Remembering My Mom Four Years After Her Death – posted 12/14/2014

December 14, 2014 10 comments

I was in Alaska in 2010 when my brother Rob called to tell me that Mom was back in the hospital and things did not look good. I never saw her again.

It is now four years since her death. Levine’s, the funeral place just north of Philadelphia, sent me a little blue postcard reminder saying Mom’s yahrzeit is to be observed on December 26.

Not being religious and being unlikely to go to synagogue on December 26, I wanted to do something else to remember my mom. Writing about her is my way of honoring and remembering.

In the world of memories, I think about my mom’s passion for food. It was certainly a joy for her to prepare food for her family and friends.

My mom used to make special food she knew I liked when I went back to visit at the old apartment in Wynnewood Pa. She would also bring food when she came to New Hampshire to visit. She would make roast beef and apricot noodle kugel. For dessert, she would make yummy crumb cake. She did not deviate too often although she did try some different crumb cake recipes.

It is funny to think about but when I was a kid this gourmet chef made me bologna and cheese sandwiches for lunch at school all the time. I had that all through elementary school and I teased her about it in later years. I used to joke with her that I was only 5 foot 6 inches tall because she smoked during her pregnancy with me and then she fed me bologna sandwiches. I think she got tired of that joke.

That was before health food consciousness. Mom would also pack little Tastykake pies. For those unfamiliar with Tastykake (it is a Pennsylvania thing), they made a variety of desserts. My favorite was cherry pie but I could also go with lemon, blueberry or peach. I think I developed my original love of crumb cake from Koffee Kake Juniors.

Mom knew what I liked and she always made sure I had it. Now that seems like love.

Mom actually did that for everybody in the family, I think. I do remember meal times with Dad. Dad also liked Tastykake. He was partisan to Chocolate Peanut Butter Kandy Kakes and Butterscotch Krimpets. He famously would ask for “a mouthful” which was usually a lot more than a mouthful. He liked to have something sweet with coffee after dinner or Sunday lox and bagel brunch.

I am not doing justice to my mom’s serious cooking expertise. She had fantastic capability both as a cook and as someone who cared about food presentation. Mom was very artistic and her food often looked like something from Gourmet Magazine. That was not an accident since she was a subscriber.

In later years, she was something of a follower of celebrity chefs on TV. She liked Barefoot Contessa and Michael Chiarello but her absolute favorite was Mario Batali. We used to laugh about my infatuation with Giada. My mom was not a big Giada fan.

Mom seriously thought about marketing her struedel. Her struedel was a unique creation with coconut and currants and a puff pastry dough. She used a pastry marble slab that weighed like 50 pounds. Those who have tasted it know I am not exaggerating when I say it was out-of-this-world good. Mom had her own closely held family recipe which she was not willing to share. She had practiced and perfected this recipe for decades.

The struedel was very labor-intensive. I think the only two people who obtained the recipe were my niece Molly and my wife Debra. Both watched my mom make the struedel many times.

The struedel could never fly as a business proposition both because it took so much labor to make it right and because the cost you would need to charge would be too high. My mom did consult with business types about the project. They too raved about the product but it was not financially viable.

My mom returned to making it for family – not such a bad outcome for family members and close friends. The struedel was certainly not her only specialty. Her fruit salad known as “nana fruit” was a labor of love. She went to a nearby produce market and she would get seasonal fruit. There is fruit salad and fruit salad and as with anything, there are gradations of quality. Mom’s fruit salad was superior.

There are many things she made that were easy to take for granted but were really superlative because she was a pro. In this category I would mention her matzo ball soup. Her matzo balls were very light.

I remember very critical discussions about the relative merits of different matzo ball soup efforts by family members. My grandmother, Molly Keiser, was the gold standard. No one else could touch that level. Here I should note that Molly Keiser, my Nana Keiser, was a superb cook herself. She had a powerful teaching influence by example.

I remember my mom’s excellent latkes and she could make good gefilte fish from scratch. That was an accomplishment.

One other breakfast thing I wanted to mention was dippy eggs. For those who have never had the experience, you soft boil eggs and dip strips of buttered toast into the egg yolk. For my boys, Josh and Eric, Mom always got “little boxes”. That is cold cereal but those guys loved their little boxes.

My wife Debra reminded me of how often my mom would take care packages of her food to relatives who were sick. She did this repeatedly for my Aunt Ellie, my Aunt Arline and my Aunt Jane. She also often went to visit all of those I mentioned plus my Uncle Mort at a time they needed the company. Mom was a Florence Nightingale.

For my mom, food was a way to bring people together. At that she excelled. Young or old, people would come together when my mom cooked. She made food a communal experience. Some people have the unique capacity of being a glue to hold family together. My mom had that and no one can replace her.

I do want to thank my wife Debra for jogging my memory in preparing this piece and helping with her own recollections.

Noam Chomsky: An Appreciation – posted 12/6/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor on 12/12/2014

December 7, 2014 Leave a comment

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 12/12/2014 under the title “Truth to Power”. Jon

For Americans of the 1960’s generation, I can think of no intellectual who has been as important or influential as Noam Chomsky. For nearly 50 years, Chomsky has written voluminously on a wide array of political topics. I think it is fair to say he is either loved or hated.

