November 21, 2012

We'll Be Right Back

For one of my most indelible, beloved childhood memories, I have to thank Oprah.

Back when I was a teenager, Oprah dedicated one of her shows to the topic of interracial adoption.  A panel of experts and viewpoints were trotted out to sit on couches and comfortable chairs and talk about this "controversial" topic (this was at least 25 years ago, remember).

One of the panelists was Howard Altstein, who along with his wife Helene are my parents' oldest friends.  Howard's academic career was focused on interracial adoption, and Oprah had tracked him down.  (Oprah and Howard had taken opposite paths; she started on TV in Baltimore and eventually left for Chicago; Howard studied at Illinois and has lived in Baltimore for the past 40 years.)

I have no idea how Howard got selected to be on Oprah but it was big, big news in the Kranz household.  We gathered around the TV to watch the show.  At this point my memory is surely sketchy but as I remember it, Howard didn't talk for the first couple of segments.  Finally, after a heated exchange between some of the other panelists, Oprah glanced at Howard, who took her cue and said:

"The question is, what kind of society do we want?"

Loud applause.  Oprah nodded and said:

"We'll be right back."

Howard's TV shining moment comes up all the time amongst my brothers and me, but I have thought about  his Big Question more often than usual in the past few weeks. 

First it was Hurricane Sandy.  Everyone who lives in New York City understands or should understand the devastation it has caused, and the suffering that continues.  Three weeks later, many people still do not have heat, still do not have a home, as the dead of winter approaches.

What kind of society do we want?  In the aftermath of Sandy, I have seen volunteer efforts start from scratch, just people who wanted to do something to help.  I have seen relief efforts become overwhelmed by too many volunteers, too much clothing donated.  I have seen my synagogue, Beth Elohim, become a hurricane relief center and a food delivery station on the fly, people working around the clock to make sandwiches and deliver them to Red Hook, Coney Island, and The Rockaways.  I have seen the synagogue's chapel turned into a supply warehouse so that batteries, flashlights, candles, clothing, coats, cleaning supplies and other items could be collected and delivered where they are needed.  I have seen my neighbors answer the call.  I have never been prouder to live in Park Slope.

I have also seen Occupy Sandy: the Occupy folks rising to action (again) and taking over the church on Clinton Avenue and Atlantic.  A huge relief center with an eye on short term needs, but the Occupy folks have also spearheaded a fundraising effort to help people who lost their homes extricate themselves from crippling debt.  What kind of society do we want?

There are negative inferences to be made as well.  What are we doing about climate change?  Why hasn't the government been able to provide more support to relief efforts?  What are the insurance companies doing?  How will people rebuild?  So much work yet to be done.

But don't worry about Brooklyn.  Don't worry about Queens.  Don't worry about New Jersey.  Recovery will be tough but it will happen.  We'll be right back.

The second big event of the past few weeks was the presidential election.  President Obama won a second term and 51% of the country rejoiced, while 49% gritted their teeth or worse.  President Obama, a child of an interracial marriage, delivered his victory speech in Chicago, where Oprah taped her show with Howard back when the idea of a black president was nothing more than a funny standup routine.  I watched Obama interact with his family and thought to myself for the hundredth time: "This guy is a true family man.  He is a real person.  How can anyone not admire him?"  And yet, the next day the internet was flooded with insults and hatred for Obama's re-election.

America is divided.  Maybe we're not on the verge of civil war but we are polarized, each side believing their version of the truth with equal fervor.  How are we going to make this better?  Do we understand how much time and capital is being squandered in the interests of power rather than the interests of the people?  There is so much that our government needs to be address.  Can we agree on anything? What kind of society do we want?

Israel, on the other hand, is on the verge of a civil war.  Today's announcement of a cease fire in Gaza is good news, but the current prospects are discouraging.  Israeli citizens live in daily fear of rockets, bombs, suicide missions.  Gaza residents live in unsustainable conditions with no path to a better future.  It must be nearly impossible to live with such insecurity, on both sides, day after day.  As a Jew who cares about the existence of a Jewish state, I am frightened.  As a Jew who also believes (imperfectly) in the instruction to treat others as I would want them to treat me, I fear for the Arabs in Gaza and the West Bank who want peace but do not have the political leadership (on either side) to engender it.

I am proud that President Obama is my president.  I am proud that Congregation Beth Elohim is my home.  I am proud that Brooklyn is where I live.  I am proud to be a Jew, proud to support Israel.  And I am thankful for all these things.  And I would love to say that I live in an era, and that I am the type of person, who could take these lessons and sit at the Thanksgiving table and engage in a sincere expression of these feelings.  But that is too much to ask, at least for another year.

We're driving down to Maryland for the weekend, but don't worry: We'll be right back.

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