Friday, April 21, 2006

How To Laugh at Death, By Art Buchwald

April 21, 2006

Forward Forum
How To Laugh at Death, By Art Buchwald
By Dov Burt Levy

Art Buchwald is living and dying in a Washington, D.C., hospice. If you don't know his story, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a very sad time for the 80-year-old Jewish columnist.

Just the opposite, Buchwald says. "I am," he announces, "having the time of my life." His family and friends, along with the political and artistic glitterati, are coming by to shmooze, reminisce and bring his favorite foods. He mentions that he likes corned beef sandwiches; the next day guests bring in 10.

He continues to write his column for the Washington Post and 50 other papers, but now the topics, still with his characteristic humor, are often about death, the hospice and making your own end-of-life decisions. Many people write to thank him for giving them alternatives to consider.

Here's the story. Suffering from kidney disease, he entered a Washington, D.C., hospice in February after deciding that he didn't want to prolong his life by having dialysis five hours a day, three days a week. He had already had his leg amputated for other reasons and he figured now: "I had two decisions. Continue dialysis, and that's boring to do three times a week, and I don't know where that's going, or I can just enjoy life and see where it takes me."

Life had already taken him at age 3 to two orphanages after his mother was institutionalized with mental illness from which she never recovered. Young Art ran away at age 17 in 1942 to join the Marines. After the war, he attended college and edited the campus magazine, but didn't graduate because the school discovered his lack of a high school diploma.

So he went to Paris where a small job at the Herald Tribune morphed into a humor column, which in 1962 he took to Washington. During his heyday, he was writing three columns a week, syndicated in 700 papers.

His shtick was taking serious political and social issues and turning them into humor, which as we know, for whatever genetic, social or historic reasons, has always been a strong Jewish trait. Think Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and a 100 others. In Buchwald's day, he was better known than Al Franken and Jon Stewart are today.

Through it all, he never lost his sense of his place in the whole story, which most of the time was outside laughing in.

"Just when you think there's nothing to write about, Nixon says, 'I am not a crook,'" Buchwald once wrote. "Jimmy Carter says, 'I have lusted after women in my heart.' President Reagan says, 'I have just taken a urinalysis test, and I am not on dope.' You can't make up anything anymore. The world itself is a satire. All you're doing is recording it."

When President Eisenhower's press secretary, James Hagarty, took a Buchwald column seriously and called it "unadulterated rot," Buchwald responded with indignation: "He's wrong. I write adulterated rot."

Buchwald has undoubtedly earned a place in my pantheon of personal heroes, men and women whose actions in the face of impending death seem to me both inspiring and heroic: Hubert Humphrey, tennis great Arthur Ashe, Professor Morrie Schwartz of "Tuesdays with Morrie," Christopher and Dana Reeves, Lenny Zakim, to name a few.

Talk about dying with dignity. Their deaths may have come too early and been too hard, but not one of them ever lost his heart or soul or kindness, nor stopped performing good deeds in this world. Nor did they kvetch, complain, blame. Buchwald fits in well.

Should there ever — sometime, somewhere — be a meeting of these greats, along with all our friends and family members who have inspired us in life and in death, you can bet Buchwald will be there, too. And you can bet he'll regale them all with how he beat the doctors' forecasts of his survival by hundreds of percents, just as he regales us now when asked about the afterlife.

"I have no idea where I'm going but here's the real question: What am I doing here in the first place?" Buchwald says, part humor columnist, part rabbi. "It's what you do on earth and the good deeds you do on earth that are important."

Shalom v'lehitraot, Art.

Jewish Community Stands Together on Immigration Issue

Jewish Journal North of Boston

April 21, 2006 copyright 2006 DBLevy

Jewish Community Stands Together on Immigration Issue


Before the Easter-Passover recess, two weeks of acrimonious debate in Congress seemed to show that supporters of deporting illegal aliens and criminalizing unlawful entry held about half the votes — and generated more than half the sound and fury. I hope that will change significantly when Congress reconvenes.

Why? Because new polls show that the American people are more realistic about the deportation issue, less judgmental about those who break the law to enter the country, and don’t want to make felons of 12 million illegal aliens. A solid majority also believes that undocumented workers (illegal immigrants) should have a chance at gaining full U.S. citizenship.

A CBS News poll found 74 percent favoring legal status for those who have lived in the United States for at least five years — provided they speak English, pay a fine and any back taxes, and have no criminal record. (My guess is that over 90 percent of American Jews would support similar measures.)

Seems to me that two less theoretical issues bother lots of Americans. Many complain about the omnipresence of the Spanish language (reminders exist on every product sold and most corporate telephone answering systems) and whether people from south of the border will segregate themselves in American barrios instead of fully embracing and participating in the fabric and language of America.

A personal story: In 1960, my nickname was Buddy. I, poor as a synagogue mouse, got married, and after the party my bride and I rushed to count the much-needed cash presents.

One sizeable bank check stood out. It read, “Pay to Buddha Leavitt.”