I wanted to write an appreciation of the man and his political work. Although he may be the most famous intellectual in the world, here in America he is not exactly a household name. Chomsky generally gets the silent treatment from American mass media. His books are ignored and he is rarely given any air time.

We do not banish our writers to Siberia. Even blacklisting which arguably has happened to Chomsky is not necessary. The volume of media creates a new, more benign form of intellectual banishment. Serious works are swallowed and disappeared in a flood of infotainment. Inattention can also lead to obscurity even for someone as globally famous as Chomsky.

In his wonderful essay, “A Writer’s Credo”, Edward Abbey wrote:”…the moral duty of the free writer is to begin his work at home: to be a critic of his own community, his own country, his own government, his own culture.” That is Noam Chomsky. He has challenged and educated many people to see America differently.

Even more impressive, Chomsky has been an unrelenting activist. For years during the Vietnam War, I can personally attest to the fact Chomsky was a fixture at anti-war demonstrations in Boston, since I was often there and watched his speeches. He has sided with oppressed people internationally. That is part of what sets Chomsky apart from the majority of intellectuals who Abbey has described as “passive non-resisters to things as they are”.

I find Chomsky’s political writing and advocacy in opposition to the Vietnam War has been his greatest achievement. Context matters and Chomsky started opposing the war at a time it was overwhelmingly supported. It is hard to recreate that more narrow-minded time. I am old enough to remember it.

There really was no Left in the United States. Political conformity reigned. Whether you were a Democrat or a Republican, the spectrum of acceptable opinion was not broad. The civil rights movement was waking up the country to racism but American foreign policy was not critically discussed. The nation still suffered a Joe McCarthy hangover.

Most commentators, whether liberal or conservative, went along with the Vietnam War. The domino theory held sway.

I mention this history because it reflects on Chomsky’s bravery. He, along with some others, broke from the pack. He vociferously critiqued conventional wisdom about the war at a time that was exceedingly rare. He articulated a coherent and sophisticated anti-war perspective. No one could consider this a career move as far as pecuniary gain was concerned.

For his role, Chomsky will always be a hero to me. I particularly would mention Chomsky’s books, “American Power and the New Mandarins” and also “At War With Asia”, a collection of essays he wrote many of which had previously appeared in the New York Review of Books. These works hit with the force of a lightning bolt. Chomsky demolished apologists, supporters and justifiers of the war.

At the time, proponents of the war started from the premise that the war-makers had good intentions. As the war unravelled in its awfulness, they then evolved to thinking the war was a too costly mistake. The war ended being seen as the least bad of all bad alternatives. It had to be fought to stop a communist takeover.

Chomsky showed the systemic reasons for the war, the economic and political reasons. He placed the war in historical perspective and argued it was a continuation of our history of racism that began in the war against the Native Americans. He was careful to place blame and responsibility on the war’s powerful architects. Early on he recognized that our foot soldiers were also victims of the war.

In his book “At War With Asia”. Chomsky made the case for a complete and unilateral immediate withdrawal of all American troops and materiel from Vietnam. I am not sure if that case was ever argued more passionately and persuasively.

From the perch of 2014, the power of Chomsky’s critique is even clearer. He correctly saw the Vietnam War was essentially a savage American assault on a largely helpless rural population. The volume of violence unleashed by the American war machine was off the charts. Much effort went into mystifying the American public in an effort to sell the war. That effort still continues.

Fortunately, we now have meticulously researched works like Nick Turse’s book “Kill Anything That Moves”, a book that looks back on the Vietnam War. Turse documents the staggering loss of life, especially civilian casualties. Turse argues that the My Lai massacre was no one-of-a-kind event. Rather it reflected war crimes that were widespread and attributable to American command policies.

I do believe history will vindicate Chomsky on Vietnam. While public awareness about that war is woeful, more people recognize the war was both immoral and fundamentally wrong. Maybe someday Americans will honor critical thinkers like Chomsky who did not delude themselves into believing propaganda and lies.

I think in a more rational world there would be a national Noam Chomsky Day to celebrate the importance of critical thinking. Being modest, I expect Chomsky would hate that idea. Still, I do not think it is a crazy idea. I like the idea of honoring our most courageous truth-tellers who have been motivated by a simple love of justice.

In writing this piece, it was not my intent to defend every position Chomsky has taken over the years. He can do that quite well himself, I expect. I do think it is sad that he does not get the recognition here that he receives in the rest of the world. That says something not so good about us.

Music Review: “Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone” by Lucinda Williams – posted 11/28/2014

November 28, 2014 Leave a comment

I probably should lead off by making it clear that I am a huge Lucinda Williams fan. I do not own every album but I do own “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”, “West”, “Blessed” and her double album that was originally released in 1988 that was titled “Lucinda Williams”.

When I saw she had released a new double album, I did not hesitate. “Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone” is another fine album. Lucinda wrote almost all the songs.

