MS St. Louis, in her home port in Hamburg

Claire, who’s 88, has lived in Forest Hills since shortly after she moved to America in 1951.  I had this conversation with her just now, right after I’d thought I’d solved everything to my own satisfaction in my own mind.

“Claire, may I ask you something?  There’s something I’m trying to think through and I’d like your opinion on it in particular.” 


“The Syrian refugees…”


Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis, in Havana Harbor, before they were refused entry to Cuba.

“I stop you right there, and I tell you, I know what you are thinking, and it is not the same.  Because the refugees that came from Europe, they were Jews, they were running.  These, these have ISIS with them.”

“They’re running away from ISIS!”

“Yes, many are, but it is true that ISIS is still coming in with them.  They falsify documents, they are very smart… I would be afraid to walk in the streets.  In this country, you do not know the meanness of people.  You do not know what people are capable of.  It is a pity for the innocent ones, but the fault of the suffering of the innocent ones is with the guilty ones, not with Americans.  Even if eighty percent are innocent, what will it be with the twenty percent who are infiltrating?  I will be afraid to come to Starbucks.  I do not want to be afraid again.”

I don’t want her to be afraid again either.

When she first got to Auschwitz she was assigned to be an outside worker.  They were set to filling in holes with dirt– she thinks they may have been bomb craters, holes with loose soil all around them, that they had to fill up.  And within twenty minutes, as Claire was bending down with her shovel, another worker was standing up quickly, and the other worker’s shovel handle smacked her just above her eye.  “I put my hand up, to the place,” she said, “and my hand was full of blood.  I started crying.  I thought I had lost my eye.”

The SS guard, a woman because Claire was in the female half of the camp, said “what are you crying for, animal?  You will die in this way or in another.”

“This is the cruelty of people,” says Claire.  This is how people can be, and this is what she sees in ISIS.

“We cannot change anything.  The main thing is to be in America.  I hope they will not bring ISIS in here, because, you know, Americans are not experienced, they can be fooled easily… He will have to let some in, Obama will have to let some in.  As long as they don’t come to New York.”

I can’t stand hearing her say this, but I can’t say anything in response; she is eighty-eight, and who am I to say anything to her?  She has the strongest sense of self-preservation of anyone I know; the strongest sense of the fragility of civilization; the keenest awareness of the good of civil peace in a multicultural liberal democracy; the most vivid awareness that this peace cannot survive if there are people who are determined that it not survive.

I don’t know what to think.  I know that what ISIS is is something like what had hold of that SS woman guard.  I know that we can’t imagine that, we can’t really believe it. I know we could become its victims.  And I know we could become it.

The Children Who Count


I love Anne Lamott– I never agreed with everything she wrote, but I very much enjoy her nonfiction.  (Her novels kinda stink).  She is in general soft-hearted and soft-headed, and if for some reason I had to choose between that and being hard-hearted and hard-headed I would choose the former. 

Although both really are unacceptable, and here’s why: being muddle-headed about one’s arguments ultimately leads one to hard-heartedness.  So Anne Lamott can be wonderfully attuned to the fact that the Syrian three-year-olds of whom Donald Trump is afraid are human children, three-year-olds like the ones you know, with germy fingers and runny noses, and she can be blind to the fact that kids killed in abortions are also, you know, human children.   

And it’s her stance on abortion that really makes it so hard for me now to even enjoy her writing; it’s such a deviation from what she ought, as a bleeding-heart lefty, to be championing.  Whenever she hits the topic she strikes a sour note. I’m not surprised when someone like Trump reads certain kids out of his scope of care; I was never under the impression that an excess of mercy was one of his weaknesses.  But I am surprised when Lamott reads some people out, and I am, now and always, convinced that there will come a time when lefties see that the logic of their generalized attitude of pity in the case of things like the refugee crisis– which is so easily mocked by people like Trump as a failure of realism– ought to extend to small humans who are even more vulnerable.  This is what Charles Camosy has called the Democratic party’s baffling “Costanza option”– its tendency, on abortion, to “do the opposite” of what one would expect it to do, given its other commitments.

There’s a strange parallel here: both Lamott and Trump regard some human children as not-yet-part of who we care about, as potentially threatening to our way of life.  “The children we do have,” the ones who are already born, are in Lamott’s view in some way in competition with the children we do not yet “have,” i.e. who have not yet made their outside debuts yet.  In the same way, Trump sees the refugee children as not-yet-part of who we care about, and in competition with the children we do care about.

In a 2006 LA Times editorial, Lamott wrote that

“I am so confused about why we are still having to argue with patriarchal sentimentality about teeny weenie so-called babies…

“…as a Christian and a feminist, the most important message I can carry and fight for is the sacredness of each human life, and reproductive rights for all women is a crucial part of that: It is a moral necessity that we not be forced to bring children into the world for whom we cannot be responsible and adoring and present. We must not inflict life on children who will be resented; we must not inflict unwanted children on society.”

