The Right Questions After the March of the Living

Written for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles:

I’m standing with my back against a brick wall at Auschwitz. Monise Neumann points to an area just beyond her and tells a story.

When Freddy Diament arrived at the forced labor camp, she says, he was stripped of his material possessions. That was, of course, what happened when Jews arrived at the Auschwitz camps. But Freddy managed to keep hold of one invaluable possession: his little brother.

Hitler’s henchmen made a practice of public executions. When Freddy’s brother tried to escape, he met a cruel fate. “Freddy was forced to look, helplessly, as his young brother was hanged,” Neumann says, looking to her left and pointing. “Right over there.”

Each year, the March of the Living brings thousands of Jewish high school students to visit Auschwitz and other sites in Poland, and on to Israel for Yom HaAtzmaut. Freddy — a long-time Angeleno — accompanied the trip for many years. Since his death in 2004, Neumann, head of the L.A. delegation, has perpetuated his memory by telling his stories to each year’s group.

Today, the countryside to which that child tried to escape is lush and verdant. The stark contrast it presents between what now is and what once was cripples our capacity to grasp the Nazi atrocity. We visit Shoah sites to witness and understand, but connection and comprehension are difficult to achieve.

When we visit Chelmno — where Nazis herded Jews into gas vans — white butterflies dance with eerie ubiquity. Along the road to Treblinka — where they exterminated 900,000 — the riverbanks overflow with life. Near Lublin — where city-dwellers had a clear view of Majdanek — the only shadows are from the branches, and the only echoes come from the birds.

At each site, we strive to be witnesses. But when we can’t hear the screams of mothers or see the smoke rising above crematoria, what is there, really, to witness? As the sun spills out from each layer of twiggy woodland, aesthetic beauty sedates our heavy hearts.

Still, raw emotional reaction is not entirely out of reach. It is when the grieving ceases to be for the “Six Million” and shifts toward the individual — when the gargantuan becomes the particular, and the past resurfaces in the palms of our own hands — that the bloodstains on that picturesque countryside come into focus.

For me, that shift happens at Majdanek. The savage concentration camp’s several dozen barracks are still intact and house historical exhibits. Standing in those barracks, I can smell the Jews.

The aroma is of something expired, moldy, vomitous. The sweat and bile of the Jews seeped into the wood, and crawled between the cracks and onto the beams, and perched themselves in the air inside the barracks. They have since stayed there, and I can smell them.

I can smell the final “Shema Yisraels,” the final gemilut chasadim, the last conversations and desperate tefilot in that air. It seems that those in the barracks recognized that, tomorrow, they would trudge down the pebble road and into the chamber. So their stenches and memories and auras decided never to leave. It all still levitates above the floorboards, and reminds me that the wood underneath my feet is blotted with the terror and tradition of individuals.

An awareness that the Shoah was the murder of a series of people, not just an unfathomably large group, powers my empathy: I find a tiny blue button in the soil of what was once a storage barrack; it occurs to me that my autistic younger brother would have fallen victim to Hitler’s euthanasia program; a survivor accompanying us on the trip breaks our silent visit to a mass grave, bursting out, “Why? Why?!”

I leave Poland with an overwhelming sense of bafflement. I, like that survivor, want to ask “why?” But the lessons of the Shoah lie not within the crimes of the monsters who commissioned the Sonderkommando; they lie within the thoughts and choices of those who now visit and remember.

Days later in Israel, gazing out the bus window in Jerusalem, I notice a stone wall emblazoned with graffiti, Hebrew letters that read: “Az?” — in English, “So?” The graffiti poses a more important question than “why?”: Now what? Judaism has invariably survived calamity. What comes next?

During our visit to Birkenau a week earlier, the universe had answered that eternal question. The L.A. delegation had been seated on the grass as the sun began to set and the infamous brick entrance cast a shadow on the train tracks.

Among the countless groups present was a delegation of nearly 200 officers of Mishteret Yisrael — the Israeli national police force.

As we knelt on the grass, just when the air became frosty, I heard: “Smol, yamin, smol.” In English: “Left, right, left.” I craned my neck to spot the entire Mishteret Yisrael delegation, in full uniform, marching along the tracks leading out of Birkenau.