I will not say I love every song but there are enough great ones. Disc one is especially strong. Lucinda is a poet of the dark side. I think she writes and sings eloquently about dysfunctionality, broken relationships, and people who screw up. She clearly has had her share of down moments yet nothing has defeated her. Her lyrics are passionate, politically informed and humane.

How many country rock stars (if that is what she is) would have a song titled “Compassion” that was based on a poem their dad wrote? I do not think too many.

I love “Stand Right By Each Other”, a statement song about the need to fight to keep a relationship together in the face of big difficulties. Really the advice is good and the song totally rocks. There is an adult quality about the weightiness of relationships and how much is at stake in breaking up. There is wisdom there coming from lived experience.

I also wanted to give special mention to a number of the other songs on Disc One. I especially like “Foolishness”. Lucinda has no use for fear mongers, people promoting pie-in-the-sky or liars. She dishes on them and I do see the song as an expression of her politics. Her song “Protection” is similar in that the lyrics engage the same fight. The cool thing is the liveliness of the music. The songs move. There is nothing boring or wasted.

“Burning Bridges” is a song about self-destructive behavior. It asks why the self-destructive person is doing the bad behavior and why he keeps doing it. Why does he want to burn bridges when it is so clearly not the way to go and he is only hurting himself. The question is pertinent and common. Like the other songs I mentioned, Lucinda gives the song great energy and drive. The genius in the music is her ability to be topical, accessible, and so lively.

I did not think Disc Two was quite as good as Disc One although there are some great songs on Disc Two. My personal favorite is “Walk On”, a very catchy number. It is not so much the lyrics as the music. I have listened to it a lot. The song will grab you. I also like “When I Look At the World”. It captures the duality of life with awful sadness co-existing with life in all its glory. The song is reminiscent of W.H. Auden’s famous poem Musee des Beaux Arts. That poem took off on Brueghel”s Icarus painting where people apathetically go on with their lives, ignoring the suffering around them. “When I Look at the World” contrasts the extremes in life.

Lucinda writes:

“…I’ve been filled with regret
I’ve made a mess of things, I’ve been a total wreck
I’ve been disrespected and had my patience tried

But then I look at the world and all its glory
I look at the world and it’s a different story
Each time I look at the world.”

Patty Loveless has said of Lucinda: “She writes from the heart of real life. You can hear lives being played out in her lyrics, and the stories capture the way it really is.” Those words are true.

I will take the liberty of ending with some lyrics Lucinda wrote from a different album. I just like it. The song is “Something About What Happens When We Talk”.

“If I had my way I’d be in your town
I might not stay but at least I would’ve been around
‘Cause there’s something about what happens
when we talk

Does it make sense, does it matter anyway
Is it coincidence or was it meant to be

‘Cause there’s something about what happens
when we talk

Conversation with you was like a drug
It wasn’t your face so much as it was your words

‘Cause there’s something about what happens
when we talk
Something about what happens when we talk

I can’t stick around, I’m going back South
But all I regret now is I never kissed your mouth

“Cause there’s something about what happens
when we talk
Something about what happens when we talk

The Declining Quality of Protest – posted 11/16/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor on 11/21/2014

November 17, 2014 1 comment

This piece ran in the Concord Monitor on 11/21/2014 under the title “The Decline of Protest.”

The 2014 Pumpkin Festival held in Keene New Hampshire did get me thinking. What was that about? Why did a pumpkin festival become a riot scene? Was it really a riot to fight for the right to party, that most fundamental of all American rights?

I was not in Keene to witness the mayhem but from most accounts it did seem to be a protest about the right to party and drink. Possibly it dignifies the riot too much to consider it “a protest”.

Thousands of college students descended upon Keene looking for beer. The students came from UNH, University of Rhode Island, U. Mass – not just Keene State. It was not as spontaneous as it might have seemed. Social media helped to build the event encouraging kids to rage.

The Daily Beast reported that Finnarage, a company which hosts pop-up parties on or near college campuses, advertised for a month and a half before the Pumpkin Festival that it was coming to Keene. On September 10, Finnarage tweeted, “# KSC Spring weekend!! Pumpkin Fest 2014 will be 10x crazier..YOU READY KEENE #Finnarage.”

It does not seem surprising that if you add together young people drinking excessively, setting fires, tipping cars, smashing windows, throwing rocks and bottles and police in swat gear with tear gas, tasers, pepper spray and canine units, you have a recipe for insanity.

I do not see the Pumpkin Festival riot as nihilistic. I think it is more an example of mindlessness.

At the age of 63, I feel like I have earned the right to indulge in being a curmudgeon. May I say that the behavior of the student/rioters was incredibly dumb if not moronic. Congratulations! If I was asked to give a leading example of the dumbing-down of America, I would point to the 2014 Pumpkin Festival riot, a riot about nothing.

I remember when people connected protest with a cause. Now there is a novel concept! When I was in college, I do not recall anyone feeling the need to riot for the right to get blitzed. That right was always taken for granted.

I suppose I cannot help but think back to my own college experience. Along with many others, I spent a considerable amount of time during college protesting the war in Vietnam. Demonstrating against that war may have been the archetypal experience of my whole generation. To this day, I feel proud of that dissent and protest. We college students of that era educated the nation and turned the tide of public opinion against that monstrous war.

