Friday, June 30, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth: Our Planet's Devastated Tomorrow

An Inconvenient Truth: Our Planet's Devastated Tomorrow

DOV BURT LEVY

Jewish Journal Boston North --- www.jewishjournal.org -- June 30, 2006

When I moved into my home in Salem three years ago, my then six-year-old granddaughter Emily and I spent a few hours walking around the neighborhood. Emily later exclaimed, "You live 12 houses and one church away from the ocean, Sabi." (Sabi is a diminutive of saba, grandfather in Hebrew.)

I smiled and told her how good she was in both arithmetic and geography. Now she is almost old enough for me to tell her that in 50 years, when she will still be younger than I am today, that my house, most of Salem, and, in fact most of the coast from Florida to Nova Scotia, could be under water.

Yes, Sabi's house will be drowned. That is, unless the world — led by the United States, followed by China, India, and other industrialized nations — does something dramatic to contain the conditions causing global warming.

Al Gore calls it "an inconvenient truth" that we ignore at our grandchildren's peril. I saw his film of the same name last night. Had Gore been as warm, sincere, articulate and forceful on the campaign trail in 2000, he might be president today. Instead, he has to begin the film by saying, "I'm Al Gore. I used to be the next president of the United States." The line always gets a chuckle.

Or perhaps not. The hanging chads, the misprinted ballots in the Jewish counties in Florida where Jewish retirees officially voted for Pat Buchanan when they came to the polls to vote for Gore, would have probably cost him the election anyhow.

President Bush well deserves the low standing he holds today with the American people. But, while Bush was mis-leading the nation, Al Gore has spent his time running around the world with a great multi-media presentation that lays out the case for global warming and asking the world to choose to save the planet rather than destroy it.

Rush out to see this important film. You will learn a lot about the threat, the reality, the damage already done, and what must change.

Fifty years ago, I was stationed at the southern tip of Greenland, at Narsarssuak Air Force Base. We could see the polar ice cap and the snow-topped mountains through Greenland's pristine air. Then, it was less than a mile north of the base. All is gone today; the ice has been pushed north by a dozen miles.

Where has the ice gone? Melted into the world's seas, inching up the water levels, day by day, year by year. Similar defrosting happens every day in Antarctica, a larger ice cap than Greenland's.

If the only consequence of the ocean swelling were loss of land mass — say, the coasts of the United States, all of Holland and many other countries — that would be tragic enough. But factor in the weather changes that produce hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, fires and droughts, and the extinction of plant, animal, and insect species, and you are talking about a world gone to hell as we know it.

I checked out what National Geographic (neither a firebrand environmental group nor one with political ties) had to say about the Gore film. In a May 25 article, Stefan Lougren interviews Eric Steig, an earth scientist at the University of Washington. The following Gore claims are confirmed as scientifically true, and not, as some opponents have charged, just political hype.

Global warming is making hurricanes worse, with the number of category four and five storms (think Katrina) almost doubling last year.

Sea temperatures are rising, killing fish, coral and other ocean life.

Deaths from global warming-induced heat waves could double to 300,000 per year in the next 20 years.

Sea levels could rise by more than 20 feet due to the loss of shelf ice in Greenland and Antarctica.

And for the readers who want to know the Jewish component in every issue, think of what a 20-foot rise of water in the Mediterranean would do to Israel, which probably has a larger percentage of its people living within 10 miles of the coast than any other country, save small island nations. Say goodbye to Haifa, Tel Aviv, Ashkelon and all the towns, villages, kibbutzim and other farms and industries in between.

Will plain people, from all walks of life and political persuasions, rise up and say, "Enough!" to the CO2 emissions causing this world-threatening devastation? Or will my Emily, and all your grandchildren, suffer mightily and curse us for our unthinking disregard of their lives and future?

