Sunday, January 27, 2008

Freckles Was His Name, or Velcro and the Jewish Question

(Our regularly scheduled post about Tu B’Sh’vat is being temporarily postponed in order that we might bring you this special edition on a timely topic. We are sorry for this inconvenience.)

Freckles was his name,
He always used to get the blame,
For every broken window pane,
It was a shame……..
Composed c. 1920 by Milton Agar and others

As there are no more than a handful of people, one or two of them receiving this post, who would understand this reference to my childhood, I will begin by bringing the rest of you “up to speed.”
For the “Ziegfield Follies of 1919,” Irving Berlin was asked to write several songs to be added to the show, which he did. One of them, “You’d Be Surprised,” was performed in the first act by the young Eddie Cantor, who subsequently recorded this song. In those days, songs – music and lyrics – were written by professional song writers and the sheet music peddled around to anyone who would perform it. If the original version of a song did well, other performers would sing it on a vaudeville stage or record it also. “You’d Be Surprised” was, like many Berlin songs, a very big hit, and it was “covered” by Billy Murray, the most popular recording star in the period from 1900-1920, the Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, or Elvis Presley of his day. It was this version, with “Freckles” on side B, recorded in 1919 or 1920, which my parents had. Originally we would play this and several other 78’s which my parents had managed to preserve – these acoustic 78’s were very, very fragile – on an old wind-up victrola (powered by a hand crank) and then later on a more modern three-speed turntable. Our friends loved to listen, the music being so different from what they would be hearing anywhere else, at a time when people were buying thirteen inch black and white television sets.
“Freckles” was everyone’s favorite. This extremely obscure song painted a picture – in three minutes – of a rural America and a childhood very different from what we knew in The Bronx: “And though he was his mother’s pride and joy, He was worse than Peck’s Bad Boy; At the swimming place, you’d always see his grinning face, And down by the old church picnic, He’d win every race.” But for our young hero, there was a definite downside: “And when a dog had tin cans tied to its tail, It was never known to fail; Everybody said ‘Freckles,’ He always got the blame.”
Velcro. You may recall that certain Presidents were called “Teflon” by their opponents, the implication being, that they were never held to account for things that ostensibly went wrong during their administration. “Velcro” is just the opposite: you get blamed for everything!
It is my contention that the Jewish people are a Velcro nation. Everything sticks to us: we’re always blamed for things, in the middle of things, involved in what would not seem to be our business. You may know the old story about the international scientific conference on elephants. Many papers were presented: a French scientist spoke about the love life of elephants; a German scientist spoke about the social patterns of elephants; an American scientist spoke about elephant conservation, and so on and on. As the conference was winding down, in raced Sammy. “I’m sorry I’m late,” he said breathlessly. “But I just found out about the conference. I just finished writing a paper I want to present.” The conference chairman asked him what his paper was about. Said Sammy, “Elephants and the Jewish question.”
It was not that long ago that the Turkish government absolutely needed to know what was the position of the Israeli government and the Anti-Defamation League on whether or not Turkey was responsible for massacring Armenians during World War I. The future of Turkey’s trade relations with Israel would depend on what Ehud Olmert or Abe Foxman would say. All of a sudden, everyone cares what the Jews think. Unless I’m mistaken, nobody went off and conducted a poll of the NYC Council, or went off interviewing legislators in Virginia or Florida, or the government of Thailand. I can imagine the response in the great state of Texas if Turkey threatened to withhold its dried fruit unless the state disavowed any knowledge of Armenians. There would probably be a run on t-shirts saying something like “I don’t give a fig.”
More problematic by a mile is the business with Gaza. As everyone knows, the Israeli government expelled about 8,000 Jewish people living peacefully and legally there, and turned over the administration to the “Palestinian Authority” with an all-too-predictable result: mayhem and a government of terror. The only positive thing that one might think would have come out of this debacle was, at least, whatever happened, we in Israel wouldn‘t be responsible for it and for the Arabs living there. WRONG!!! It seems that, according to many, we are still responsible for Gaza, no matter who runs the government there, and we will always be responsible – until the end of days. No matter how many kassam rockets fall on the hapless residents of Sderot, we apparently have a moral obligation to continue supplying the fuel and electricity that are used to make these rockets. Even the Supreme Court here has gotten into the act, kibitzing the civil authorities responsible for safeguarding the lives of Israeli civilians: can you, can’t you, how much, how often, blah, blah, blah.
When I began this article, the entrance into Gaza from Egypt was also the subject of a blockade – which was usually ignored by the world media – so that there was a very interesting asymmetry: if Arabs from Gaza could not enter Egypt for needed medical attention or because they were accepted into universities in The West, it was Israel’s fault. When the Israeli government produced videoed evidence of collusion to allow terrorists to enter Gaza from Egypt, that country’s government got defensive and huffy; the American State Department refused to allow members of Congress to see the films because it would damage U.S.-Egyptian relations. Again, it was Israel’s fault for noticing.