Thinking about the Pumpkin Festival, it is hard not to see it as reflecting some debasement of the honorable act of protest. Protest at its best is about speaking up for what is right and putting human values above material values. It is about creating a more democratic and humane society. I think of values like caring, compassion and empathy.

I certainly do not see the Pumpkin Festival as the only recent example of debased protest. Before leaving Keene, a city I genuinely like, I would also mention the so-called Keene Robin Hooders. These individuals closely follow city parking enforcement officers around as the officers check on whether parking meters have expired. The Robin Hooders have put change into expired parking meters before the city’s parking enforcement officers can write tickets. They have been accused of harassing and intimidating parking meter officers by taunting, crowding, making video recordings and accusing officers of stealing people’s money. The harassment has caused one officer to quit his job.

We all pick and choose our battles in life but parking meter enforcement officers? C’mon man. That is sad. I mean in an era when we have extreme income inequality, they focus on poor beleaguered parking meter officers. Hey what about the 1% if you need a focus? I would classify this protest as stupid too.

I think the use of Robin Hood’s name is misplaced. In English folklore, Robin Hood was portrayed as robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. The Keene Robin Hooders are most certainly not doing that. No one loves paying for parking but no doubt city government needs that money to pay for essential services. The lack of revenue is a perennial problem that probably hurts the poor the most. I also think that if parking was not paid some folks would hog spaces and less people would have access to shop or do the things they need to do downtown. Paid parking allows for more turnover of the limited space available.

The dumbing down of protest is certainly not just an American phenomenon. In the international realm, I do want to give honorable mention to the Islamic State. Here we are not talking mindless drinkers on a rampage. We are talking an extremely dangerous political movement with a medieval, viciously misogynist bent.

I have read that young people from various countries have flocked to Syria and Iraq to join that fight on behalf of the Islamic State like it is some kind of idealistic mission. In between video beheadings of innocent hostages, blowing up religious holy sites, selling women into slavery , suicide and car bombings, you have to wonder about the reasons for the appeal of this movement.

Amnesty International has found the Islamic State guilty of ethnic cleansing of ethnic and religious minority groups in Northern Iraq. It is hard to keep up with the Islamic State’s track record of kidnapping, torture, executions and rape. And this from a group that publicly describes itself as acting in the name of a religion.

On the scale of mindlessness to nihilism, I think we can safely place the Islamic State as tipping the extreme nihilism end of the spectrum. As has been said about them, they are not about violence as a means to an end. They are about violence as an end in itself.

While protest may be as American as apple pie, even in the area of protest, quality matters. I have to believe we can do much better than the mindlessness-nihilism spectrum.

Book Review: “Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund” by Arnie Bernstein – posted 11/11/2014

November 12, 2014 1 comment

Arnie Bernstein’s book, Swastika Nation, peers into a little known bit of American history. Bernstein investigates the Nazi movement in the United States before World War II. I have to say it is not a movement I knew anything about. I had heard of Father Coughlin, Gerald L.K. Smith and the Silver Shirts but I did not know anything about the German-American Bund.

My reason for wanting to read the book came out of curiosity about how far the movement actually got in the United States. Where did they get their supporters? Who were they? What was the sociological make-up of the movement? What was the Bund’s relationship to Nazi Germany? I wondered if there are any lessons we could learn about right wing extremism.

Bernstein’s book provides some answers. It is more a pop history and a character study than an academic work. I think Bernstein was trying for more of a mass than academic audience. Swastika Nation tells some good stories, especially about Fritz Kuhn, who was the major Bund leader in the 1930’s. Also, Bernstein chronicles the opposition to the Bund, Jewish and otherwise. He shows how opposition came from some unlikely places, including from Jewish gangsters like Meyer Lansky and Mickey Cohen.

I guess the good news to report is that the Bund never got far in America. Even before the crimes of the German Nazis became more widely known, they never moved beyond being a very fringe movement. They struggled with self-definition. Were they German or were they American? Were they an arm of the German Nazi Party or were they an independent American variant? They never seemed to figure that out.

In the Bund constitution, membership was open “to all Americans and prospective citizens of Aryan blood of German extraction and good reputation.” It is hard not to think such a self-definition was incredibly limiting. Such an absurd self-definition contrasted with the diversity of America. On its face, it ruled out huge numbers. Unless people already saw themselves as Hitler sympathizers, I have a hard time imagining that there were Americans who were proudly seeing themselves as having Aryan blood. i think that was probably true even in the South.

The Bund always remained focused on Nazi Germany. They wanted to be just like the German Nazis, swearing allegiance to Hitler, but they were living in another country. Their efforts to adapt to America and to Americanize were never successful.

At their height in 1939 when they packed a rally with 20,000 supporters at Madison Square Garden in New York City, they attempted to manipulate the image of George Washington as some type of Nazi precursor. They surrounded a huge image of Washington with swastikas, Betsy Ross American flags, and anti-Jewish propaganda. Kuhn argued for an America ruled by white gentiles, labor unions free from Jewish communists, a thorough cleansing of the Hollywood film industries of all alien, subversive influences and a return to the policies of George Washington, free of any foreign influence.

