Archive for January, 2009

President Barack Hussein Obama

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

I started this blog August 19 with the following sentence:

It’s 8:42 a.m, and, already, this neurotic Democrat has heartburn.

What a great distance we have come.

Still, today was not without heartburn.

We had purple tickets to see the inauguration. We stood for two hours on First Street, jammed with people in line, and only moved about twenty or so feet. An ambulance tried to make its way up the street, and then another, driving where there was no space. Eventually, when it seemed we might get trampled, we gave up.

Marcella and I walked up town, to a law office party, several hundred people watching on big screens, with a huge rooftop deck over-looking the inaugural parade route on Pennsylvania Avenue.

I’m standing now in the law office, toes thawing, huge windows over-looking the street. The parade is finally coming into view. Great V’s of police motorcycles, one after the other, flashers turning.

I’m thinking about Obama’s speech.

“Today, I say to you that the challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But I know this America: They will be met.”

We have just inaugurated a president whose speeches require colons.

“To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”

We have a president who extends his hand to those who might not trust us.

“It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.”

We have a president who alludes powerfully to 9-11, yet understands the need to identify today’s urgencies.

“At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

‘Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alamed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.’ ”

“America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words, with hope and virture, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come.”

We have a president who looks to the lessons of our history and sees, yet again, hope.

‘You Are All Shareholders in this Victory’

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

A lead-up to history.

Spent yesterday afternoon at the Speaker’s Cabinet Luncheon, at Mellon Hall. Soaring indoor columns rising maybe sixty feet to ceilings edged in ornate gold. Soft blue light projecting up along the walls. A stage with a dozen tall American flags. Everywhere, the flags.

It was a luncheon hosted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, featuring the performances by Sheryl Crow, Lyle Lovett, and New Jersey’s own, Jon Bon Jovi.

The music — Speaker Pelosi said — was the way she wanted to celebrate this awesome moment.

And it wasn’t just a concert. You could tell, because Sheryl Crow’s parents were there, and Lyle Lovett’s fiance, and Jon Bon Jovi’s wife and kids, and Pelosi’s kids and grandkids. In fact, she introduced them each by name at one point, and had them stand up, in that crowd of maybe 500. And — here’s the thing about her grandkids — they loved their moment; one or two kind of hammed it up: they were just, well … kids.

A Change’ll Do you Good Sheryl Crow sang, and then, her song inspired by the Dalai Lama: If we could only get out of our heads … out of our heads, and into our hearts.

I felt like crying. The music was right there. Working it’s way inside me.

Teach your children, best you can , she sang.

She spoke about her upbringing in Southern Missouri, where she was an elementary school teacher. “We feel like this is going to bring out the best of all of us,” she said, “to see the disenfranchised have a moment of great pride in the future, of great hope. …I, for one, feel very emotional about the next few days.”

Every day is a winding road, she sang. I get a little bit closer to feeling fine.

Between acts, Speaker Pelosi made a toast to Obama.

“I believe history is in a hurry for this young man to get a job done,” she said.

Then Lyle Lovett sang I will rise up and If I had a Boat. He was followed on stage by Bon Jovi. Like the other two singers before him, he expressed his gratitude to Pelosi for inviting him to the party.

“I really, really, really, really really figured out years ago the world should be run by women,” he said.

He sang haunting, stripped down versions of Who Says You Can’t Go Home and Living on a Prayer, guitar and electric violin stretching out forever in the hall.

Hold on, he sang. We’re half way there.

He talked about the fact that one of the things that’s always drawn fans to the band is a sense of optimism that underlies their music.

“I leave you with a song … I think you know this one.”

And then, he reached back to George Harrison.

Little darling

It’s been a long, cold lonely winter.

Little darling

It feels like years since it’s been here.

Here comes the sun ….

And, in fact, for the first time in a long time in Washington, DC, it felt like it.

Later in the day, in a different part of town, the Jewish community celebreated with a kind of pre-inauguration party at the Hilton, sponsored by National Jewish Democratic Council and several other groups. In the end, it was noted, 78 percent of the Jewish community voted for Obama.