Through my psyche flashed the painful notion that, had their organization (or the nation it protects) existed just 70 years earlier, history might have unfolded very differently.

That was Mishteret Yisrael’s answer to “Az?”: to create a potent symbol of Jewish life within the most harrowing valley of Jewish death.

If we are to plant our seed in what once was, the next step, in its glaring simplicity, is to practice vigorous Judaism. It is to not allow the Jews murdered in Majdanek to become merely odor; to say the Shema, to wear a tallit, to pray, and argue, and engage about Israel because there is a Jewish state. The next step is not only to march from the camps in memory of Freddy Diament’s brother, but also to emulate his holy defiance, and bring it to life.

Wet and Quickly Drying – An Explanation of the Year’s Changes, A Proposal for Next Steps

As featured on the Huffington Post:

The life we know hasn’t changed much since December 27 of 2010. Murky smog still poisons the air I breathe in Los Angeles. A snapshot of the New York skyline taken today will match that taken last year. The streets of Vegas remain depraved and Capitol Hill remains democratic. This year, in this country, things have changed; but they have done so incrementally.

If the previous paragraph leaves you unconvinced, I ask that you put on a lens not of objectivity, but of relativity. Our country has changed only marginally. In Libya, a year’s change is far from marginal – it’s palpable: its cities look physically different than they did a year ago and its society has pushed through an iron grip – and feels more free. People who live in Egypt can feel the change just as forcefully: new rules govern individuals – but even those rules are actively shifting and evolving. The Tunisians and the Yemenis drove away their longtime presidents. The Syrians Bahrainis were unsuccessful in ousting their leaders, but brought to the forefront issues of rights for women and for Shia – issues that had been buried. Beyond the Western World, change is immense.

This was the year of shattered norms; of shifting variables; of fractured precedents. This was the year in which we – Americans – watched as they – million of others – decided to swiftly and continually forget everything they had been taught. This was the year the world collapsed into itself.

TIME magazine columnist Joel Stein dubbed 2011 “The Year of the Meltdown,” asserting that we’ve had no choice but to “idly watch things completely fall apart.” Indeed, we’ve borne witness to changes that have seemed unnatural and arbitrary: massive readjustments of economic structures, sociological organizations, and individual and communal systems of thought. They have appeared often to be precipitated by anomalies, like a merchant who set himself ablaze, a reporter kidnapped, or an Egyptian woman beaten unjustifiably. The shifts we’ve seen this year make us question the basis on which they have happened; they have seemed somewhat random and erratic. Why now? Why these changes? Why these people?

But the language of change is a universal one. From all angles, in all perspectives, there is an explanation for this year of global collapse and far-reaching transformation.

Those who speak the language of faith – who seek answers to the unanswerable through mechanisms of religion and belief – need look no further than the Book of Job, in which the author elucidates that idea of random destruction and seemingly groundless change in the first chapter. “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return,” explains the book’s narrator. Cycles are a critical component of a pious life – and with them comes the faithful acknowledgement that, even ostensibly randomly, “the Lord gives and the Lord (takes) away.”

For many, an explanation that is based in religious doctrine equates to no explanation at all. Those who speak the language of science or “reason” – who understand the world as a series of systems and rules – will identify with a pervasive biological concept. In wildlife, a cataclysmic event causes destruction of biotic factors in a given area, leaving only a bare substrate. In layman’s terms, it literally wipes away all of the life somewhere and leaves a blank slate. Nature, too, works in cycles. The earth gives and takes. Change is built into the natural world.

A third, more simple and demonstrable explanation comes from my great-grandmother, who, by my father’s account, was a content woman. She repeated and repeated one particular adage. “If you don’t like the weather,”she would say, “just wait a minute.”

Change, we understand, just happens. It is destructive by nature; it has to be, in order to make way for something new or better. But what – I pose to the faithful, the academic, and the elderly – happens next?

When the Lord takes away, the Lord gives again; when a cataclysm leaves a bare substrate, pioneer species begin to settle and grow; when clouds finish raining, they make way for the sun.

Norms can be constructive; precedents are neutral. A process that been tested does, indeed, have a place in this world. There are good politicians just as there are helpful and useful laws. But right now, we have a few fleeting, precarious, and promising moments in which our era is nothing more than wet, quickly-drying concrete.