After saying that strange name out loud a few times, I realized it was my nickname with a Yiddish accent. My maternal grandmother, Nellie Lewis, with her limited English and Yiddish accent, bought the check at a local bank and, mainly due to my bubbe’s English language deficit, morphed Buddy Levy to Buddha Leavitt. (We smiled and gratefully cashed the check.)

Fifty years after arriving in the United States, my bubbe’s English proficiency was almost nil, her accent heavy. Nevertheless, this non-English speaking Jewish immigrant fought hard for her rights. She was one of the last holdouts in Boston’s West End, shouting from her window at city officials when they, in the name of urban renewal (now acknowledged as a big mistake and gross injustice), authorized the tearing down of so many buildings. She owned that four-story building and wasn’t about to lose it without a fight. Sadly, like so many, she fought but lost.

I thought of that last week when more than a million people marched peacefully in favor of immigration reform. Bubbe would have been there.

She also raised five children during the Depression, only one of whom finished high school. They had regular jobs — like salesman in Filene’s Basement, clothing factory cutter, taxi driver and laborer.

Of the children’s children, Nellie’s 11 grandchildren, ten graduated from college and three earned PhDs.

I don’t tell you all this to brag about my family, nor to argue that college degrees equate to honest, upstanding people. But I want to make a point: It’s okay for immigrants to speak their own languages, especially for that large percentage of people for whom learning a new language is extremely difficult. Their kids and grandkids will surely speak English. In fact, a recent PBS study showed that by the third generation, over 80 percent of Spanish-speaking families were studying, working and living in English.

In case you are wondering how Jewish religious and secular organizations stand on immigration reform, you should know that all that I know of favor legislation creating a path toward legal, permanent residency and citizenship. They also favor border protection policies that embody humanitarian values. And these views have been communicated to Congress.

Isn’t it nice that we Jews, at least on this one issue, are not fighting with each other?

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Israel Could be Well Served by Olmert's Courage, Brains and Luck

Israel Could Be Well Served By Olmert’s Courage, Brains and Luck

Jewish Journal North of Boston -- April 7, 2006

The delay between my writing and your reading this column would make my predictions about who will join the governing coalition in Israel an exercise in fortune-telling futility.

I think whoever comprises the government, the agenda is likely to be the same: improving military security and fixing economic insecurity. Just right, in my book.

How did economic insecurity get to top billing? Because Israel has become — only second or third to the United States — the country with the widest gap between rich and poor. Emulating the U.S. is great in some matters, like Israel’s large computer-driven technology industry, but terrible for a country whose claim to people’s hearts was its social programs and eschewing of conspicuous consumption.

The voters gave thumbs up to the Kadimah, Pensioners, Shas and Labor parties. And thumbs down to Benjamin Netanyahu, architect of the new economic policies, and his Likud party that lost decisively.

Here comes Ehud Olmert, a smart, courageous and very lucky guy. His political career began as a university student, graduated to a Knesset seat, and was followed by a victory over an elderly Teddy Kollek who many thought would be mayor of Jerusalem for a hundred years. Then Olmert gave up the mayor’s job to sit by Ariel Sharon’s side in the morphing from Likud to Kadima. Finally, with Sharon’s stroke, the story of Ehud Olmert, prime minister, begins.

Sure, capturing only 29 seats compared with the pre-Sharon stroke prediction of forty probably chastened Olmert. But Olmert knows that mandates and the power they bring are elusive, changing quickly and often.

No surprise, then, that he made front-page news the day after the election by calling upon the Palestinians to restart peace negotiations — even with Hamas in power — or face unilateral border decisions by an Israeli government determined to maintain and improve its security.

Reaching out to the Palestinians was courageous because Olmert knows that lots of Israelis consider talking to Hamas akin to negotiating with the Nazis. But smart because he knows for sure that if he doesn’t talk to those who have the mandate on the other side, he might as well talk to himself. Moreover, Olmert also knows that, regardless of his electoral victory, the power to exercise leadership can vanish in moments.

Example: Remember the 2004 presidential electoral victory of George W. Bush and his famous boast about how much political capital the election had brought him? Bush intended to spend it, and spend it well.

Fast forward: In these past two years Bush’s popular support has dwindled sharply, to less than 30 percent job approval. His political capital has been depleted. He failed in some big ways: getting staff member Harriet Myers onto the Supreme Court, having the United Arab Emirates take over the operation of six major American ports.

I think — and hope — that Olmert’s first hundred days in office will provide lots of relief for the underpaid, the poor, the ill and for those striving to achieve their educational and occupational potential.

If he spends his post-election capital quickly and wisely — and with continued Olmert luck — the nation will be well served.

Now that the election is over, with the Israeli territorial hawks faring so poorly and the Palestinian government seemingly in place, who knows, perhaps major gains can also be made in security, both short- and long-term.

One interesting factor in this election was that the mock polls conducted in the United States among American Jews gave Netanyahu and Likud a winning vote, over 40 seats, compared with the 12 seats they actually got in Israel. Can it be that American Jews are turning right while Israelis are moving ceenter and left? Or perhaps it was just the fervent few in America who voted?

Who said being Jewish was boring?