Nobel Laureate Elie Weisel spoke. “Because we have faith in him,” he said, “we salute him.”

And then, David Axelrod, who ran Obama’s campaign, and who, in a few hours, will be senior advisor to the president, took the stage.

“I know the world is going to look at us tomorrow with great admiration and awe,” he said.

You could tell, Axelrod knew he was among friends. Listening to him you knew: it’s not really about the election anymore. It’s about what happens next.

“You are all shareholders in this victory,” he said. “You are all shareholders in this great triumph of hope.”




I Must Study War …

Monday, January 19th, 2009

At the Speaker’s Cabinet Luncheon this afternoon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quoted John Adams.

I found this version of the quote on

I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, natural history and naval architecture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, tapestry, and porcelain.

What I heard, in that quote — in her timing, using it now — was that it’s not only okay that I wake up every morning and write fiction.

That’s been the plan, all along.

The Crown and the Coal

Monday, January 19th, 2009

Last night, on my way home from Aunt Ruth’s, I stopped off for a quick visit to my friends’, Rachel and Mike, in Chevy Chase.

Something Rachel said struck me: She’s totally on board with Obama; she gets why everybody is so excited, and she is too. But something about his arrogance — the notion that, with his resume, he believes he is qualified to be the most powerful person in the world — still bugs her.

We decided that anybody who not only wants this job but thinks they can do it would have to have a certain self-confidence that veered into hubris.

It’s true that sometimes when you see Obama, he has that look. Early in the campaign, as he was edging ahead of Hillary Clinton in delegate votes, I remember reading the stories about Obama’s “cockiness.” I remember thinking: Dude, you may be winning, but a lot of Democrats love Hillary; stay low, stay level, stay respectful in the lead.

Yet one of the things I like most about Obama is also his willingness to criticize himself; his recognition that he is fallible and capable of making mistakes. It was a tonic — such a contrast to Bush, who, famously, could not think of a single mistake from his first term; who seemed to think that his decisions were righteous because they were his. It was as if God was a right-wing Republican.

Think back to Obama’s race speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. His campaign was in serious trouble, besieged by questions about why he spent decades at Trinity Church, listening to the anti-American, anti-Israel, fire and brimstone sermons of Rev. Wright.

In explaining his association, and making his comment about race in America today, Obama said something that has stuck with me:

Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy — particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

I’m reminded of the Torah portion that we read for last Shabbat — parsha Sh’mot — which tells the story of the birth of Moses, his rescue on the Nile, his upbringing in Pharaoh’s court, and his initial encounters with God. When God calls upon Moses to serve as an ambassador to the Israelites, Moses answers: “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10)

Our sages imagine a story: When Moses was an infant, sitting on Pharaoh’s lap, he reached up and took off Pharaoh’s crown. The Egyptian ruler feared this was a sign that Moses would one day try to replace him, so Pharaoh devised a test. He set before Moses a hot coal, and a crown, thinking that if baby Moses reached for the crown, he would be executed.

According to the legend: “Baby Moses was about to reach for the shiny crown when an angel redirected his hand away from it toward the coal. Burning his fingers, he put his hand in his mouth and injured his tongue, rendering him ‘slow of tongue’ ever after.”

My point is not to compare Obama to Moses.

“Perhaps,” the Midrash speculates, “the Torah is telling us that, whatever our limitations, God can use us to do great things.”

Part of the explanation, Obama was saying in his Philadelphia speech, is that I’m flawed. And I know it.

At 12:01 p.m. tomorrow, when Obama becomes our president, he’ll have to work ever harder to recognize, come to terms with, and transcend his own limitations.

If we’ve been paying any attention at all these last six months, we understand: We will, too.

Aunt Ruth’s Message for Obama

Monday, January 19th, 2009

Instead of going down to brave the crowds and see Bruce Springsteen and Bono on the Mall this afternoon, I got in my car and drove north, up Connecticut Aveune, to vist my Aunt Ruth in Silver Spring, MD.

She’s not my aunt, actually. She’s my great aunt — my father’s aunt — 98 years old, and still capable of smart, engaging conversations. She’s one of my father’s only living relatives from that generation, and all those years I lived in Washington, in my 20’s, I made it a point to get to know her.

