The End of Truth Be Told?


It was during a split second of unfeigned awareness – over a medium-sized cup of lychee berry frozen yogurt that I was sharing with my mom – that I decided to start writing. We’d been talking politics when a knowing smile lit her face. “If you really feel that strongly about these things, why don’t you blog about them?”

I launched a website temporarily called “Legislative Wordplay” a few days after BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig began threading its way through the Gulf of Mexico, just before it left a blanket of crude oil on the doorstep of the Gulf Coast; seven months before a deep, rich red seeped into the bluest congress in recent memory; an era bereft of Arab Spring mentalities or Todd Akin abortion gaffes.

And now, here I sit, zipping up my final bags, nearly able to smell the greasy air of the university dining hall. I scroll up and down these web pages. I sift through a chronology of my last two and a half years. This is what I spent my time doing in high school. This is who I was – who I am.

On the whole, I count myself lucky. I am among those who get to do what they love to do. Indeed, the algorithms of geometry and precalculus may have been lost on me, but in their place I threaded the delicate strands of hobby until they evolved into a robust and finely-tuned passion.

This, I think, is where I grew.

I grew between the clicks of a spacebar eroded by time, within the rhythmic cacophony of just-too-ripe metaphors that spilled out onto Word documents. I learned in my craving to discover why some pieces were met with universal approval, while others encountered a discomfited audience brimming with chagrin. And, accordingly, I stretched my intellectual limbs in a struggle to walk the compelling line between sensitivity and contentiousness.

I remember the first truly negative response I received to a piece I had written. My piece had lamented what I had deemed the “suppressed” voice of youth. It was, in retrospect, a hasty and inflammatory few paragraphs that achieved little beyond airing my own frustrations – perhaps with a teacher, perhaps with a parent; I don’t remember. I do remember the commenter’s response: inherently negative and viciously critical. I felt shaken and became defensive by impulse.

I feel blessed and grateful for the limitless words of praise and encouragement that came both before and after such comments. But the fundamental lesson I’ve learned from maintaining this website spills out from precisely those dissenting responses. It boils down to that painful and entirely energizing question of what it means to react, and think, and live critically. Criticism is – like the feeling that overwhelms you after stretching your hamstring just before a long run – the best kind of burning sensation.

I have derived a constructive and straightforward lesson from the time I spent composing pieces for this blog. It is a similar lesson to that which I have taken from the circuitous nature of the Israelis and the Palestinians; from the heretical wit of Christopher Hitchens; from a Congress who swiftly and imprudently approved a war that has since been burned (violently) into the collective American psyche. That lesson is two-fold.

First: Criticism isn’t defined wholly by disapproval or condemnation. It is also part of the powerful and invaluable process of attaining clarity.

And second: When we are forced – either by our own innate compulsions or external influences – to clarify our intent, or spell out the means by which we attain our ends, or defend our bland or disputable viewpoints, we are accordingly forced to become aware. We become our own advocates when we are keenly challenged and engaged. And if it’s as easy as that, then why not challenge ourselves?

This article isn’t characteristic of this blog. Just as this website was never (I should hope) a diary to spew vitriol, it was also rarely a medium to unload my own arbitrary anecdotes. But as a perceptive friend of mine reminded me last week, “at the end, we always think about the beginning.”

Tonight I had the chance to video-chat with my grandparents who live a thousand miles away from me. We were talking about my experiences at camp this summer, and about what the next few weeks (the start of college) may hold in store. And the question arose: what comes next for Truth Be Told Politics?

The answer is a peculiar one: I don’t know. There exists, in this thrilling and hurried passage, a wealth of unknown. Will I be writing about politics? Or will another fascination catch my attention? Will I even be writing on this blog? Writing is my criticism; and criticism yields clarity. And God knows that we need clarity.

Whether I’ll keep writing here is uncertain. You have left me with much to think about. So I, in turn, will leave you with this: For clicking on your TBT bookmark even when there was little of interest in the news; for reading through those pieces of mine that seemed rant-esque; for allocating precious moments during your busiest days to compose a comment or e-mail me a response; for sharing my writing with your own friends and relatives; one hundred and thirty-five posts later, I cannot thank you enough.