Let us usher out the year that crushed the world’s conventions; let us welcome the year in which we rebuild them. Let this be the year in which we – American observers of the sweeping changes – embrace our responsibility within our country, to ensure that we can do the work of reinvigorating outside of our country.

We, too, are at a crossroads: let this be the year in which we elect leaders who are interested not in gridlock, but in governing; interested not in exercising vicious imperialism, but in lending a voice to the Shia of Bahrain, the women of Yemen, and still-silent people across the ocean.

Let us elect leaders who will fund programs that send American volunteers to rebuild Tripoli; who will send diplomatic workers to negotiate for the rights whose absence brought on the Arab Spring; who will create domestic dialogue programs so that young Americans of varying faiths learn to understand one another.

The moment is volatile and we are still free. After this year of meltdown, let this be the one of responsibility.

‘Remember Now Your Creator’ – The Challenging Dichotomy of Faith and Reason

Last night, at my school’s back-to-school-night for parents, I delivered my “senior sermon.” Each senior at Milken writes and delivers a sermon at some point during his or her final year at the school. Here is mine, on the challenge of balancing faith and reason at a religiously affiliated high school:

Last week, I took the SAT in Portland, Oregon. My family was visiting relatives for Rosh Hashana, and the test happened to be that weekend. So that Sunday I went to the only place in Portland that offers the SAT to people who are shomer Shabbat: a school for Seventh Day Adventists.

The test happened to be in a science classroom. In one corner I noticed a diorama of a DNA strand. In another was a stack of copies of the periodic table. And then I looked at the bulletin board: Several pictures of wildlife. A few snapshots of plants. And there, in middle of the board, in the middle of the science classroom: a painting of Jesus himself, and four words: “REMEMBER NOW YOUR CREATOR.”

Remember your creator? There I was, in a high school science classroom, about to take the world’s preeminent test of logic and reason. And all I could focus on was: remember your creator.

And through four hours of really difficult questions, I couldn’t get this one out of my mind: what’s Jesus doing on the wall of a science classroom? But the truth is, really, that question isn’t so different from the ones that Milken students grapple with every day. One moment we’re sitting, talking about Martin Buber and Rabbi Akiba in Jewish Thought class, and the next moment we’re in Physics, studying Newton’s First Law of Motion.

On this very campus, every day, we live with this challenging dichotomy: are reason and religion mutually exclusive? And what does one have to do with the other? Is that quotation on the walls of the science classroom in Portland that different from a mezuzah on the doorway of our chemistry lab, or even my orthodontist’s office? I’ve found three distinct answers from three distinct sources. One from the Jewish tradition, one from the era in which we live, and one from Cedars Sinai.

First, an answer from the Talmud. There’s a famous story: The rabbis were trying to decide if a particular oven was ritually pure (a debate I’m sure goes on in all of your households). All the rabbis agreed that the oven wasn’t pure – all except for one rabbi – Rabbi Eliezer. He was positive that his view was correct. Rabbi Eliezer kept offering proof by bringing about various supernatural phenomena. Still, the other rabbis weren’t convinced. Finally, a voice from the heavens resounded through the chamber and said: “Rabbi Eliezer is correct.” But the majority was outraged. Another rabbi looked up from where the voice was coming from and shouted: “It’s not for heaven to decide!” And the voice of God answered back: “My sons have defeated me.” Meaning that the rabbis were right: Just as we have faith in God, God has faith in us – to use the intellect God gave us.

Rabbi David Wolpe, in his most recent book Why Faith Matters, puts it eloquently. He writes that “faith honors those who discover truth. For people of faith to turn their back on truth, whatever its source, is a reaction of fear, not an assertion of faith.” In other words: True faith sees the hand of God in the capacity for human discovery.

But that doesn’t mean that we rely only on our own intellect. Our belief in an almighty God, a God who created the universe, a God who spoke and the world appeared – a belief in that God grounds us. A belief, or even an acknowledgement of a force beyond forces – beyond the human intellect, beyond MD’s, beyond even iPads – is a blanket of humility over our pervasive human arrogance. And that acknowledgment alone carries with it another humbling truth: we are limited.