Kuhn apparently did not appreciate the irony of his call for Americans to be free of any foreign influence when the Bund was obsessively and slavishly mimicking all things Nazi Germany. Bernstein shows how Kuhn and the other Bund leaders were always trying to get the German Nazis to give them the official nod as the true American Nazi entity, blessed by Hitler.

The German government never did strongly endorse the Bund. Kuhn made a pilgrimmage to Germany in 1936 and met with Hitler and other high-up Nazis but the German Nazis always maintained a distance.

Bernstein reported that in the 1930’s, Kuhn said the Bund had 200,000 members nationally. This is highly doubtful and there is no way to check it. In 1936, the New York Times reported the Bund membership was between 6000-8000. Most lived in large cities on the coasts or in the midwest. Bernstein wrote:

“The vast majority of the Bundists were blue-collar workers, employed as mechanics, at restaurants, lowly office clerks, itinerant job hoppers. There was a smattering of professional people within the ranks…”

The Bund was viciously anti-semitic. They despised FDR as a man with a secret Jewish past. They referred to President Roosevelt as “Rosenfelt”. Kuhn described Jews as “conniving sorcerers” devoted to the persecution of German-Americans. Jews were “money-mad leeches” and “master magicians”. Kuhn described a fantastical version of American history where Jews were a secret cabal behind the scenes pulling strings. Kuhn said Jewish carpetbaggers swept through the post-Civil War South exploiting newly freed blacks with promises of “a white woman for a sweetheart”.

It is truly amazing that anyone could have believed this delusional crap. I am reminded of the words of Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Interestingly, Fritz Kuhn was inspired by Henry Ford of Ford Motor Company fame. Kuhn was actually a Ford employee. Henry Ford, who was one of the most powerful, wealthy and famous men in America was also a committed anti-semite. Ford was extremely public about his anti-semitism. He used a paper he financially controlled, the Dearborn Independent, to repeatedly warn that Jews were the root of America and the world’s ills. He spent heavily to take what was an an obscure local paper to try and turn it into a national force. He called his regular feature column, “The International Jew”. Eventually the columns were collected into a four volume book of the same name. Ford car dealerships were required to meet a quota for subscription sales.

Ford is the only American Hitler mentions in Mein Kampf. In 1931, Hitler told a reporter from the Detroit News that he regarded Ford as his inspiration and he explained he kept a life-size portrait of Ford next to his desk. Ford actually reprinted The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion in the Dearborn Independent. In 1938, Ford received an award from the German Nazis, “The Grand Cross of the German Eagle.”

Henry Ford created nightmares for Ford Motor Company. Others at the company tried for years to repair his damage.

Kuhn modelled his leadership on the corporate Leadership Principle used by Henry Ford. As Bernstein says, Kuhn felt one man with vision and determination could control people on a monumental scale. Hitler was the leading example of giving one man almost total power.

Kuhn called himself the Bundesfuhrer. The term president was too mild and American-like. He wanted to follow the Hitler example. Hitler was a fuhrer so Kuhn successfully sold his colleagues on this meglomaniacal title.

Things did not end well for Kuhn. He was tried for grand larceny (diverting Bund money for his personal use), forgery and falsifying entries in Bund account books. Bernstein shows how the married Kuhn used his control of Bund money to finance a long string of mistresses on the side. When he was not playing Bundesfuhrer, he was quite the playboy. Kuhn had the chutzpah to argue that as Bundesfuhrer with total control and power he had the freedom to use money however he wanted.

While the House Un-American Activities Committee usually attacked the Left, they did go after Kuhn. The famous reporter Walter Winchell also pursued Kuhn with a vengeance. Winchell called Kuhn : Phffftz Kuhn, Kuhnazi, The Shamerican, Son-of-a-Fritz and Chief of the Ratzis.

The criminal case against Kuhn ended in a conviction. The jury found Kuhn guilty of larceny and forgery. Kuhn went to prison for 3 and one-half years.

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the political heat greatly increased on the Bund and other American fascists. The Bund dissolved itself within weeks of Pearl Harbor.

In 1943, when Kuhn was paroled from jail, his problems did not end. He was denaturalized and eventually deported back to Germany. In a little poetic justice, after his return to Germany, Kuhn was sent to Dachau which had been turned into a prison for German war criminals. He wanted to return to the U.S. but that request was denied. Kuhn died in obscurity and poverty in1951.

In reading Swastika Nation, I was struck by how support for anti-semitism could come from elite sources like Henry Ford. Anti-semites and fascists are not necessarily uneducated bigots. I worry that the United States remains susceptible to irrational strands of right wing populism. We are likely past Nazism but we seem to have little respect for science or intellectualism. There is a quote famously attributed to Sinclair Lewis: “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” I think this is still closer to the truth.

Bernstein’s book provides insight into why the American Nazis did not succeed. Hopefully they will never learn from their mistakes.

What Happens When a Federal District Court Judge Beats His Wife? – posted 11/2/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor on 11/8/2014

November 2, 2014 2 comments

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on November 8, 2014 under the title “Why are athletes held to a higher standard than judges?”