The Gripes of Roth

The Gripes of Roth
Book Review. Everyman by Phillip Roth. 2006 Houghton-Mifflin

Dov Burt Levy
Jewish Journal-Boston North June 30, 2006

Every American, certainly every Jew, should have read Philip Roth. His span of subject, over almost 50 years, has been immense and every book, so far as I remember, has a Jewish component. When the New York Times queried writers and readers earlier this year about their choice of the greatest work of American fiction in the past 25 years, six of Roth’s books made the cut, more than any other single writer. In my book, he’s number one.

Roth has more awards than any other living writer, including Pulitzers, National Book Awards, Pen-Faulkner awards and more. His first book, “Goodbye, Columbus,” was published in 1963 when he was 26; his 28th book, “Everyman,” was published this year, at 73.

“Everyman,” a spare, small work of 182 pages, is, in fact, a medical biography, written as no medical tome has been written before. Primary care physicians and hospitals keep medical histories from their point of view; this book is the patient’s side of the story, and thus an important read for every doctor. It could have been titled, “The Life and Death of a Human Body.”

The first sentence in the book tells us the main character is dead; the last paragraph tells us under what circumstances he died. In between is a medical saga, interwoven with all of the important people in his life, from birth to death at 73, the same age as Roth is today.

It is, of course, much more than a recital of a patient’s medical history. It describes how the main character perceives life, deals with it, lives with it, fights for it, and begins to accept the finality of it. On this subject, few American books, if any, have been written. It is not a topic that grabs the average reader because they (we) are so afraid of it. I am sure that is the reason why it stayed on the best-seller lists only a short time. My recommendation is: read it.

The main character is an artist-executive in a New York public relations firm who retires to paint, and then to teach painting. He is not named and the book itself has no chapters. For the purpose of more easily writing this review, I will call the principal character Rath. Why? Because like most of Roth’s books, “Everyman” is rich in autobiographical content and surely contains the author’s heart and soul. Rath’s aging process is quite common, devoid of esoteric or seldom-seen diseases.

Rath was raised in a middle-class, non-dysfunctional Jewish family in New Jersey. His father worked many years for a jeweler and, at 33, opens his own small jewelry store (15 feet wide and 40 feet deep), calling it, Everyman’s Jewelry Store. He made, as we say, a living.

Unlike so many fictional characters, Rath cannot blame bad parents for bad events. Refreshingly, he loves them and they were good to him. His brother, a good youthful athlete, becomes a wealthy Wall Street professional and corporate CEO.

And so the story progresses. Rath is honest, perhaps more honest than most people would be about their lives, as he goes through the trials, tribulations, euphoria and regrets of three failed marriages. He has two sons from his first wife who hates him, one daughter from the second wife who loves him, several lovers and would-be lovers, as well as friends and co-workers. There is no government or politics or social issues; this is the story is of one man’s life, and as Roth titles the book, it could be every man, or at least, every American-Jewish man, if not every American man.

Roth has gotten a bad rap in the Jewish community for some earlier books, his first two in particular, “Goodbye, Columbus” and “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Too much sex, too much focus on the bad, ugly, crude side of Jewish life, his critics said.

I understand the criticism. But now, if you haven’t already, it is time to give Philip Roth a pass on whatever excesses and perceived insults to the Jewish community he committed as a youthful writer. Yes, Rath is an agnostic Jew, one who is not sure about God but very sure that he has no interest in organized religion. Still, both in Roth’s personal life, as well as in Rath’s, he is more than respectful of the Jewish community and of his family’s place in it.

At the end of “Everyman,” in another stroke of masterful writing, Rath visits his parents’ grave in a now unkempt, dilapidated Jewish cemetery, and has a long conversation with the man digging a grave site for a burial there later that day.

Like me, you may have thought that you had no interest in the details of taking off grass, digging a hole to the right size and depth, disposing of the earth to be displaced by the coffin, leaving the proper-sized mound of earth for the family to place on top of the grave, and caring about the person who does the work. But when Roth’s characters tell you about it, you listen. And learn. And appreciate. And even cry. Because you know, or can guess, that is where Rath, as with all of us, will soon be buried. And there the book will end.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

On Saving Elie Wiesel, Oil and Art Buchwald

On Saving Elie Wiesel, Oil and Art Buchwald

Dov Burt Levy

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I've got three things on my mind that together make a fine headline even if they are separate stories.