But often we can forget that humility. And that’s where I found my second answer. Almost exactly a month ago, we marked the tenth anniversary of a calamity executed by people who were convinced they were doing God’s work. Fundamentalists are people who have profound faith that’s unchecked by reason. Religion that’s deprived of the voice of modernity, that’s stuck in antiquity, breeds arrogance. It breeds the people who demand that you must agree theologically, that you must see eye to eye – And it’s not just in other religions; we sometimes see it in Judaism, too – a stringency that defies reason. As someone who reads and writes about the news, I hear almost daily about the damage wrought – whether in Israel or here in California – by those who use faith as a rationale to carry out a radicalized approach. Our faith needs to be accompanied by reason and progress – which leads me to the third – and perhaps most powerful – place where I saw faith and reason interact.

A few years ago, a family friend was diagnosed with Leukemia. Some of you may have known Joel Shickman. He was a rabbinical student at the American Jewish University. And his situation would have justified complaining, crying, even grieving. But instead, Joel built a holy community.

We’d gather in his hospital room, a group of adults and a few kids, and put our arms around each other. And to the rhythm of Joel’s guitar, we’d sing. We’d sing the Beatles, and American Pie, and whatever anyone wanted to hear. We’d chant the prayer for healing and create harmonies that I’m pretty sure touched God’s own angels. And as I pounded on the drums and prayed and prayed, I watched the IV-tubes pump through Joel, the nurses coming in and out of the room, the heart monitor beeping – each one keeping Joel alive.

And when Joel left his wife and his three young sons, and met God at heaven’s gates, he also left what so many of us strive to build: a community uplifted by his faith, enlightened by God’s presence, blessed by the miracles of science, and humbled by its very real limitations. When science couldn’t keep Joel’s body alive, his faith, and God’s own presence in the hospital room kept his neshama alive, and raised ours.

On Wednesday night, we’ll begin the sukkot holiday – a period that implores us to reflect on life’s fragility. And during sukkot, we’ll read the Book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, a book about the fleeting nature of life. And in that book, we’ll read this verse in hebrew: U’zechor et borecha. In English: “remember your creator.” The same verse from the wall of the science classroom in Portland.  And when we’re sitting in synagogue, or under the fragile canopy of the sukkah, that very verse should remind us of the potential of our intellects, of the greatness of the divine, and of our imperative to live our lives aware of and challenged by both.

Thank you.

Scattered Thoughts on a Scattered Day – September 11, In Memoriam


My dad, a journalist, had left for his daily jog in the wee hours of the morning. As he finished running and stood, stretching, on the sidewalk outside our one-story house, Stu, a neighbor, shouted out to him.

“You missed a big news story!”

My dad, tired from his run and hardly in the mood to talk, wiped the sweat from his brow and he gave Stu a courteous wave. He meandered inside to turn on the television.

When JFK was killed, my grandfather was in the basement of the business his family owned. When FDR died, my grandmother was at a ballet, and a man at the theater had stopped the show to make the announcement to the crowd. When Saddam Hussein began launching scud missiles into Israel during the Gulf War, my mom was in a bomb-shelter in Jerusalem. I woke up on 9/11 when I heard the television turn on in the den, and I watched.

Few remember where they were the night before. Few forget where they were that morning.


I wrote a lot in anticipation of the 10th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001. I wrote more than four pages over the past three days, just sort of verbally meandering, jotting down whatever I could think of. I wrote about fear, about a different kind of darkness, and about waning faith. I thought about posting some of the transcripts of “last calls” made from the planes.

When I woke up this morning, though, I changed my mind.

We can be bogged down by fear. We can lose our faith. We can be enveloped by darkness – and that’s fine.

But we can also extol what the towers stood for, even in their vanished shadow; we can believe in the tenacity of the American spirit, even in its instability; we can celebrate life, especially in the wake of death.

I decided to research a few of their lives. The following are the profiles of four 9/11 victims.


Antonio Javier Alvarez immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the late 90s. He met his wife, Filiberta, while working at a garment factory in Queens. They worked together to collect pieces of cloth and repackage them, and were eventually married and had a son.