Ever since the Ray Rice domestic violence case exploded across the media, public attention to domestic violence has probably reached an all-time high. The video of Rice’s brutal assault on his then-fiancee opened a window into a world that is almost always locked behind closed doors. Just about everyone had an opinion about how the NFL should punish Rice. The NFL ended up suspending Rice indefinitely after first blundering with a two game suspension.

Since August, there has been another high profile domestic violence case which has almost inexplicably received much less public attention. That is the case of Alabama Federal Court Judge Mark Fuller. Fuller has been on the bench since 2002 when he was appointed by President George W. Bush. Previously, Fuller was best known for presiding over the highly controversial bribery trial of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman.

While there is no video of the alleged domestic violence, there is a recorded 911 call from Judge Fuller’s wife, Kelli Fuller. The call came from a Ritz Carlton hotel room in Atlanta on the evening of August 9. Mrs. Fuller reported that the judge had assaulted her during an argument about her suspicions that the judge had been having an extramarital affair with a law clerk.

In a police report, Mrs. Fuller stated that after she confronted him, the judge pulled her hair, threw her to the ground and kicked her. She also stated that she was dragged across the hotel room. She reported that the judge hit her in the mouth several times with his hands. Mrs. Fuller further reported the judge had been drinking that night.

The officers on the scene reported Mrs. Fuller had “visible cuts on her mouth and forehead when she answered the door in tears”. The officers observed bruises on Mrs. Fuller’s legs. Judge Fuller had no visible injuries.

In his interview with the police, Judge Fuller said he acted defensively after his wife hurled a drink glass toward him while he watched CNN.

Judge Fuller’s 17 year old stepson who was also at the hotel told the police that this episode was similar to past confrontations between Mrs. Fuller and the judge.

After his arrest for misdemeanor battery, the police released Judge Fuller from jail and he posted $5000 bail. He then subsequently accepted a plea deal in which he agreed to go to 24 weeks of counselling. After the completion of once-weekly abuse counselling and a drug/alcohol evaluation, his arrest record will be expunged. There will be no trial to establish facts. As Margaret Talbot pointed out in an excellent article in the New Yorker, nationally fewer than 10% of domestic abuse charges lead to pretrial diversion programs like Fuller’s. The judge is effectively getting a slap on the wrist.

Meanwhile, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, a federal appellate court overseeing the federal court in Alabama, suspended Judge Fuller from hearing cases, pending an investigation. For now, all Fuller’s cases have been reassigned to other judges and he will not be assigned new cases. He does continue to receive his salary.

So far Judge Fuller has refused calls that he resign. He has made it clear he intends to resume his judicial duties soon. He has requested privacy so his family can heal.

Congresswoman Terri Sewell of Alabama’s 7th Congressional District has publicly called for Judge Fuller’s resignation as has the entire Alabama Congressional Delegation including both Republican Senators, Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions. If Judge Fuller does not resign, Congresswoman Sewell has announced an intention to initiate impeachment proceedings.

In a recent interview, Judge Fuller and his attorney, Barry Ragsdale, both dismissed calls to resign as response to “public pressure and public passions that a federal judge doesn’t have to respond to.” Judge Fuller’s attorney took it a step farther:

“It got caught up in the Ray Rice and NFL scandals and it’s gotten lumped into a category of domestic violence that I don’t think it belongs in”.

I do not think it is going out on much of a limb to say that if a federal judge commits domestic violence, Congress should impeach him if he does not resign. While impeachment for off-the-bench misconduct by a federal judge may be rare, I do not see the circumstances as a close to the line situation. Judge Fuller is way over the line. Wife-beating is one of those off-the-bench acts of misconduct that makes the impeachment-worthy list.

At present we have Ray Rice going down and losing his job but Judge Fuller gets a sweet deal and skates. At least that is where things stand now. I have been surprised how muted reaction has been to Judge Fuller’s case. To date, the federal judiciary’s response to Judge Fuller has been weaker than the NFL’s response to Rice. I would think the court would be worried about double standards and such a tiny punishment for a serious crime.

The Code of Conduct for United States Judges could not be clearer: “A judge should avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities”. The prohibition applies to both professional and personal conduct.

Commentary on the judicial canon goes on to state: “Public confidence in the judiciary is eroded by irresponsible or improper conduct by judges…A judge must expect to be the subject of constant public scrutiny and accept freely and willingly restrictions that might be viewed as burdensome by the ordinary citizen.”

As should be obvious, it tarnishes the federal judiciary to keep a wife-beater on the bench. I also think it is an insult to victims of domestic violence as Judge Fuller’s continued presence on the bench trivializes the crime. The judge should not be able to hide behind a veil of privacy.

The feminist movement over the last 50 years has shown how the concept of family privacy shielded wife abuse. It is now recognized that wife-beating does not fall into a zone of privacy. It is a crime against the community – not just the victim. As law professor Reva Siegel has pointed out, there is a long history of men who assault their wives being granted immunity from prosecution supposedly in order to protect the privacy of the family and domestic harmony.

