“I hear famous people…”

Another shot from my archives:

I took this picture on Melrose, east of Fairfax about three years ago. The guy seemed a little deranged. When I took his picture he was speechless for a full 30 seconds, then smiled and said Thank You, and kept on walking.

Somehow I made his day.

Click on it to see the larger version.


Post Secret

I’ve been aware of a website called PostSecret.com for some time, but never really took a closer look. As Frank Warren, the creator of the site describes it: PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard.

It’s really as simple and cool as that. People create a beautiful postcard, add a secret to it, and mail it to the site – where it gets posted for the whole world to read. All of it has to be on one side.

For Christmas, my Sister-in-Law drew my name out of the virtual hat – we each get one family member (spouses and kids excluded), rather than all of us getting everyone something. My present arrived in the mail on the 24th  – A Lifetime of Secrets, a book-bound compilation of some of the site’s most interesting and evocative secrets.

The book is actually a much better medium for these kinds of postcards, but of course the whole project couldn’t even exist without the internet. I’m glad Warren’s idea has caught fire and become so popular that he’s getting ready to release the fifth book.

Some of the secrets are maudlin, others are funny, and all make you think about what you’ve never told anyone else… and how big a deal it might be.

And all of the post cards are beautiful.

I’ll add three or four below, but check out the site, and get the books. It’s worth it!






My Dream Car

Some day…

I have been talking about buying a Citroen DS Pallas for the last 15 years…

Some day soon, I will buy one, and completely restore it. The DS is the most elegant car I can imagine for stepping out at night.

Seen in a side street in Amsterdam, not far from the hotel. It was NOT for sale.


The most learned men of our time

Unlike Catholics, we Jews maintain a body of laws that is open to constant reinterpretation. It requires re-reading every generation, because the rulings of yesteryear may be irrelevant today. For countless generations, the best and brightest sat in dimly lit rooms and discussed the finest points of a particular text, while contextualizing it against everything else that was written prior to and since then.

Last night I attended a presentation by Stephen Breyer, one of the current United States Supreme Court judges. He described the case of Dred Scott, a slave who sued for his freedom in 1857, and lost because he was deemed “property” …which the constitution guaranteed could not be taken from a citizen without due process. Scott was not considered a citizen. The case is considered by most to be the worst decision ever handed down by the Supreme Court, and was in part responsible for ultimately causing the Civil War.

The jury is still out on how history will feel about  Bush v. Gore in 2000, a decision Justice Breyer was on the bench for (though on the dissenting side). He made the point that the true test of a court is when it has to make an unpopular ruling.

He explained the wonder of the Supreme Court is the way society has internalized the law. Even though a numeric majority had ruled for Gore, the various courts studied the law, and declared George W. Bush the winner of the Presidential election. The point is that there was no civil war. People heeded the ruling.

The Supreme Court does not control a militia that would enforce its rulings.Society could just choose to ignore the court. But society acquiesced.

In some sense, the Rule of Law is humanity’s greatest achievement. For several thousand years we followed the various rabbis and high priests as they spoke their edicts or issued their interpretations, but over time we have replaced biblical code with civic code. It has become easy to ignore the rules passed down by rabbis, society has externalized religious law. But our civil laws are a true accomplishment. They work because each respective society has fully bought into its own body of law. German law (and German society) differs from the U.S. in some ways of course, but there’s a lot of common ground. After the presentation, Dieter Grimm, one of Germany’s former constitutional Justices,  joined Justice Breyer for an answer-and-question session. As expected, there was some discussion about difficult German rulings, such as the ones covering German Unification, and the Bundeswehr’s mandate in Afghanistan.

Of course, a society needs to be part of the code that it builds for itself. You cannot simply walk into a country (like Afghanistan, for instance), hand the people a set of law books, and then expect them to create a civil society that mirrors the books’ origin. Such a society must build its own laws, and test them in adverse situations. Only then can it build a strong social foundation.

But one thing is clear to me: our smartest legal minds no longer sit in prayer rooms or at the rabbi’s dining room table. They meet in the judge’s chambers, and at the law schools.

… and it was a rare opportunity – and quite fun – to sit with one today’s “learned rabbis”. He’s a smart guy, and a good teacher.

Kaleidoscopic Psychedelica – with Ducks!

Yet another beautiful oddity discovered via Kitsune Noir…

The Swiss art collective The Körner Union takes some early seventies psychedelic German trance music, and introduces a few animals to two mirrors. Kaleidoscopic beauty ensues.

AMS Schiphol

My weekly trip to Amsterdam.  I am not fond of Schiphol, only because I’ve seen so much of it over the last few years… but it’s actually a really good airport. I hope BBI will become this efficient when Berlin finally finishes it.

An unused check-in desk, shot while waiting for a delayed KLM flight.


Stolper Steine – Stumbling Blocks

On Monday night I attended a presentation by Leora Auslander at the American Academy in Berlin. She is Professor of European Studies at the University of Chicago, but is a Fellow at the Academy this semester. She gave a great talk about the effectiveness of memorials. Her focus was on monuments, memorials, and museums focusing on the Shoa in Germany, but it served as an interesting think-piece on what makes a successful memorial.

