night, in which he reminded us that the dream of the founders is very much alive in our time.

Sen. John McCain’s extremely gracious concession speech, reflecting his decency and patriotism, also represented change without rupture. Both candidates made it clear that it was a day of celebration, because on this day America redeemed itself from its tortured history of racism.

This election has special meaning for me, because my cousin, Julius Genachowski, is an old friend and long-time adviser of Obama and very active in the successful campaign. Julius and Obama attended Harvard Law School together in the early 1990s and both served on the Law Review. They attended each other’s weddings (with Obama participating in the Jewish dances at Julius’ wedding) and have remained close to this day. Julius went to yeshiva through high school and studied in yeshiva in Israel before going to Columbia and then Harvard, where he met Obama. Later, Julius clerked for Supreme Court Justice David Souter. Obama and Julius bonded, in part, because they were both outsiders — one a former yeshiva boy and son of immigrants, the other an African- American with international roots.

Julius tells me that Obama has always been able to relate to the Jewish experience because of his own background as well as the African-American experience of slavery and discrimination. Julius knows that part of Obama’s agenda is to heal the breach between Jews and blacks and to restore the close ties that existed during the civil rights movement.

Obama affirmed those ties at the AIPAC Policy Conference in June: “In the great social movements in our country’s history, Jewish and African-Americans have stood shoulder to shoulder. They took buses down south together. They marched together. They bled together. And Jewish Americans like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were willing to die alongside a black man — James Chaney — on behalf of freedom and equality. Their legacy is our inheritance.”

And Julius surely enjoyed these words: “I have been proud to be part of a strong, bipartisan consensus that has stood by Israel in the face of all threats. That is a commitment that both John McCain and I share, because support for Israel in this country goes beyond party…. Those who threaten Israel threaten us…. And I will bring to the White House an unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security.”

Over the last eight years the American brand has been eroded and its prestige in the world diminished as we have become a go-alone nation, now with an economy in crisis. If America is weakened, Israel is weakened. When people asked me whom to vote for, I would respond, “Vote for the person you think is best for America. He is the person who is best for Israel.”

What we need is a president who is more cerebral and less intuitive; who responds with his head and not his gut; who is more empirical and less ideological. Obama has demonstrated these qualities again and again.

To those who say — and did so vociferously during the campaign — that Obama is too young and inexperienced to accomplish these goals, that he makes great speeches, but that words are not enough, I would counter, don’t hold Obama’s age and oratory against him. There have been only four presidents elected in their 40s: Teddy Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and now Obama. But each brought intellect and vigor to the art of governance and went on to be extremely successful presidents.

Each was a gifted speaker as well. Abraham Lincoln proved that words can save a nation during wartime; FDR re-taught that lesson during a subsequent time of crisis. Don’t underestimate the power of words in the hands of a talented leader. Words can inspire, set forth a vision, and lead the nation to fulfill its potential.

Obama’s life story positions him perfectly to restore America’s place in the world and to reaffirm old alliances. The multiracial blood that courses in his veins; his experiences as the child of a single mother and as a child who saw his father just once in his life; his moving around the country and to Indonesia enable him relate to a world no longer dominated by Pax Americana and is certain to help him rebuild America’s standing in the community of nations — as noted, an important element in safeguarding Israel’s security and existence.

How Barack Obama manages change — in both domestic and foreign affairs — will be a major element of how well he succeeds as president. He is untested, for sure, and is young as presidents go, but Obama has the capacity to manage change in the interests of enhancing human freedom and opportunity; in restoring to America its genuine spirit; in making both the United States and Israel more secure in a dangerous world; and in rebuilding the ties that once joined Jews and African- Americans in the struggle against inequality.

The poet Archibald MacLeish observed, “The American journey has not ended. America is never accomplished. America is always still to build.” So we wake up to a new America, an America that “is always still to build.” Barack Obama has the capacity to build something very good. Let us wish him well and pray for his success.

Rabbi Menachem Genack
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Goodbye, New York Times

Dear New York Times,

It’s over between us.

For 30 years, I’ve been in love with you, NYT.