Antonio believed in working hard for the American dream. His wife described him as “very serious, but always in a happy mood.” When he lost his job at the factory, a friend helped him find work as a grill chef at the Windows on the World restaurant.

On September 11, he went to work at 6:30 am – earlier than usual – to cater a special event. He loved playing soccer, pickup basketball, and his young son. Antonio was 23.

Judy Larocque founded a market research firm in Framingham, Massachusetts called Market Perspectives. She was said to have had two children, in addition to her two daughters: her company and her golden retriever, Naboo.

In the months that preceded the attacks, Judy had been revisiting her youthful side; she began doing yoga – something she had loved in her adolescence – and walked a sixty-mile fundraiser for breast cancer.

On September 11, 2001, Judy’s daughter Carie drove to the Farmingham office to tell her the employees that her mothers’ plane, American Flight 11, had crashed into the World Trade Center. Judy was 50.

Tommy Gardner grew up in New York City. He worked in the FDNY’s Engine Co. 59 for twelve years. Five years before the attacks on Manhattan, he joined a specialized Haz-mat squad in the FDNY, specializing in toxic operation under extreme conditions.

He loved hockey, and – according to his friends – was hilarious. Before joining the fire department, he briefly worked at NBC where he wrote jokes for Phyllis Diler, Henny Youngman, and Joan Rivers, among others.

On September 11th, his unit (whose station had a clear view of the World Trade Center) was dispatched to deal with the fuel leakage into the South Tower. All eighteen people in his unit died. Tommy was 39.

Helen Crossin-Kittle knew her future husband as a kid. While she had always liked him, he never picked up on those feelings until she asked him out on a date.

Her husband notes that he was “just dumb” and would still be single if she hadn’t made the first move. They were married on April, 7, 2001, and went on their honeymoon in St. Lucia shorty afterward.

Helen specialized in computers and was working on the 103rd floor of the North Tower on September 11, 2001. She was five months pregnant, and had gone in for amniocentesis nine days earlier and expected the test results the next Monday. Helen was 34.


There were –

343 firefighters and paramedics killed,

23 NYPD officers killed,

37 Port Authority officers killed,

1,402 employees who were killed in the North Tower,

614 employees who were killed in the South Tower,

289 bodies found intact,

and 1,717 families who received no remains.


Two days after 9/11, my dad brought me to a flag and banner shop on a main street in West Los Angeles. The store was on our route to my elementary school, so until then, we had driven past the store at least twice every day. Neither of us had never been inside, nor had we even seen anyone going into the store or, leaving it.

He parked his minivan and we started walking toward the store. But it wasn’t like the other days that we had driven past. Flowing out of the store and snaking around the block were a crowd of probably thirty or forty people; they all wanted a flag.

It is the most advantageous of ironies. The brightest light, the most palpable warmth, comes out of cavernous darkness.

When our fixations abate, when the world goes dark, we are forced to move our eyes – to look up, at each other. When the world goes dark, the blur of perpetual commotion around us and inside us suddenly stops. Out of silence, out of standing still, comes a lens of ephemeral clarity.

Let our response after 9/11 influence us now. When night falls before the sun sets – when tragedy strikes, or when we’re blanketed by premature darkness – human nature compels us to realize our commonalities.

Let us relinquish competition and hostility; let us embrace each other.

Leaving God at the Door – Why Michele Bachmann Needs to Reaffirm Kennedy’s Promise

As featured on the Huffington Post:

With Elai Shine

First, she said it was a joke. Now, she’s saying it was a metaphor. One thing is clear: Michele Bachmann thinks that hurricanes happen because of welfare.

Last week, shortly after a strong earthquake shook the East Coast and Hurricane Irene left millions without power, Michele Bachmann spoke at a campaign rally. “I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians,” she said. “We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’…(He) know(s) government is on a morbid obesity diet and we’ve got to rein in the spending.”

Those of us who were born during the Clinton years. We’ve never known a political landscape not shaped by religious influence and the impact of political guidelines brought on by the “Moral Majority.” In fact, for as long as we can remember, Church has often been mistaken for State (or vice-versa).

Two presidents, most notably, have had to pass a religion test during the campaigns that preceded their elections (albeit for disparate reasons): John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama.