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.

A da Vinci, Then a Pollock – Reflections and a College Essay


This academic year, my classmates and I applied to and heard back from colleges. Over the past decade or so, the application process has become, in many respects, messy and circuitous. It asks more of us than some are willing to give; it can foster undesired animosity between the closest of friends; it breeds a brand of subjective, decisive judgment that can cripple even the most robust of egos.

The year is a masterpiece emotional paradox: we pour into it the acute precision of a da Vinci, and we leave it, clutching fragments of a canvas whose deliberate randomness closely resembles a Jackson Pollock piece. But in all its chaos, the process makes way for profound reflection and true personal growth. The year is an important one.

Below is the five hundred and fifty-three word piece that I wrote as my ‘personal statement’ for the Common Application. I hope you’ll find it meaningful. I wrote the bulk of it when I sat down for three focused hours in a West Los Angeles café.

It’s 106 degrees and I’m wearing a suit, strolling down an asphalt street in Phoenix. I’ve done this before: Every autumn my mother, a rabbi, leads a different congregation for the High Holy Days. We go where she goes, and – just as we do every Saturday – we walk to synagogue. In Redlands, California, we strode past the few remaining orange groves. In Portland, Oregon, we trekked into verdant hills. At home, we walked amid the dim glow of the city’s billboards and in the shadows of its highest skyscrapers.

When I was young, I would protest: Why did we always have to walk? The response was always the same: We’re observant Jews. In time, my complaining ebbed. Walking became my routine, and as we walked, we shared stories, songs, and thoughts.

My memories of some walks faded in with the years; but more than a few remain snapshots in time: the Saturday morning I stopped on the sidewalk to listen to Hillary Clinton’s concession speech blaring from a TV inside somebody’s apartment; the day we bumped into a friend who told us her fiancé had been struck by a car hours earlier. Somehow, everything was different on foot. When I watched on TV, or picked up the phone, I was a passerby. But when I walked, the moment gripped me. I saw what I couldn’t from a car: dandelions growing out of cracks in the cement, or the faces of the homeless hidden away under storefront canopies.

With each walk came a new question: why had it taken Hillary so long to give up? What must it have been like to be one of the Chilean miners trapped underground? The answers were less important; the process – the journey, the walk itself – made the questions fascinating, and transformed them into intellectual pursuits.

Then my questions changed. I asked myself whether I was really an observant Jew and the foundations of my faith began to tremble. Into adolescence, my religiosity waned. I stood among the remains of a crematorium at Auschwitz. I grappled with the writings of theologians like Martin Buber. And I moved from a sound and consistent religious connection to transient depths of non-belief, and back again. My once petty complaints became theological challenges. But my family walked, so I kept walking.

One Monday a classmate stopped me to ask why I had been so late to an event the previous Saturday. I explained that I’d had to cover the four miles from home on foot.

“Wouldn’t it be easier,” she asked, “to just get into a car?”

I began to ask myself: Wouldn’t it? Of course. But should convenience – or my doubts – eclipse all that I’ve derived from my walks? The walks fueled my curiosity. The paths they took me down didn’t lead only to temple; they also led to introspection and growth.

Because I walked, I click on my New York Times bookmark before I click on Facebook. Because I walked, I know what the House Minority Whip does. I’ve pondered the dire straits of the Chilean miners, I know the lyrics to American Pie, and I’ve wondered how cacti survive in 106 degrees. Because I walked, I know what my great grandparents were like. Because I walked, I’m able to wonder and grapple with why I walk at all.

The Politics of Being a Camp Counselor – Why There’s No Such Thing as a One-Sided Deal


For the past nine weeks, I haven’t posted on Truth Be Told because I’ve been working as a counselor at a prominent Jewish sleep away camp in Southern California.

In the coming days, I will dive into what I’ve missed – Washington’s über-political debt machinations and the rampant corruption that plagues the business world. But before I comment on those, I’d like to offer a simple (and what, to me, is a meaningful) reflection on a universally applicable lesson I derived from being an educator in a place that has given me the ultimate education.