It amazes me that she was my grandmother’s sister. My “grandmother” on that side, Lillian, died when my dad was three. But Ruth will tell me stories about Lillian, stories that make me think she really lived, once.

I pick Ruth up this afternoon at her apartment, where she lives with an aide, Virginia, who has become a friend, too, over the years. On this day, we drive out to the Olney Grille — one of Ruth’s favorite haunts. She orders Rockfish, no butter, no sauce, no nothing, and a side of fries.

I knew that she voted for Obama — this 98-year-old, four-foot-something Jewish woman with flaming orange-red hair. She was not exactly Obama’s most reliable demographic. So I ask her: Why?

“I like him because he’s black,” she says. “I like him because he’s handsome. I like him because he’s reached the top of the ladder in an adverse society.”

Also, she says: “I hated the Republican.”

Odama, Ruth says, at one point. Obada …

“Uh uh,” Virgina says. “Oh-bama.”

Virginia, a native of the Ivory Coast, offered that after the election, Ruth had confided in her — she never thought she’d live to see a black man elected president.

“America is great,” Aunt Ruth says.

Aunt Ruth, who grew up in the town of Grodno, Poland, not far from Krakow, in the shadow of what would later become Auschwitz. She lived there with her brother, Isaac, and her sisters Anne and Lillian, until she was 9. Her father imported lumber from Koenigsburg, Germany, and ran a small business.

Ruth still remembers the days in the Old Country. They were robbed. Her father and brother were incarcerated. She tells a story — I can see her struggle with the details — of the day a woman came up to her mother screaming “don’t ask questions, run, run, run.” Her mother immediately went down to a military yard, and found that her son and husband were about to be shot. She distracted the assailants; her brother managed to escape — he clambered to a nearby roof, and hid. Her husband escaped as well.

I ask Ruth: Why did they do these things to you? What was your crime?

Ruth is nearly incredulous. “Being a Jew!” she says.

She’s sitting across from me, dwarfed by the bench and table. She wears a white knitted cap, a red and blue striped shirt, and a pearl necklace with a low hanging, ornate green rose. The whole time we are in the restaurant, she never takes off her coat. On the TV at the bar behind her, the Philadelphia Eagles are mounting a furious comeback.

Her earliest memories of a U.S. president involve Calvin Coolidge, who served in the White House from 1923 to 1928. Of FDR, she says: “He was alright, until he didn’t let the Jews in.”

Make no mistake. Ruth is a tough critic. I onced asked her if she liked my short stories, which I’ve sent her over the years. She says, to be frank, that she prefers longer stories and larger print.

She can be equally tough on herself. “My thoughts about Obama are worthless, because we haven’t seen him yet in action,” she says. “It’s a new philosophy and a new day and there are a lot of new things to come.”

You’ve lived a long time, Aunt Ruth. What advice would you have for President Obama?

“Two things,” she says, without hesitating. “Help Israel. Work against anti-Semitism in this country.”

President-elect Obada, take note: You’ve got your work cut out for you if you want my Aunt Ruth’s support in 2012. Don’t take the 102-year-old red-headed Jewish women for granted.

“You’re the light of my life,” Aunt Ruth tells me, whenever she sees me.

She finishes the last french fry. Leaves one small bite of fish on her plate.

And I truly treasure her. I’d never come to Washington without seeing her. I don’t care who’s getting inaugurated.

Yarrow: ‘Light One Candle’

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

And then, at the end of Indyk’s talk (see post, below), a special guest: Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame.

He stood on a small stage, guitar resting on the NJDC podium, and, with a still-strong voice, he began to sing:

Don’t let … the light go out

It’s lasted for so many years ….

Don’t let the light go out

Let it shine through our love and our tears …

Before long, we are clapping and singing along with him.

Peter Yarrow, who sang — “with Paul and Mary,” as he put it — Blowing in the Wind and If I had a Hammer — at the March on Washington, in the summer of 1963, in front of 250,000 people on the mall, including my then 19-year-old mom; the march where Martin Luther King proclaimed: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

“Our commitment is not to victory,” Yarrow said, “but to justice.”