I met you soon after I moved here from Chicago. Never before had I read such thoughtful, compellingly written journalism, with dispatches from all over the globe that mirrored my politics and my interests. You opened my eyes, New York Times. Back in Chicago, the papers covered only local news, but you showed me there was a larger world out there, filled with enchanting possibilities.

It was love at first sight. From that very first time, I turned to your editorials and op-ed pages to shape my opinions. I wouldn’t see a movie or a play until I read your reviews. I chose books based on your recommendations. I tore out your recipes and saved them in a special notebook. It was a thrill when my illustrations appeared in your hallowed Sunday Magazine. The papers that described 9/11 and the election of our first black President are preserved lovingly in my basement.

 

 

Greetings, nods, and the art of saying “pajamas”

Walking through the streets of Teaneck this past Shabbos, I started thinking about a “good Shabbos” game my brothers and I used to play each week as we made our way across town.”

“P’jms.”

My 11-year-old brother snickers once the man — who had barely looked up from the sidewalk as he passed but still managed to mutter something resembling “gdshbs” under his breath — is well behind us.

A second opportunity arises. Two women, power-walking, speed past us on the left. They’re absorbed in conversation, but one nods and the other throws a quick “Good Shabbos” over her shoulder. “P’jms,” my brother mumbles. Quickly. It has to be said quickly for both full effect and so as not to be discovered. The women continue on, oblivious to this wordplay.

A minute passes. An approaching teenager with hands in his pockets eyes us from afar and abruptly crosses to the other side of the street. My brother scowls, a pajama-moment taken away from him.

 

 

Superhero spring

The second quarter of 2014 has been rather remarkable for superhero movies, with three different films, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” in the theaters all at the same time at one point.

All three movies are adaptations of Marvel Comics, the publishing group launched by Stan Lee (aka Stanley Lieber) in 1961, and purchased by Disney in 2009. Stan Lee was the son of Jewish immigrants from Romania, and as a teenager took a job in 1939 with Timely Publications, the company that he eventually would evolve into Marvel Comics.

 

 

RECENTLYADDED

‘The heart that feels not now is dead’

“It is the good fortune of many to live distant from the scene of sorrow; the evil is not sufficiently brought to their doors to make them feel the precariousness” of those living under conditions of war.

This observation aptly describes the experience of Jews who have been watching increasingly tragic events unfold in Israel from the privileged safety of our American diaspora. These words were penned, however, by Thomas Paine — American author, political theorist, and philosopher — in his celebrated 1776 pamphlet, “Common Sense.” The precarious conditions he described were, specifically, the privations and predations endured by colonists in my native Massachusetts, besieged and subjugated with particular brutality by the British army. Paine wrote in order to arouse sympathy and solidarity among colonists at a distance from the conflict — those, say, in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina. His admonition in “The American Crisis” resounds with wisdom for Jews ostensibly far from “the scene of sorrow” during Operation Protective Edge: “It matters not where you live, or what rank of life you hold, the evil or the blessing will reach you all. The far and the near, the home counties and the back, the rich and the poor, will suffer or rejoice alike. The heart that feels not now is dead.”

 

 

Love thy neighbor

Isn’t it hopeless?

Here we go again, with Hamas attacking Israel from Gaza for the third time, just weeks after the kidnapping and tragic death of three Israeli youngsters and the horrendous act of burning a Palestinian boy alive by our own.

Who can bear it? And how will it ever end? Isn’t it hopeless?

There is a popular chasidic-style song with some significant words for times like these: “We are believers the children of believers….” Well, though it strains belief, in the midst of all this terror and bad blood between Israelis and Palestinians, there was a peace initiative that actually went viral.

 

 

From the narrow places

As a teenager I was a competitive faster — and summer was my season.

As a camper and then as a staffer at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire, I shone in my ability to fast for two long, hot summer days, separated by only three weeks — and the second of those fasts even started at sundown the night before.

Don’t jump to any conclusions. There was no eating disorder involved. If anorexia and bulimia were known at the time, they must have been banned in Boston. It is simply a Jewish ritual that, maximally observed, got you out of swimming for three weeks, without having to plead menstruation, and garnered praise from the more Orthodox among the faculty.

 

 
 
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