Before 1960, no Catholic had ever ascended to the country’s highest office. Accordingly, Kennedy was subjected to a nationwide loyalty oath of sorts. At rally after rally, press conference after press conference, reporters would ask him the same questions: Would his religion influence or impair his political judgement as president?

In Obama’s case, the questions were a bit different – and fueled more by steadfast intolerance than legitimate uncertainty. Was he a Muslim? Or was he a Christian? If he was a Muslim, did his presence in an Indonesian Madrassa during his early youth affect his current views on the American dream? And if he was a Christian, had he been indoctrinated by an “anti-American” preacher? The questions were sharp and pervasive.

Kennedy had to prove that he was the right flavor of Christian. (“Whatever issue may come before me as president,” he said in 1960, “I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”) Obama had to prove that he was Christian period. (“I’m a Christian by choice,” he’s said during his term in office.) Both had to prove that their faith in the country outweighed any other faiths they may have held. Both were held to a standard that defied and ignored any preordained ideas of an acceptable relationship between religion and policy in presidential duties. As a consequence, both gave into media pressures and testified publicly and unequivocally that their faith in God was an indication of that alone.

Michele Bachmann’s faith in God is an indication of her political mindset. She made clear last week that she thinks two episodes that have put FEMA on high alert are the Almighty’s mechanisms of conveying his disappointment with the current administration’s policies.

Had Kennedy ever stood before a rally and made a radical religious statement – or one that openly turned a blind eye to the religious impartiality that is meant to accompany a Commander in Chief – his campaign would have been over in a matter of hours. And still today (and into the next several months) if Barack Obama dares to use a term, or even makes use of “suspicious” body language, media outlets and demagogues on both sides of the political spectrum will call his actions into doubt, cast aspersions upon his allegiances, and openly question his fitness to lead.

Michelle Bachmann – in the company of other right-wing presidential contenders like Gov. Rick Perry of Texas – has created an illusion: Some of the necessary drawbacks of government, she presumes, can be solved by the infusion of religion. That principle enraptures and exhilarates her ever-growing base. Almost 80 percent of the country is Christian. Bachmann suggests that such a populace can unite under the banner of Christianity.

But Bachmann’s logic is flawed. No denomination of Christianity can boast more than 30 percent of the American population. Baptists approach around 26 percent and Catholics 23 percent. These denominations certainly don’t agree on everything, and typically clash on key issues – particularly those of social significance. While those who support her delight when she implies that there should be a divine hand in life on Pennsylvania Avenue, Christianity itself shouldn’t be a political force.

Often, the unique will and prerogative of the individual mixes with what should be populist civics. No politician comes to power without some preconceived notions or personal biases. People act in their self interest and seek to advance the causes that resonate with them. That’s just how the world works.

For that reason, it isn’t problematic that politicians have religious beliefs; it is the fervor with which those on the Right allow those beliefs to sway their political judgement that is troublesome.

Bachmann isn’t the first ambitious politician who has crossed the line in invoking religion. Our last President – a man of true faith – also exploited and abused publicly his relationship with the divine. “I am driven with a mission from God,” George W. Bush said in 2003, “God would tell me, ‘George, go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.’ And I did.”

Candidate after candidate on the Right – Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin (they keep emerging) – claim that President Obama defies the Founding Fathers’ intentions by offering a solution for people who don’t have access to affordable health insurance. These candidates, who continually call on God and religion to justify their opinion on public policy, forget Thomas Jefferson’s guidelines – which have been upheld time and again by the Supreme Court – “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions…thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” 

This same group of candidates and candidates-to-be are the driving force of several fabricated notions of conflict: war between Islam and the rest of the world; war between China and the American Dream; war between Obama and “family values.” What Michele Bachmann and her ilk fail to realize in the heat of hyperbole is that they are instigating another war altogether: the war between Church and State – and it is turning the main-stage of American politics into a circus.

Modern politics is shaped by a rapidly decreasing degree of religious impartiality. Forget  “joke” or “metaphor.” If John F. Kennedy had to prove that his religion would not conflict with his civic duty in 1960, Michele Bachmann has even more obligation to do so in our current political landscape.

