Friday, April 23, 2010

The Bintel Brief and the Tea Party Movement

You’ve probably never hear of the Bintel Brief. Wikipedia defines it as a ‘…Yiddish advice column printed without the sender's name, with answers meant to help others also. Started by the editor of Der Forvertz ("The Forward"), Abraham Cahan in 1906. The title means "a bundle of letters". In Yiddish, bintel means "bundle" and brief means a "letter" or "letters".’ It was a way for Jewish immigrants to become Americanized. You could learn what to bring if you were invited to dinner and how to address a possible suitor. In many ways, it was part of the process of shedding the culture of one country and adopting that of another.

The Jewish Daily the Forward continues the Bintel Brief as a blog and real people do write in. The advice-givers are now well-known writers such as Ariel Levy who writes for the New Yorker, or Rob Kutner who has written for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” and “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien,” It is still based on anonymous letters seeking advice. Many times, the writer is despondent about changes that the modern world has brought. The letters are often touching in that regard and frequently funny from a Woody Allen perspective. A recent inquiry was entitled “How Do I Get My Son's Family To Eat Dinner Together?” It was written by “A Concerned Bubbe.” Her opening paragraph is priceless in many ways: “I’m very upset. My son, daughter-in-law and their four children NEVER sit down together at the dinner table. One child works at Abercrombie & Fitch; another is being tutored for the SAT (Sheer Agony Test); another is on a traveling soccer team; the fourth child belongs to a Jewish motorcycle club called “Chai Riders.” This could be the premise for at least two novels, a movie, and a New Yorker article. The inquiry was answered by Joan Nathan, a well-known writer on Jewish cooking, who skillfully suggested ways of arranging a meal that would draw everyone together. It is fascinating, because the upset is about how to undo some of this Americanization and return to a sweeter and simpler time.

So what has this to do with the Tea Party movement? I recently read an article explaining that this phenomenon stems from a concern that the “real America” is being taken away by a lot of strangers and newcomers. The anger is an expression of frustration over the disappearance of what is familiar and comfortable. I am not suggesting that Concerned Bubbe is a “Tea-partier” but they do seem to share some of the same disappointment. Bubbes never really get angry, but they do get disappointed. I was hoping that writing this would lead me to some solution for the great division in America and the great political tensions that confront us, but for the moment that eludes me. But, I really did like going back to an earlier time and place.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Gotterdammerung, Billy Collins, and Alvin Ailey

This has been quite a cultural week for me. It started this past Sunday with Wagner’s opera Gotterdammerung at the L.A. Opera, then onto hearing America’s Poet Laureate Billy Collins at the MFA, and finally the Alvin Ailey Dance Group at the Wang Center (I refuse to call it the Citi Center). I have been trying to figure out how these all go together. They are all visual except for Billy Collins? None of them has been nominated for an Emmy or Golden Globe? They are all pretty different when you come down to it. I was beginning to feel that I was getting either indiscriminate or too universal in my tastes. After only a small amount of self-rebuke I came to the conclusion that they were all “playful.” Don’t worry, this will not be a discourse on my inner child, but more about what can catch your breath and attention. As the L.A. Times review tells you this is an unusual production of Gotterdammerung that is more like Star Wars than Wagner. Light Swords, a floating top hat, and a phalanx of dwarfs in funky masks and costumes all shout out “PLAYFUL.” Then again how can the poet laureate be playful? Billy Collins is wonderful, and even more amazing he is a clone of Bob Newhart, the 80’s comedian. In voice, delivery, and timing this could have been a monologue on the Smothers Brothers. He has a wonderful ability to play with words, ideas, and metaphors. Just like Bob Newhart. Finally, the Alvin Ailey Dancers – you can’t get more playful than most contemporary dance. It is beautiful and tongue-in-cheek at the same time. Whether it is a look at the Harlem Renaissance, the African roots of Jazz and dance, or the images of the old south, it is a playful and original way of presenting material that has become too iconic and stereotyped. Ok – maybe this is all too profound or even pretentious. I will try to compensate in my next post which will be about shopping for drapes.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Reality and Planning

“I’m not really crazy about reality, but it’s still the best place to get a decent meal”

                                                                      Groucho Marx

We are embarking on a new strategic planning process in my organization. One that hopefully will look out ten years into the future. In a recent meeting I found myself arguing for not paying much attention to the current reality. In fact, I wasn’t too excited about trying to gauge future reality (if that isn’t a contradiction). For me the goal was to come up with compelling vision of what our role could be in an unpredictable future. Maybe my assumption was that “belief” is an important part of success. If you have a good narrative about yourself and your organization, it will give you a road map that will provide enough direction to ensure achievement. It is an interesting question about how much that narrative must be based on “reality.” There are myths that we all know to be “unrealistic” but yet impact our thinking in useful ways. How many times has a work of fiction caused you to change your perceptions or reform your view of the world? Which are more powerful facts or ideas? Of course, it is always difficult to mount a full assault on reality. I will probably eventually succumb to competitor analyses, demographic studies, and regression equations that might reveal trend-lines. But there is something that is tempting about relying on faith, as billions of people do each day. Not blind faith – because that is always true of someone else. But instead the kind of belief that results in things happening that we thought would never happen. Perhaps Joseph Campbell said it best, “You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don't know what was in the newspapers that morning... a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. “

Friday, April 2, 2010

Marshmallow Chicks and Matzoh

So today is Good Friday. It does seem odd to be in my sixties and still associate Good Friday with having the next week off from school. But, that must be the way memories are laid down and the infrastructure of expectation is built. This year Easter coincides with Passover. I have an ecumenical association to the two holidays; Marshmallow chicks and Matzoh. My father owned a candy store in Brooklyn and the spring holidays were heralded by those little puffy soft chicks in the candy case, and matzoh crumbs on the floor. My sister brought a package of Peeps Brand marshmallow chicks to the Seder. I love the fact that Peeps puts the word "Brand" after its name so that you can distinguish it from the many other manufacturers of marshmallow chicks that you can choose from. Although I have to admit that they seem to have perfected the placement of those little block dots that make up the eyes of those cute birds. Making matzoh cute would be much more of a challenge. So what does this have to do with my current life? I wondered about that too. Even though I run an organization with "Jewish" in its name, I have always been sensitive to make sure that we have a culture that responds to all people in need. After all, "repairing the world" is part of our creed. JF&CS deals with people from every religion and ethnic group. Is it possible that growing up with those fluffy chicks and that tough matzoh is the source of the importance I place on diversity? It would not be a bad explanation. Have a great holiday - whichever you celebrate.