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Saving Elie Wiesel: Oprah Winfrey recently dedicated two afternoon programs to the Shoah by featuring Elie Wiesel and herself visiting the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Thanks to Oprah, Wiesel's book, "Night," quickly appeared on bestseller lists, despite its grim content.
I was in pain watching the performances, and it looked to me as if Wiesel suffered too.

Oprah has the best of intentions. She is my favorite television star, and her recommendation will encourage millions of people to read Holocaust literature. Perhaps thousands will now understand what Jews mean when they say, "Never Again."

But the Oprah and Elie show just didn't add up for me. I identify Oprah with television, diets and personal growth. To see her chat with the very symbol, the chronicler, of the Jewish people's greatest tragedy in 2,000 years, interrupted by commercials, just didn't fit.

At the end of the program, Oprah looked Wiesel straight in the eye and said, "I want you to know I love you."


Wiesel could only stare back, perhaps in disbelief. My plea to Professor Wiesel: save yourself from another bout of daytime television.


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Saving oil: Here's my plan which, at a minimum, would reduce oil changes by a third and, at best, move everybody to reasonably priced synthetic oil, and cut America's oil appetite by as much as 1.3 billion quarts a year.

Too many people change automobile oil every 3,000 miles. My friend, Harry, began that routine 50 years ago and has never faltered. Technicians at most car dealers, gas stations and fast oil shops will tell you 3,000 miles is the standard between changes.

Wrong. Almost every car of recent vintage, in its owner's manual, recommends changing engine oil every 5,000 miles or more. Most experts recommend every five to six thousand miles unless you live in Alaska, Death Valley or tow a trailer.


Figure this: 130 million cars on the road, averaging 13,000 miles a year. If every car owner skipped one oil change a year, the nation would save over a half-billion quarts a year.

Even better, let's close the price gap between synthetic oil and regular oil, and use only synthetics. That could be a savings of over 1.3 billion quarts of oil a year.

Don't worry. I will send this recommendation to Washington. But remember, you read it first in the Jewish Journal.


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Saving Art Buchwald: The Jewish newspaper columnist has left the ranks of the dying and intends to spend the summer on Martha's Vineyard. You may recall that Buchwald had signed himself into a Washington, D.C. hospice on Feb. 7, to live life as he preferred rather than face kidney dialysis three times a week.

His doctors gave him a month to live. And live it up he did, having — as he put it — the time of his life, with visits from the Kennedy clan and other politicians, show biz luminaries and family, all while giving radio and TV interviews.

Guess what? After a number of columnists like me wrote about him, and after reading his own eulogies and receiving 1,000 letters and e-mails, rather than laying down and dying, he is up and around. Even his kidneys are working well enough. Carly Simon, who had promised to sing at his funeral, will now serenade him in person.

Now I have two items to ponder: one, whether Buchwald's doctors were too quick to sentence him to a life of dialysis, or whether Buchwald was just plain lucky. While unnecessary medical tests are one thing, unneeded or premature dialysis is quite another. Was Buchwald a unique case or just the tip of another large medical issue?

Second, shouldn't we stop waiting until people are dead before we tell them, in a eulogy they can't hear, how much we appreciated their virtues?

I'd opt for a Buchwald style pre-death gathering where my relatives and friends tell me directly what my life meant to them and give me a hug. After that, with my blessing, they could skip the eulogies — and even the shiva. How about you; what would you like?

Saturday, June 03, 2006

When Jewish Mothers Are Considered Illegal Aliens

When Jewish Mothers Are Considered Illegal Aliens

Dov Burt Levy, columnist, Jewish Journal - Boston North, June 2, 2006

When I was a kid in Revere, I ran away from home a lot. The winters were freezing so I couldn't sleep on the beach. Instead, I snuck into the cellars of six-family houses and spent the night near the roaring coal furnace. Yes, the doors were unlocked and I entered illegally.