Now that Hamas has destroyed the wall separating Egypt from Gaza – I guess the Egyptian Intelligence didn’t hear the banging sounds all these months – people around the world seem intent on painting the Egyptians as the good guys and the Israelis as the bad guys. Here in The Land, there is the interminable second guessing of why the P.R. here is so poor. Personally, I haven’t read any of these articles because I have my own more comprehensive answer: “They” just don’t like “Us,” which is perfectly understandable, given that “They” just don’t like “each other.”
When I say that They don’t like Us, I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t tens or hundreds of millions of wonderful gentiles out there with whom we get along quite well, or that the talents and creative gifts of Jewish men and women aren’t widely appreciated. It’s when we go from the individual to the collective that we run into trouble: As nations, the gentiles of the world, busy massacring each other all these millennia, do not like or respect the Jewish People. In order to make my point, let’s get back in our time machine and advance about twenty years from the Ziegfield Follies of 1919. While the winds of war and a Holocaust were beginning to sweep Europe, Americans were listening to their radios (an industry pioneered by Jews), laughing at the Jack Benny and Fred Allen shows, listening to (a now older) Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice (Baby Snooks), and Gertrude Berg (Molly Goldberg), and dancing to the music of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. The songs that were on “the charts” and in the movies (an industry that was developed in the States almost entirely by the initiative of uneducated Jewish immigrants) were written by the ever-popular Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, and lesser lights …like Milton Agar. In a few years, at the urging of Albert Einstein, the Manhattan Project was underway, and J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller were developing the weapon that would end World War II. So you might have thought that Americans might have had room in their hearts and in their vast, open plains for our equally talented cousins across The Pond who were being threatened with annihilation. But you know how that story ended.
I know that many Jews back in The States are involved in “hasbara” campaigns, writing letters, sending each other e-mails of recent articles by our defenders, lobbying elected officials, all in behalf of our beleaguered little nation. And that’s all well and good. What puzzles me is the accompanying tone of indignation and surprise at the prevailing world-wide anti-Semitism, the anti-Israel bias. You see, I look at things from a different point of view. Personally, I don’t get angry because it gets hot in the summer and cold in the winter; that’s the way things are. If you live by the banks of the Passaic or Mississippi River, don’t be surprised if one day there are five feet of water in your basement playroom; if you live at the base of a volcano, don’t be indignant if on a different day a stream of molten rock is about to engulf your rose bushes.
As Jacob Cohen/Jack Roy/Rodney Dangerfield was wont to say, “We don’t get no respect,” and we, the Jewish People/Nation of Israel haven’t had any for two thousand years since the destruction of the Second Temple (if you don’t believe me, you can look it up.) From that moment on, we were the fall guys: we killed “Their Savior;” we caused the bubonic plagues in Europe; we murdered their children and used their blood to bake matzohs. To the Communists, we were capitalists, to the Nazis, we were Communists; either way, we were responsible for the world’s economic woes. Now we have taken the land away from “The Palestinians,” a nation created in 1973 by Yasser Arafat, may his name remain a curse.
You want some respect? We will get it once we are collectively back in Our Land, when we show a little class, a little attitude (Perhaps then we will all be wearing t-shirts with a Hebrew version of “I don’t give a fig.”), and when we do a better job of being “A Light Unto the Nations.”
So what was my response to the threat of further U.N. condemnations of Israel, this time over Gaza? On Thursday, I took my two large, funky plaid shopping bags, put them in my backpack, and headed off by bus to the Mahane Yehuda shuk (which will be featured more prominently in future posts), where I filled the bags with fruit, vegetables, meat, chicken, challah, cake, wine, and finally, a bottle of John Jameson Irish whiskey. When the bags were filled to capacity, to the point that I could barely carry them, I returned home – slightly delayed, along with hundreds of others, while the police exploded a “chefets chashud” (a suspicious package. Much of Friday was spent preparing huge quantities of food for Shabbat, as we were having company. Shabbat morning, I trudged over to my beit knesset, Mussar Avicha, where we recited the traditional prayers, for rain to fall in OUR country, for the well-being of OUR state and OUR soldiers. I joined the other cohanim in transmitting the priestly blessing to the congregation and to all Israel. Then, I went home, and we and our guests had lunch.
It is now Sunday. I am shortly expecting Harry, a friend from Teaneck to drop by. Some of his children are now living in Jerusalem, going to school at nearby Hebrew University, and considering moving to our community. While I was talking to Harry on my cell phone a while ago, I got a call from Shelley Brinn, Maale Adumim’s community liaison. She was driving around with a woman who is making aliyah this summer. Could she drop in and show this prospective MAer, our oversized cottage?
So here we are. Because it is too cold to wear any kind of a t-shirt, I am wearing Tina’s heavy “Frisch” (her high school) sweatshirt with a hood. But the message to the Rices-of-this-world, whoever is running the U.N. these days (I have lost track), Mr. Abbas, and anybody else who is not happy that we are living a little bit east of Yerushalayim, is “ I don’t give a…………” Meanwhile, should you choose to arrive in our environs, I would be happy to take my two large, funky plaid shopping bags, put them in my backpack, and head off by bus to the Mahane Yehuda shuk so that we can provide you too with Shabbat lunch.

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