I wonder if, given the current issue she has (rightly, in my view) taken up, she might want to reconsider the way that she spoke of these other children.

Avinu Malkeinu

Our father, our king, be gracious with us and answer us, though we have no worthy deeds; treat us with charity and kindness, and save us.

Avinu malkeinu sh’ma kolenu / Our father our king, hear our voice.

photo 1 (9)

Avinu malkeinu chatanu l’faneycha / Our father our king, we have sinned before you

photo 1 (10)

Avinu malkeinu chamol aleynu / Our father our king, Have compassion upon us

Ve’al olaleynu vetapeinu / and upon our children

photo 3 (6)

Avinu malkeinu / Our father our king

Kaleh dever / Bring an end to pestilence,

vecherev vera’av mealeynu / war, and famine around us

Avinu malkeinu / Our father our king,

kaleh chol tsar / Bring an end to all trouble

Umastin mealeynu / and oppression around us

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Avinu malkeinu / Our father our king

Avinu malkeinu / Our father our king

Kat’veinu besefer chayim tovim / Inscribe us in the book of life

Avinu malkeinu chadesh aleynu / Our father our king, renew upon us

Chadesh aleynu shanah tovah / Renew upon us a good year

Sh’ma kolenu / Hear our voice

Sh’ma kolenu / Hear our voice

Sh’ma kolenu / Hear our voice

Avinu malkeinu / Our father our king

Avinu malkeinu / Our father our king

Chadesh aleynu shanah tovah / Renew upon us a good year

photo 5 (2)

Avinu malkeinu / Our father our king

Sh’ma kolenu / Hear our voice

Sh’ma kolenu / Hear our voice

Sh’ma kolenu / Hear our voice

Sh’ma kolenu / Hear our voice

photo 4 (3)

[Click here]

Tactical Thomism

photo 1 (8)Pretty frequently, especially during the summer, volunteer groups come spend a day working for the nonprofit that is my day job. They take the ferry over from Battery Park to Governors Island and for a couple of hours they get to do some of the hands-on aquaculture work that the kids do year-round– the students at the school the nonprofit supports, I mean, who spend their afternoons learning how to drive (and build) boats and raise oysters and SCUBA dive in the Harbor.  For a couple of hours, these adult volunteers get a taste of that life, and one of my favorite things is watching them as they do.

They tend to be earnest knowledge workers of various kinds– fledgling lawyers, software developers, that sort of thing. They always have water bottles and they’re always in that strange mood that white collar people are in when they see their colleagues in shorts and t-shirts.

Today the group was from a data analysis company called  Its mission is to make public data accessible.  I think this is probably a very worthy mission.  Today, they learned to haul heavy stacks of trays full of half-grown oysters out of  the East River; to tell the difference between several month old baby oysters and yearlings who had detached from their parent clusters; to clean the fouled trays and re-stack the oysters properly; to tie two half-hitches in the bridles that truss up the stacks of trays that hold the oysters, and to lower the trays back down again into the water, where they’ll spend another year– or however long they need– feeding on algae and growing big enough to get deposited on the reefs that the students will monitor and tend.

The hatchery manager, showing one of the data analysts how to snug up the half-hitches tightly, says: “do you have good finger strength?”

“Well,” she says., “..I type a lot.”

A friend and I used to bat around the idea of creating a curriculum of what we called Tactical Thomism, modeled on Tactical Urbanism.  It’d be a set of experiences that demonstrate the reality of good philosophy.  I don’t really know enough yet to call myself a thomist, but I will anyway.  And it seems to me that this oyster-farming workshop could well be a part of such a curriculum.  It at least teaches, on a primal level, the reality that we are physical creatures who live in a physical world; it teaches the pleasure of movement and of learning physical skill; it teaches that when you do some of the tending and keeping that Adam was made to do, you feel… human, you feel human.

I came home today on the F train covered in Harbor mud, because I’d spent a little bit of the day working alongside them.  It’s been a while since I’d done that: ridden the train smelling faintly of the Harbor.   It’s not an objectionable smell– not after the Clean Water Act of 1972 and years of remediation.  But it is not a smell you get if you analyze data all day.  And I’m happy for myself, and happy for the data analysts.  This is a good world.

Honey through the Comb Sifting



If I were a musician, here’s what I’d do: I’d take the music of Borodin and set the Song of Songs to it.  Because that’s basically what Robert Wright and George Forrest did with Kismet.  Yes, I know that a) it’s schlocky 20th C. Broadway, and b) it only even ATTEMPTS to be “middle eastern” via a vaguely Arabian Nights/pop-Islamic set of cultural references.

But still.  I’m pretty sure that if you want to get at least a hint, as much as you can, as a modern person, of what the culture and images and emotion and juice were that Solomon was working with in the Song, you could do worse than to listen to “And This is My Beloved” and “Night of My Nights.”


At the very least the former might help the poor long-suffering youth pastors among us have some answers when the fourteen-year-old boys start giggling about “Your teeth are like a flock of newly shorn ewes…Your temples are like a slice of pomegranate… Your belly is like a heap of wheat.”