I thought of this last week, as the immigration debate in Washington focused on the issue of illegal entry. Groups and politicians opposed to granting citizenship — even with fines for taxes not paid, proof of English and history proficiency, and the like — are arguing that illegal aliens snuck into the country and didn't wait in line like honest immigrants, that their illegal acts cannot be sanctioned.

Truth is, if we deported just the illegal Jewish, Italian and Irish immigrants and their offspring who have been here for the past 100 years, America might be required to throw out another 20-40 million people.

Face facts: America has left the Mexican door open for years, just as the cellar door was open when I needed it. Mexicans and Central Americans don't come here for the great climate, the tasty pizza, and certainly not for the marvelous welcome. They come because where they live there are no jobs, or they earn five dollars a day when most things cost about what they cost here. Desperate people make very life-threatening decisions.

Following my last column about immigration (April 21), I received this story from an old friend. While the story takes place in Canada, U.S. immigration history is replete with similar, heart-touching tales.

Here's my friend's story:

"Many years ago, before Canada became a vigorous multicultural nation, I was on the editorial board of the Toronto Star, writing at least four editorials a week. One day, I happened to arrive a few minutes late for the daily board meeting at which we decided who would write what, on what topics, on which side of the issue. As I came through the door I heard my colleagues 'kvetching' about the wave of illegals entering Canada — largely East Indian and Jamaicans in those days.

"They called them 'queue-jumpers' — namely, people who would not wait in line and go through Canada's demanding immigration process. As my colleagues' ire grew, I decided to intervene.

"'Listen up,' I said in a commanding voice. 'Before you get too embedded in the idea that illegal immigrants are a threat to Canada's sovereignty and welfare, let me advise you that my mother, my very own mother of blessed memory, was an illegal immigrant.'

"Because this was a highly educated and civilized bunch of non-Jews, a silence fell over the room as the lone female on the board examined the polish on her fingernails and my male colleagues looked down at their brogues [shoes].

"After a few seconds, the silence became painful. 'Let me take you out of your misery,' I said, 'and explain what this was all about.'

"I then told them about the penniless Stein family in the impoverished village of Popylan, Lithuania (Kovno Gebernia). Two brothers had already immigrated to Canada but they were finding it extremely hard to raise the money for visas, passports, ship tickets and railway fares to get the remainder of the family to Halifax, Nova Scotia, via Hamburg.

"However, there was another family in the village, somewhat better off than the Steins. They already had their papers in order and their tickets purchased. In a matter of months, when spring came, they would leave for America.

Unfortunately for them but fortunately for my family, a nine-year-old member of the wealthier family, a sweet girl with long golden curls, died that winter of meningitis.

"Instead of abandoning the unfortunate child's documents and tickets, her parents agreed to take my mother in their daughter's stead. So, my mother arrived in Canada with papers issued to a girl three years younger than she was. Canada's immigration officers apparently couldn't tell the difference between a nine-year-old and a twelve-year-old. In any case, my mother was small and undernourished, so it was probably hard to tell."

The writer, my former colleague Sol Littman, besides his time as an editor with the Toronto Star, had a distinguished career in both the general and Jewish communities in the United States and in Canada. He was a senior staffer with the ADL in New York, director of the Simon Weisenthal Center in Toronto, and is the author of two books on Nazi war criminals in Canada.

Should you, this summer, drop in to the University of Vermont, you will find Sol teaching a class on "Jewish writers in Europe and America, from Rabbi Nachman to Philip Roth". Not bad for the son of an illegal immigrant.

I'm willing to bet that the children and grandchildren of the 12 million current illegal immigrants in America will also make significant contributions to this country.

Stories like Sol's, plus our own family sagas, as well as a benevolent reading of American history, should immunize us all against the anti-illegals hysteria growing in our nation..