Peter Yarrow, who wrote “Puff the Magic Dragon.” (As if I believe that. As If the song that I sing so many nights to my four year old, Meyer, at bedtime, was actually written by anybody.)

He finished his first song.

“I have watched in abject dismay as the things that I’ve advocated for over the years have been whittled away,” he said, in front of maybe 40 or so people left in the salon. “And not just by policy. The TV shows that are premised on the idea that humiliating other people is a sport …”

“I believe if we can address that,” said Peter Yarrow, “we as Jews can do a lot to heal this nation. As long as we have not lost that light.”

I’m going to sing This Land is Your Land, he said. “When I sing This Land is Your Land, I’m singing it for the United States, but also for the world, and, incidentally, for Israel.”

And all around me …

I heard the mishpocha calling — see what I mean?

This land is made for you and me.

“Truth and justice, not victory,” said Peter Yarrow, whose music got me through countless family car trips to campgrounds in the Adirondack mountains; trips, with my two sisters in the back seat, that until the very moment mom popped in those cassette tapes, I wasn’t sure I was going to survive. “Because there’s no one here we want to defeat.”

Is it 1963? In that salon, in that moment, it’s starting to feel like it.

I think it’s very clear, he sings

That this land’s still made for you and me.

And I think about Bruce Springsteen, who sang the same song for Obama during the campaign, in Columbus, Ohio. I’d driven down for the event, and watched it, standing mesmerized on a sun-drenched field, with my brother-in-law, Jaron.

Bruce had ended the same song with:

and some are wonderin’ … if this land’s still made for you and me.

That was before the election.

And I think about how, through all the joy of that campaign, there was always a tinge of pain in it for me — the part of me that wondered if it was possible, in 2008 America — to elect a black man with the middle name Hussein as president. The part of me that, despite what I always told myself, was afraid and unsure.

Dragons live forever. But not so hatred, and fear, and prejudice.

We’re singing a different song, now.

Indyk: Jews ‘Have a Responsibility to Get Behind’ Obama

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Clinton administration, said this morning that Obama needs to take an active role in Middle East peacemaking, adding: “We as a [Jewish] community have to abandon the notion that — oy gevalt — pressure on Israel” is somehow bad for the Jewish state.

The alternative, he said, is that “Israel will have failed terrorists states on all of its borders.”

Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Middle East policy, spoke at a breakfast event at Marriott Metro Center, sponsored by the National Jewish Democratic Council.

He said many in the Jewish community were mistaken, during the Bush years, to conclude that Bush was terrific for Israel, because he supported Israel with a blank check. Bush’s approach for the first seven years of his administration, Indyk said, was to let the parties negotiate amongst themselves — and that doesn’t work. The U.S., he said, has to be willing to play an active role.

Still, he said there are lessons to be gleaned from the Clinton administration, which, he noted, also ultimately failed to achieve a lasting solution.

Clinton, Indyk said, attempted to forge a new Middle East through peacemaking. Bush tried to do it through warmongering. Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he said, must approach the quagmire with much more humility — influence what we can, without setting out specifically to mold the region to suit our own national interests.

Noting that, just this morning, Hamas ordered a cease fire in Gaza (after Israel unilaterally did the same last night), he said he was hopeful that Gazans would come to understand that there are serious and unacceptable consequences to the terrorists organization’s continued unprovoked assaults on Israel.

He said the Obama administration should take to heart the perspective that “We’re not talking about a two-state solution; we are talking about a 23-state solution.” Which is to say, peace between Israel and the Palestinians would also mean “peace with the entire Arab world.”

Indyk was not a Pollyanna. He spoke about the real and deep divisions that exist in Israel — and among Palestinians. He noted that Iran is moving ever closer to achieving its nuclear ambitions, and that Ahmadinejad continues to stoke hatred of Jews and Israel on the Arab street.

But it was hard not to detect a note of optimism humming just beneath the surface of his words: that with this change here in Washington, Obama may just be at a moment of rare possibility for the Middle East.

And we, the Jewish community in America, “have a responsibility to get behind him.”