Imagine the father of the Shulamite (if he were around, which he apparently is not) prompting her, as the Poet prompts Marsinah:

Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 2.58.14 PM


“You’d said his eyes were…”
“…sometimes bright.”
“But only sometimes?”
“Often dark.”
“Well, that is plain.”
“Plain words can’t tell the thrill…”
“Then tell it how you will.”


His arms are rods of gold30
set with topaz.
His body is like polished ivory
decorated with lapis lazuli.
His legs are pillars of marble
set on bases of pure gold.
His appearance is like Lebanon,
choice as its cedars.
His mouth is sweetness itself;
he is altogether lovely.

This is my beloved, this is my friend,

daughters of Jerusalem.

Dawn’s promising skies30-d
Petals on a pool drifting
Imagine these in one pair of eyes
And this is my beloved.

Strange spice from the south
Honey through the comb sifting
Imagine these in one eager mouth
And this is my beloved.


I’ll just also point out, for those of you who insist on skipping straight to Christ and the Church when you read Song of Songs, that in fact in the Stranger in Paradise scene, Marsinah does mistake the Caliph for a gardener.


Ripped from the Headlines

Peter Lombard- Crimefighter

In the twelfth century, the Church was represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the theologians who investigated religious doctrine, and the jurists who established ecclesiastical law.

This is their story.

[Click Here]

Just listened to a Peter Adamson podcast.  And despite its title, I still didn’t get it until I heard the intro.

For the full (and excellent) ep, go here to listen to History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps Episode #219, titled Law and Order: Gratian and Peter Lombard.

And huge apologies to Richard Brooks for effacing him in the pic above. It’s just that Peter Lombard had his exact same posture in the engraving I found.

“A redemption which was like the mother of my other redemptions and they became to it as daughters:” A Nagrela Miscellaney


Samuel ha-Nagid (“the Prince”), born Samuel ibn Nagrela (993-1056,) was a poet, philologist, legal scholar, philosopher, military leader and statesman in Andalusia during the time of Moorish rule– the so-called “Golden Age” of Jewish culture in Spain; Sepharad, which later generations of Jews looked back on as a cultural homeland, a foothold that they’d been given even in the diaspora.  (The name is taken from a brief mention in the first chapter of Obadiah: And the captivity of this host of the children of Israel, that are among the Canaanites, even unto Zarephath, and the captivity of Jerusalem, that is in Sepharad [Sfard], shall possess the cities of the South.) 

After the end of this era, there is a sense of being doubly exiled: from Jerusalem after 70 a.d. and from this cultural and political space of beauty and safety, symbolized by Alhambra.


Mountain of Sand


Do you remember the mountain pass of sand which I crossed alone while fleeing from you and afraid?

Even today I am in transit over you,—but behind me are tens of thousands who obey me like their father

And wait for my utterances as for the rain and attend to my wisdom as to prophecy. Because of this bless them for me my God,—may they follow after me willingly today.

Answer Me

Build me up like a tower on the heights of your sanctuary,
And set me like a seal upon your heart.
Make me drunk with the blood of the foe on the day of war
And satisfy me with his flesh on the night of redemption.
Place the cup of salvation upon my right hand
That my tongue may give voice in joy to a song of love.
For nearly a thousand years I have declared my sorrow
With many tears and with fasting,—will You not answer me?


Take this Book

samuel_ha-nagidJoseph, take this book that I have selected for you from the choice works in the language of the Arabs.

I have copied it,—while the killing spear was sharpened by our hands and the sword drawn.

And death decrees one army to be exchanged for another, even (life’s) time (for its demise).

But I cease not from teaching you though death’s mouth is opened all about me,

In order that wisdom may come upon you,—for it is dearer to me than discovering my foes defeated.

Take it and reflect upon it and quit the crowds who deride language and speech.

Know that the man of understanding is like a tree of sweet fruit whose leaves are healing remedies,

While the fool is like the tree of the forest whose limbs and branches will be consumed by fire in the end.

Cold Days Have Come


The month of ‘Av has ended even ‘Elul and their heat is gone;
Also Tishri is gathered in and like them has passed.
Cold days have come and the new wine
Is red and its voice is still in the vat.
Therefore my friend, go among our companions
So that each may do as he intends.

Some said: Look at the clouds giving rain
And hear the thunder of the heavens on high,
And see the frost and the bonfire’s flame;
One descends while the other lifts and rises.
Come, drink from the cup and drink again
From the pitcher, night and day.

Translated by Leon J. Weinberger
from Leon J. Weinberger, trans.,
Jewish Prince in Moslem Spain: Selected Poems of Samuel ibn Nagrela.
(Tuscaloosa and London: The University of Alabama Press, 1997).
Copyright © 1973 by The University of Alabama Press.

For more, see here, here, and here.

For the idea of the double diaspora, or double exile, see here.


Meme credit: David A. Wacks

El que me esparsio me recogeria.

He who scattered me will gather me in.

LF photo