So what happens when a federal judge beats his wife? Apparently not a lot. It needs to be studied. Judge Fuller must be hoping he can simply ride out what storm there is. Are we really going to let a professional football player be held to a higher standard than a federal judge? It remains to be seen what price Judge Fuller will pay.

My sister, Lisa Baird, 5 Years later – posted 10/19/2014

October 19, 2014 3 comments

It has now been 5 years since my sister Lisa died. My family organized a memorial event on November 22, 2009 at the Germantown Jewish Center. Many people attended and quite a few people offered remarks. On this occasion I wanted to remember Lisa by reprinting the remarks of Lisa’s friend, Sherri Grasmuck, as well as my own remarks on that day. I also wanted to add a very artful video tribute to my sister that was created by my son Josh. This also was shown at the 2009 memorial event. The video is about 10 minutes long. The link is

Sherri’s remarks

I would like to begin by publicly thanking Deena for the generous way she opened her home to so many of us who loved Lisa and felt the need to be very close in the final days of her life and for the attentive and brave way she confronted the unbearable process of watching her second child die in her presence. Lisa felt that it was in her mother’s care that she wanted to have her final days and to have that relationship affirmed by those final days spent together. Thus we are even more grateful that you shared these treasured moments and your beautiful canopied bed with so many of us.

Though I have known Lisa for more than 30 years, she remains a mystery to me. Since she died I have been trying to get my head around that. I knew her in Texas in overlapping political circles, and lived with her at two different times in Germantown in the early l980’s, once as single women and once when she lived with John and me in a quasi-group house and through the years between then and now. Lisa was a very happy soul back in those early days. We shared many happy solutions to life’s challenges.

Rather than repairing or repainting ugly chipping walls in my house, we drove to French Creek State park with John and painted on huge rolls of paper, murals of bold red and black streaks. We then nailed them over all the questionable surfaces of my house, deluding ourselves that it worked aesthetically.

We had the good fortune to wear the same shoe size. So when we were shifting from hippydom to our early professional jobs, we managed to share for one solid year, on alternative days, the one acceptable pair of shoes— we had. A pair of flat heeled, blond Spanish leather pumps. We mourned that lost capacity when she moved out- a sweet kind of shoe intimacy.

Another challenge related to our commitment to shared meals in that group house. In those days, Lisa was one of the worst cooks imaginable. There was not a noodle casserole, one of her favorites, which she did not overcook by at least an hour. We coped by giving her one less night to cook than the rest of us. She loved to assure me later in life that she had overcome that early disability. But since one of her favorite contributions to potlucks was strudel made not by her but by Deena, her mother, my doubts lingered.

When I think of Lisa I think of polka dots.

There is a lot to celebrate about polka dots

and a lot to share in that spunky, playful, out-there side of Lisa.

Think about it.

Polka dots are perky, mischievous and stick together, devoted to collective solidarity, ready but huddled on the same surface.

Their mere presence, especially if they appear on someone’s grandmother’s underwear, can bring a smile, like Lisa–an announcement that frivolity is allowed.

Her gray blue eyes, those golf ball pink cheeks, curls and more curls.

The way she leaned forward to tease. Lisa was game.

Always happy to see you, taking time to remember details of our lives that so many others seemed to forget.

Polka dots and Lisa in their essence just make us smile.

Polka dots also huddle together, ready for action and but clustered together on the same surface.

They dramatize, like Lisa, solidarity. Lisa’s was the human kind.

She cared about and was interested in human dramas. No conversation with Lisa failed to include a detailed account of someone else’s life. She knew a lot about the people she worked with, carried those stories around with her. Recently she hired my daughter, Tessa, to do some official translation at a deportation hearing and what struck her most, even more than the intensity of the drama involved was how much time Lisa spent beforehand offering details of the lives of her clients so that she would see them through their human yearnings, even though it was not essential to the task of translating their words.

Lisa enriched so many lives; she had a powerful urge to have children, and to love them deeply, to make them know this. She certainly succeeded in this just as she succeeded in enriching, improving even rescuing the lives of so many others, clients and friends alike.

Polka dots and Lisa, make us smile and feel their solidarity.

But polka dots also float in a mysterious darkness, something below the surface that contrasts with the happy dance. Lisa could delight us with her stories, but they also served to direct our attention away from her present, from her own unresolved personal struggles.

Lisa was a master at looking away from her present.

Listening to Lisa sometimes I wanted desperately to stop her from talking about so many other people, to admit in a shouting voice that she deserved more personal happiness, to face what she needed to do to rescue her heart from manipulation, to rescue herself from the need to fight for her right to love her children in an unfettered way. But Lisa was a master of camouflage, she would trick you, she would turn that gaze on you, on your needs, making you collude in turning away from her deepest longings.

Lisa said to me at the end of her life, “Sher, you know that I’ve has always been my own worst enemy,” her form of, personally taking on the blame for not having gotten her house more in order. Though my head tells me otherwise, my heart rebels and leaves me with a lingering despair that perhaps more could have been done to help her feel more entitled to a defense of her own welfare. Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t shake the haunting feeling that we did not find the way to help her rescue herself in a manner similar to the way she rescued others. But Lise was a master at directing our and her own attention toward the happy polka dots and away from the darker isolation of her life. But both were part of the truth of her existence.