This summer, I spent my days leading services, clearing tables, planning overnight trips, teaching songs – the works. I was constantly engaged and always busy with campers in a plethora of different settings. But one afternoon stands out in my memory.

On this particular afternoon, I trudged up a hilly knoll and found myself in the bunk area, where the younger campers live. The day was rolling at its normative brisk pace – everything moved and nothing stood still. Ecstatic pairs of feet paced back and forth, from lawn to lawn, as frisbees flew and the leaves of a thick oak tree cast an ephemeral shadow on the grass.

“Ami!” The comfortable commotion briefly stopped. I looked up – past the trees, past the frisbees – at another counselor’s sweaty, exasperated face. “Ami,” – he was almost panting – “What do I do?” He launched into an exhaustive tirade about a twelve year old named Michael who hadn’t showered in days.

Michael just didn’t want to take a shower. That was it; he simply wasn’t into it. Being wet made him uncomfortable. Water wasn’t his thing.

Michael’s pathological aversion to showering made the bunk’s slated “shower time” a difficult hour for his counselors. On this day in particular, Michael had decided to up the ante; he would not shower, no matter the cost.

When the counselor rushed me into his bunk, the scene was a strange one.

Michael had thrown himself onto the slimy tile floor of the bathroom and, like an iron pretzel, had artfully attached his arms and legs to a pipe that held up the sink. His body wound itself over the floor in a way that only a twelve year old’s can. Tears streamed down his face as he begged, glued to the sink, for some solace. He had remained there – a staunchly seated pretzel – for about an hour.

It often seems that the walls of our lives are plastered with notions of stubbornness. In our internal lexicons, “headstrong” is synonymous with “angering,” “irrational,” or “unreasonable.” Time and again, we see the intentions of those with whom we disagree as groundless and unfounded. We perceive the manifestation of their frustrations as a personal effrontery upon ourselves.

Michael’s unbending will was no different. We – those who strove to help him – were blinded by the irritations he projected onto us.

We were all frustrated. Why wouldn’t this kid just move? Why did he have to be so difficult all the time? I scanned the scene again: a group of tall, mature young adults standing above a terrified and uncomfortable child, boldly and loudly insisting that he do something that made him cringe. The problem was evident; there had to be another way. Hesitantly, I situated myself on the slippery floor, latched myself onto the sink, and looked at Michael.

“I don’t like taking showers, either. They don’t feel good on my body.”

Michael looked up at me.

“You know what does feel good, though?”

“What?”

“Being clean. Doesn’t that feel good?”

Michael couldn’t help but agree. I told him that I was going to wash my face and that he could join me. Slowly, Michael stood up. We lathered up our hands in warm water and gently doused our faces in soap.

“Didn’t that feel good?”

“Yep.”

“Being clean is cool, huh?”

“Yeah, it is.”

Then we made a deal: to be able to feel clean – but to not feel too uncomfortable – Michael would take a brief hundred and twenty-second shower. Miraculously, he agreed.

I realize, now, that I have been trying to quash others’ stubbornness for years. We all have. We look for ways to out-Machiavelli those who irk us – in school, in work, and in our most significant relationships. People spend decades studying and researching ways to master human interaction (the kind that are laced with inflexibility) and come out “on top.” In the end, though, it doesn’t take a doctoral degree to grasp the key to understanding another’s intentions.

What does he think he needs right now? Is she feeling some sort of external pressure that has led her here? Just as people don’t ball up on the floor of a dirty bathroom without reason, so too don’t people decide to vote against a bill, sell stock, or cast a vote groundlessly. Dealing in politics is often no different from dealing with a small child’s pathological fears. After we have clarified our own beliefs and expectations, to make any sort of deal or come to any relevant consensus, we have to be on their level, see through their eyes, and establish a solution suitable and sensitive to their needs and desires – no matter how silly or outlandish.

For years, I’ve been taking glimpses into the political world – a place of unwavering inflexibility and an abiding accusatory nature. I’ve taken glimpses into the finance and commerce world – a place of duplicitous intentions and ever competing calculations.