She mentioned one of my favorites, the Stolper Steine by artist Gunter Demnig. His work is quite subtle. Most German sidewalks are still made up of cobblestone. Demnig will go to the listed address of Jews that were murdered during the Holocaust, and replace a cobblestone in front of the door with a brass block that gives the name, date of birth, date of arrest or deportation, date of death, and the concentration camp in which the person was killed. You can find these all over Berlin now, and apparently he’s also placing them in many other European cities.


Like any memorial, most people walk past them once they’ve embedded them into their mental map of their environment, but these “stumbling blocks” are more effective because looking at them will force you to focus on them. It can’t be done while in motion, or simply passing by.


Some houses had many Jews in them. One of the most depressing things is to see that families were arrested on the same day, but killed in different places at disparate times. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must have been like when children were taken from their parents…


I will try to contact Demnig. My father was born here in Berlin, and he lost his grandfather, his uncle and aunt, and his cousins in the Shoah. I would love to put some stones down for them in front of their house… especially now that my third son carries one of their names.

Chabad and the Meat Mafia

On my way back to Berlin, I grabbed a copy of this week’s Village Voice at JFK airport. The Voice has long been a bastion of activist journalism, although it seems these days the editors limit themselves to one article per issue, and the rest are ads for In-Call erotic massages and psychic readings. I guess that’s the price you pay for something free </pun>.

The cover story this week was a great piece entitled The Fall of the House of Rubashkin. It describes how the kosher meat industry is ruthless, and considers itself beyond civil law.

A lot of my fellow Jews tend to look at the Hasidim, and especially the members of the Lubavitch sub-sect, as fun-loving Hora-dancing sages who are doing all of us a favor by maintaining Judaism the way we really ought to practice it. Of course, that’s a bunch of kosher baloney. Nowhere in our books does it say you should wear long black coats and a fur shtreiml hat in the hottest climates. Nor does it say women should shave their head, and then put on a wig that looks better than their own hair would have ever been.

I will not regale you with endless anecdotes of sectarian weirdness or Talmudic fringe interpretations, just know that I lived among them for several years and that I speak from first-hand knowledge. I like the way Rabbi Jeremy Rosen writes about the Hasidim:

There is a fashion of thinking that if you dress up in black Eastern European garb and look like an exotic nebbish you must be authentic and doing a great job keeping Judaism alive. Sadly, too many of these characters are social welfare cases who fortunately contribute to Jewish survival by producing lots of kids and thereby raking in the child support. But as a paradigm of spirituality are as remote from genuine Jewish values as the hordes of fighting Satmarer Hasidim who rioted in New York on Simchat Torah and had to be separated by police, and whose antics were blazed across the New York non-Jewish press.

Such Jews have brought ridicule to our noble tradition. If this is Judaism then it is the greatest desecration of God’s name imaginable. And according to Maimonides that is the greatest of sins and far outweighs such religious obligations such as eating only Hassidish glatt kosher steaks or spending $4,000 for the finest fur shtreimelach to parade around in summer’s heat to prove how much closer they are to God than ordinary Jews.

I miss Rosen. He was the only Rabbi that ever brought me closer to my religion, the others all contributed to ultimately driving me away from it to a point where I am solely a cultural Jew, not a spiritual one. Or as I described it to my wife when we first met: I’m more Deli than Synagogue.

I know that most Lubavitch disdain non-Hasid Jews (and all others too). I also know that there are as many Hasidic criminals with beards & payis as there are amongst normal society.

So it came as no surprise to me to read that one family had over the years taken control of the kosher meat butchering and distribution, and run the sweat-shop equivalent of a slaughterhouse. The company, founded by Aaron Rubashkin, is called Agriprocessors. They have a plant in Iowa, which recently got raided by La Migra. As the Voice tells it:

In May, Agriprocessors became a national news story when the federal government made it the subject of what was then the biggest immigration sweep in history, taking 389 undocumented workers into custody. The workers had been paid some of the lowest wages in the nation, and were allegedly forced to work up to 17-hour days with 10-minute lunch breaks in a freezing-cold, dirty hallway. Workers as young as 16 were said to have been operating meat grinders and power shears, often without any safety training.

The article continues by describing how Rubashkin over several years bankrupted several small businesses as they built a business worth $300 million in annual earnings (!). They perceive secular regulations as a nuisance, but have made a very nice living in the kosher certification racket. But when you read the various Hasidic blogs, the writers and especially the readers leaving comments are convinced this is an Anti-Semitic conspiracy.

Since the article was published, Sholom Rubashkin has been detained in Iowa. The prosecutors don’t want to set any bail, because they know full well he’d be on the first plane out of the U.S.A. The packed bag with passports and thousands of dollars of cash that was found on him might have been a tip-off…

Good riddance. If these are the kind of people demanding Moshiach show up now, no wonder he’s taking his time.

…not that I should care. I’m just finishing Richard Dawkin’s “The God Delusion”… It is becoming increasingly difficult to think of myself as Jewish in religious sense. Like a lot of modern secular people, it is difficult to assess what is keeping me from admitting to atheism. Part of it must be the pride I take in Jewish accomplishments. But a careful reading-between-the-lines of the Jewish Museum in Berlin proves one thing unequivocally: Jews have contributed a lot to the world since Enlightenment, but none of them were Orthodox.

One final note: On the same day I read the Rubashkin story in the Voice, the Times ran an obituary for an interesting man: Rabbi Emanuel Rackam died at the age of 98. He will be missed as a leader for all Jews, not just the missionary zealots who’s absolute certainty makes them as dangerous as any other religious extremists.