Our contemporaries are the movers of the next generation. We will be voting for the first time in November 2012. We need each of the current crop of candidates to echo what President Kennedy told a cluster of cameras in 1960:

“Whatever issue may come before me as president…I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”

When the Mountain Mumbles – The Other Harry Truman and Why He Matters Now

My grandpa likes to tell a story about a man who lived on a mountain.

The man’s name was Harry Randall Truman (no relation to the former president) and the mountain was Mt. St. Helens in southern Washington. Truman, an octogenarian, loved the mountain and the lake that surrounded it like a father loves his particularly large son. He owned and adored the Mt. St. Helens Lodge, a small inn next to Spirit Lake.

When the mountain began rumbling with volcanic activity in the weeks leading up to May of 1980, scientists and government officials began warning residents of the area to evacuate. Truman, however, headstrong and certain in his beliefs, would hear none of that. He would scold the government and ramble against what he was sure were its no-good conspiracies. “This area is heavily timbered, Spirit Lake is in between me and the mountain, and the mountain is a mile away,” he would say. “The mountain ain’t gonna hurt me.”

Harry Randall Truman, of course, died in a rage of fiery magma.

So I wonder on days like this: what are some New Yorkers thinking?

Today, the President of the United States – a man who has access to more intelligence, more scientific surveillance, more general information, and more of a motivation to save American lives than anyone else in the world – left his vacation, walked in front of dozens of rolling television cameras and said plainly, “I cannot stress this highly enough:  If you are in the projected path of this hurricane, you have to take precautions now.  Don’t wait. Don’t delay…To sum up, all indications point to this being a historic hurricane.”

FEMA, the United States’ Federal Emergency Management Agency – the office whose job it is to tell people when to get out of a place – has issued emergency warnings up and down the east coast.


Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, declared a state of emergency. Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s mayor, has also issued evacuations in several counties. With those evacuations, the state and local agencies working under the above two officials have scheduled a “system-wide shutdown” of buses, Access-A-Ride, subways, Long Island Rail Road, and Metro-North Railroad.

The mountain ain’t gonna hurt me?

Of course, in spite of all this, said one Rockaway Beach resident, speaking the minds of many others, “Sometimes the people who make the calls just want to save their asses.”

That may be the case. But there are days for idealism and political intrepidity. There are days to stand up and bellow condemnations of the government. There are days for Republicans, and those who believe as such, to stand up and claim that “ larger intervention means less practicality.” And there are also days when you need to get out of the way of a vicious hurricane.

Harry Randall Truman put it worst when he told a reporter that “I don’t have any idea whether it will blow…but I don’t believe it to the point that I’m going to pack up.”

It will, New York, and you should.

The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts – Why Memorial Day is Personal, Even When it’s Not

I’ve never fought in a war and I probably never will. I’m not brave enough. I could write about tragedy (and I often do), and perhaps my words would be resonant – but to me, they’d ring hollow, because I really don’t know what tragedy is. I’ve never seen it firsthand and I’ve never felt it coursing through my veins, nor out of them.

There are days when I wake up and just can’t get out of bed. My alarm clock goes off and I hit the ‘snooze’ button. It goes off again and I hit ‘snooze’ again. On those days, I wish someone would drop me in the middle of a US Army base in Afghanistan.

Unless I wake up every morning, hold an M-16 in the palms of my hands, and stare into the eyes of a desolate desert, how am I expected to feel anything – sadness, honor, hubris, anger, any sort of emotional entrenchment? How does one pay homage to something that he cannot begin to understand? On days like today, I push myself to feel a sense of tangible pride; but instead, I feel it vicariously.

Aristotle theorized that in metaphysics, and in all expressions of life and humanity, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. One book is more influential than three hundred individual pages. One army is more powerful than three-thousand warriors. On this Memorial Day, so too is one nation greater than three-hundred million people.

On days like this – days when it is difficult for me to become passionately attached to individual stories or grasp the sheer courage of American fighters of generations past – I find solace in the notion that the frailty of the human condition will always be eclipsed by the might of the American resolve.

Have you ever been overwhelmed by the suspicion that you are part of something greater than yourself? That is what I do see firsthand – what courses though my veins – in place of any void I feel in the area of personal sadness on Memorial Day.

May the blessing of their memories shine as the stars and stripes wave.