I hope Molly and Lou will take comfort in the years to come in the depth of her love for them, by remembering how much meaning and joy they gave to her existence. She held onto life so tenaciously precisely because of them. I am profoundly grateful to Lisa for the way her friendship enriched my life. I share the profundity of the loss that her family feels. But it is a small comfort to me to realize that Lisa is also now free from the burdens she privately endured as she sparkled, danced and delighted the lives of so many of us.

My remarks

This event stirs up many feelings. Pride in the person my sister was. Horrible sadness in the tragedy of her death. Regret at what we will not be able to share. And fear that life will go on its normal way with Lisa forgotten.

I was recently told that in early Polynesian culture, the world was not divided up into the living and the dead. Rather, there were the dead and forgotten, the dead and remembered and the alive.

I am glad we are here today remembering Lisa and honoring her memory. Lisa was an unsung heroine, although I know she would have resisted that characterization. She attended to the small daily tasks of family and the injuries to her clients with zealous devotion. But she also had a bigger picture view that she remained true to. Lisa represented the best of the New Left generation.

In looking through Lisa memorabilia at my mom’s apartment, I came across her old Baldwin School yearbook from 1970. The quote under her picture read, “Hello I love you won’t you tell me your name.”

That totally evokes the Lisa I knew my whole life. Lisa’s magic was her warmth and capacity for empathy. That was a great connector with all kinds of people from all walks of life. She redefined the attorney client relationship to something warmer than the norm. To resurrect an old phrase, Lisa could feel your pain. Instead of turning away from other peoples’ pain, she took the person in. Lisa was about as down-to-earth as you could get.

That empathetic quality was at the heart of Lisa’s politics and her lawyering.

I am reminded of a quote from a beautiful book, Song of Ariran, about a Korean revolutionary, written by Nym Wales, Edgar Snow’s wife.

“I like unhappy people. I understand them. Suffering creates character and human feeling. Cheerful, happy people seem like idiots to me. They seem to fly over the surface of life and never to know its meaning. They are not close to the heart of humanity but are remote and isolated. Perhaps this is why they can remain cheerful.”

Lisa did know about suffering and pain. She was schooled in it and maybe that is why she was close to the heart of humanity. She never seemed to do anything the easy way. I think this was true in many areas of her life. I wish it had not been so true.

I have to say that in her last weeks I never saw even an iota of self-pity. She faced her death with bravery. On mornings when she got up and felt a little better, she would say to me, “I don’t think I’m going to croak today.” Her focus remained her kids and her clients.

Her selfless quality drove me crazy because so often she left herself out of the equation. That is very unusual in this culture, but Lisa was stubborn and pretty much went her own way.

Marion Wright Edelman has said that “service is the rent we pay for living”. I think that was Lisa’s ethic.

She was very precocious politically. She figured out capitalism at age 16. She made it her business to educate me. Lisa was a critical thinker, but she was always engaged in practical politics to help poor and oppressed people. Her activism was lifelong and it never stopped. Lisa never surrendered. I am glad that she got to see Barack Obama elected President.

Lisa had a lighter side with a fine sense of humor. I wanted to mention some random memories of happy times:

* playing stair games at 284 Melrose Road when we were little
* Lisa’s boffo performance as the Artful Dodger in Oliver singing “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” at Friends Central School in 4th grade
* her encyclopedic knowledge of Broadway show lyrics and her frequent singing demonstrating that memory
* her horseback riding, especially with my Dad
* her being Winnie captain at Camp Red Wing where she had fabulous good times and adored being a camper
* her falling asleep in my bedroom early doing her Baldwin homework because she was a morning person
* her long distance swimming, especially with Joyce Abrams
* bobbing contests with me at the Longport Seaview pool in Longport NJ
* just being at the shore in NJ with Rob, Mom and Dad
* teasing Lisa for her whole life with her affectionate way of responding to my teasing by saying, “Shut up, you asshole!”.

To Molly and Lou, I want to say your mother unconditionally adored you. To say she was proud of you does not do justice to the depth of her feelings. She kvelled talking about both of you. Your happiness was probably the most important thing in her life. She was a warrior for both of you and I hope the memory of her love can be a source of strength for you.

To my mom, I want to say thanks for opening up your home and allowing Lise to have as humane an end to her life as possible. Mom, you have always been a tremendous, caring mother. Lise, Rob, Rich, and I have been and are blessed to have you as a mom.

To Lisa’s friends, I again want to say thank you for your amazing support and help during this most trying period. Tish, you were an angel. Bob, John and Sherri, Bebo, and Eva, I will always be grateful for your stepping up at the hardest times. Kate Winkler, I also want to mention because she was there in the trenches for Lise. I think Kate gave Lisa courage to go on and vice versa. I know I am not naming others who I should name and thank. Please do not be offended. Lisa had a wide circle.

Finally, I want to say “Lise, I will miss you.” I was incredibly lucky to have a sister like you. You taught me so much and helped me in a million ways. I miss the simple act of calling you up everyday and chatting. Please know that I will miss you everyday I am alive.


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