But this summer, I finally got it: their tactics are impotent, as long as you start at their level. And all it took was a glimpse into the world of a very clean twelve-year-old named Michael.

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.

The Stars and the Stripes


I’d like to share a speech that I gave today at my school’s 9/11 memorial assembly. It is an introduction to the National Anthem.

_________________________________________________________________

When I woke up on September 10th, 2001, there were a lot of things that I could do that a second grader in North Korea, Iran, Venezuela couldn’t do. I could get angry at my teacher for making me do math. I could write a letter to my president and tell him what I thought he’d done wrong that day. I could find two different prices for a new pair of shoes, and buy the cheaper ones.

Freedom is what differentiates this society from much of the world. It is a quality that captures the essence of what it is to be an American, a concept that’s summed up by two basic symbols that are also uniquely ours: the stars and stripes.

Without the stars and the stripes, it wouldn’t be Obama and McCain, Democrat and Republican. There would be no voting. There would be no question. There would be no choice.

Without the stars and the stripes, there would be no Fox News, just as there would be no MSNBC.

Without the stars and the stripes, there would have been no Woodstock.

Without the stars and the stripes, the Black Eyed Peas couldn’t say that “A war’s goin’ on but the reason’s undercover.”

Without the stars and the stripes I couldn’t stand up here and say, in a strong, confident, hopeful voice, “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad (Hear O Israel, the Lord, our God, the Lord is one).

It’s the stars and the stripes — and the moral compass that they embody – that keep us grounded, that keep us who we are, and allow us to invent and reinvent, modify, and interpret the world.

And when evil flew two planes into the real-life representation of all that America stood for, when our two pillars of faith and optimism crumbled into a heartbroken mountain of ash, it was those gleaming white stars and those scarlet red stripes that gave proof through the night that our flag was still there. That America was still there. That our values had not collapsed with the towers. That our freedom was sill there

When I woke up on September 12th, 2001, I could still do all of those things.

Our determination is unbreakable. Our freedom will always outshine catastrophe. The stars and stripes are eternal, and that Star Spangled Banner will never cease to wave.

Provoked Thoughts


The following are two poems that I wrote, sitting on the side of the main road between the barracks of the Majdanek death camp outside of Lublin, Poland. The first I wrote staring up at a long road, and the second I wrote sitting directly adjacent to the first location, in a rolling green meadow:

Pebbles - Majdanek

In a quiet wooden corridor                                                                                                 Deriving from nature’s discomfort and unease                                                                               I walk at a brisk pace                                                                                                                   And look straight ahead, never down.                                                                                       And keep my eyes on the prize: the end of the hall.                                                                       And look ahead at my goal.                                                                                                               Beneath my feet are eleven million tiny pebbles.                                                                           Each pebble is unique. Each has its own relationship to the other stones. But none stand   out. I never look down.                                                                                                                       And each pebble, under the iron-esq weight of my blue, modern shoe, makes its own           screeching noise.                                                                                                                                 And each individual pebble is stuck in its place. Each unique pebble will only move at         the will of something less trivial, something with influence.                                                       And each tiny pebble is stepped on– by my foot.                                                                           Each pebble suffers.                                                                                                                             Each pebble waits.                                                                                                                               Each pebble remains.                                                                                                                           Each pebble is the whipping boy of Me, the person who has a goal, and is determined to     meet it.                                                                                                                                                   And while each pebble is in my way, I don’t move it out of the way of step around it.           I walk over it, hearing the cries of each pebble, creating and destroying, but I never look   down and I never think “down.”                                                                                                       I am only trying to get there.                                                                                                             I will meet my goal, I will walk on.                                                                                                 Ignoring the petrified ground on which I trudge, I persevere.                                                     I don’t care.                                                                                                                                           I don’t care.                                                                                                                                           I don’t care.

And life goes on.                                                                                                                                   For me.

A Coat of Green- Majdanek

Death                                                                                                                                            Comes from small, dark rooms and                                                                                            Then it get’s planted in the ground                                                                                        Where its carbon-filled expired-ness                                                                                              Nurtures verdant potential and becomes                                                                                        The absolute leading factor in the production of                                                                    Life.