Wednesday, August 13, 2008


It's approaching 4:30 a.m., and I've just spent the last hour and a half doing something I thought I'd never do: Watching a foreign film, with captions. It's only a little stranger that the language of this film was not French, not Italian, but Farsi--the language of Iran, one of the famed "Axis of Evil" nations.
Let me say right now that I am sincerely afraid of Iran, although perhaps not quite as afraid as I am of the remnants of the Bush Administration. But this film, "Children of Heaven," is about school children, a pre-teen brother and sister who live in a slum with their parents. More specifically, it is about the difficulties that ensue when young Ali, the owner of a single pair of sneakers, manages to lose the shoes of his sister Zahra, who also has only one set of footgear.
Afraid to tell their parents, the brother and sister are driven to attending school in shifts, each in turn wearing Ali's sneakers. Meanwhile, Ali wracks his brain, trying to think of a way to replace Zahra's shoes. The answer that presents itself is interesting--but will it work?
A charming film; and a peek into the low-income side of a culture we know all too little about. (As we do of most cultures, even our own.)
I have already discovered I like late night movie watching, and I plan to do more of it. I believe it is important for us all to experience as much of life as possible--most of all the good parts. Past midnight is not really a time to experience the good aspects of life, though.
So, I say, live vicariously when the safer aspects of life are turned off. Join the library and pick up your DVDs there. Rent them through Netflix (c) or Blockbuster(c). Swap them with friends.
Above all, avoid what is playing at the mall. At least until it has had time enough to become interesting. Try something new.
Let late night be your time for vicarious living, for adventure in movieland. A good night's sleep no doubt would be better; but if sleep doesn't come it's always good to have an alternate plan.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Doing Good By Internet: Free Rice

The usual news from the Internet is of identity theft, porn, training for would-be terrorists, and the like. Reminds me that one of the inventors of the television foresaw a future in which all the cultural richness of the entire world would be available to everyone through his invention. It was a thrilling vision. But when the man saw what use actually was made of the television, he kept his own set turned off.
The Internet is in many ways even worse. BUT, it also can be a marvelous resource for those who want to get an education, expand their understanding of the world, and even do some good.
What's more, there are a number of sites that make it possible to do good without spending a cent.
Of these, one of my favorites is I've already made a number of converts to this site, a challenging game that helps feed the hungry around the world. I understand from the National Public Radio story from which I learned about it, that Free Rice was designed to help students improve their vocabulary and at the same time help the UN World Food Program. Each time a player gets a word correct, 20 grains of rice is donated to this program by site advertisers. You can read all about how Free Rice is set up by visiting the site--learn how it is run, how y0u can choose options for playing, and so on.
Be warned! The words in this game are not for the faint of heart! But try it if you feel up for a challenge and want to help others by enriching your own life. Because a great vocabulary is always a good thing to have.
With luck, you too will become a Free Rice addict.

Friday, August 8, 2008


Yes, you never know WHAT I'll feel like commenting on in these letters! Frankly, I think about history a lot, becauuse it so often seems as if it is going to eat us.
One of the things that makes it so dangerous is that it is so often twisted. Somebody decides that the facts are not bad enough; let's decorate them. And the result is that people, looking at the decorated version, are even more outraged than the actual facts warrant.
Take the Crusades, for example. These are those Medieval wars in which the West moved against the Moslems who had moved into the Middle East. Among other things, the Moslems had taken over what still is sometimes called the Holy Land, including modern-day Israel and Jordan.
Following the events of September 11, 2001, Westerners have been sold the idea that the Crusades were demonstrations of Western Christian arrogance, brutality, and bloodyhirstiness.
But is that really the case? Let's take a look.
A good place to explore the question is in the books of such historians as Christopher Dawson. These cannot easily be found, these days; but good places to look for them are on such sites as a libris and abe books. Some of them are very inexpensive; others will set the buyer back a substantial amount. They tell a far different story than that which is taken for the truth these days.
And what is that story?
Life in Europe during the period of the Crusades was brutal. Starvation was a constant threat, due to limitations of agricultural technology. There were plagues and epidemics. The century before the Crusades, the 10th, must have been one of the worst, not only in European history, but in all of human history.
That was only the natural setting, so to speak. The peoples of Europe also faced military threats from all sides. To the north there were the fierce, marauding Scandinavian peoples, usually called the Vikings. To the east, there were the Mongols and other roving tribes, with a clear roadway across the steppes into the heart of the European continent.
And to the south, since B.C.E. 632, the Moslems had been advancing on the continent by way of North Africa and the Straits of Gibraltar. They had been stopped at the Battle of Tours/Chalons in 732; but they remained ensconced in the Iberian Peninsula and the South of France.
Furthermore, the threat they represented increased when they took over the Holy Land. It is easy to forget that Europe is within walking distance of this historic piece of geography. Aside from the theological affront of having Jesus's homeland in the hands of Mohammed's followers, it must have seemed an increase in the Moslem threat to Europeans.
Under these circumstances, did Pope Urban II's preaching of the First Crusade represent Western arrogance and bloodthirstiness? Or a bid for European survival? Or both, or neither?

Thursday, August 7, 2008


A few weeks ago I went to the closing of a Catholic church on the south side of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. It was a church I had gone to for several years; but so long ago that only two of the people in attendance were known to me. They were old, as I have become myself. (Being inside myself, and feeling relatively good, I don't generally think of myself as old. I have to have the shock of beholding my contemporaries decked in the frost of impending mortality to grasp my own situation.)
If time was running out for us that morning , time had come to a stop for St. Joseph's Catholic Church. I sat in the soft gold light of the sanctuary, among the weeping people and their carefree, or sometimes puzzled, children and grandchildren. Over the years I have become fairly adept at suppressing my own feelings--certainly never letting them come to tears if I could help it. But I nearly lost it when one of the bells overhead tolled just once, a soft baritone "boom" in its own memory. (The economy being what it is, it is hard to imagine any other future for this church's magnificent bells than a future as scrap metal.)
St. Joseph's was built 95 years ago, during a time when the Church Universal was markedly NOT the Church Universal--as, indeed, it still is not. The early 20th century was, however, a time when the Catholics of Central Europe, and their offspring in Bethlehem and other immigrant communities, emphatically did NOT want to worship together.
So, many ethnic Catholic churches were built. Magnificent Romanesque-style St. Joseph's was designed to serve Bethlehem's Slovenian Catholic population. (The Slovenians were once disparagingly called the Windish; but not any more. The breakup of the former Yugoslavia resulted in Slovenia's gaining its national independence, which no doubt has helped its people gain greater respect among their neighbors everywhere.)
The Slovenian Catholic church here was not the only one to close July 13. Parishioners also bade farewell to St. John Capistrano (Hungarian), St. Stanislaus (Polish), and Our Lady of Pompeii (Holy Rosary). The former Ss. Cyril and Methodius, which had been Slovak, became the Church of Our Lord's Holy Incarnation.
The bitterness engendered by the church closings is not likely to go away soon, alas. Someday we may see the Church Universal among us; but not yet.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


Before I took my first trip to Israel--the one that resulted in my upcoming book "Jerusalem Journal"--I read everything I could find on the history and background of the area. That necessarily involved study of the Nazi Holocaust. It would be impossible to understand Israeli Jews without some knowledge of the great historical tragedy which had befallen the Jewish people just a few decades earlier.

It was in Nora Levin's fine book "The Holocaust" that I first came upon the name of Gisi Fleischmann of Slovakia--attached to fragments of a tale of extradordinary heroism that was entirely new to me.I recognized at once that Gisi had been a person of great historical importance--the only woman who had taken the lead in Jewish resistance to Nazism in an entire nation. As I continued to lay plans for my trip, I also searched for a book about her. I soon learned, to my perplexity, that there didn't seem to be any. At least, not in English.

The closest thing was her friend Y.O. Neumann's "Gisi Fleischmann: The Story Of a Heroic Woman." Dr. Neumann did this small work for WIZO, the Women"s International Zionist Organization, a group in which Gisi long played a leading role.But his book revealed little about Gisi Fleischmann the human being, which was what most interested me.

Later I decided that, if there were going to be a book about Gisi, I would have to write it. Dr. Neumann encouraged my work in every possible way, and we conducted a long correspondence. Later I met him at his home in Beer Tuvia, and he presented me with a copy of "Im Schatten des Todes," his German-language memoir of his Holocaust experiences.

(More memorable than that: Upon my arrival the old gentleman gave me a gift of tangerines he had picked from the tree in his own yard. That was one of the finest gifts I have ever received.)

At least a year and a half elapsed between the time I discovered Gisi's name in Professor Levin's book and my decision to write "In The Lion's Mouth: Gisi Fleischmann and the Jewish Fight For Survival"--which may be one of the clumsiest titles in the history of books; but never mind. There it is.

I was deeply aware that, once I began, I would be involved in a moral obligation that would make this a very difficult work to walk away from. Therefore, I had to be certain my resolve was up to the task. Over what have sometimes seemed endless years of testing of that resolve, I have had frequent cause to be glad I was sure of myself before I started.

Did I succeed in the task I set myself? No--and yes. I have at last made it possible for at least a few more people to come to know Gisi's story; and, through the magic of Print-On-Demand publishing, many more can learn it in the future. That is something, though it is nothing like the huge audience I still feel the story deserves.

I had hoped to be able to produce a full-length portrait of Gisi, this ordinary-extraordinary heroic figure. But, with the resources available to me, all I have been able to do is a sketch, fading tantalizingly into the background. Perhaps so much had been lost by the time I began that it was already too late for a full portrait.

But I feel the sketch was worth doing. In an era short of heroic figures and full of gross selfishness, Gisi is more than ever worth remembering. She, who understood that unless the community survives, nothing survives, can still serve as a rallying point for those few today who share that understanding.