Wednesday, March 30, 2011

In Case You Missed the Interview on Monday Night...

You can now hear it now at: and

My interview begins about 50 minutes into the first hour, and continues for another 10 minutes or so into the second how.

But how bad was it that a phone that NEVER rings interrupted the interview, not once, but TWICE! Let me know what you think.

Monday, March 28, 2011

I'm Going to be a Guest on "Unconventional Wisdom" Tonight

I'm going to be interviewed about The Accidental Anarchist tonight on Larry Shiller's radio show, "Unconventional Wisdom." Tune in at tonight from 8:00-10:00 p.m. (My interview is scheduled to be around 8:45 p.m.) If you miss tonight's show, go to the same weblink another day, select Archives, and look for the 3/28 show.

For Author Appearances, contact

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Happy Purim ! (And Starbucks: Get Out of Mecca)

Two years ago, an Egyptian cleric claimed that the Starbucks mermaid logo is actually a depiction of Queen Esther, and that Starbucks should be banned from this Islamic world, not just the Mecca -- yes, there is even one, probably more than one now, in Mecca. You have to see this video to believe it:

Friday, March 18, 2011

In Honor of Purim: My Favorite *Fantasy*

No, it's not 'that' kind of fantasy, but it's one that has recurred regularly since I was a teenager. I'm sharing this on the eve of Purim, a holiday that commemorates yet another occasion on which the Jewish people weren't annihilated. (Joke:  The Entirely of Jewish History can be Summed Up in Ten Words: "They tried to kill us all; they failed, let's eat.")

Our story begins in the court of King Ahasuerus (aka Xerxes) of Persia, who summoned his wife, Queen Vashti (the Biblical version of the Trophy Wife), to display her beauty to the guests he was entertaining, but she refused. Fearing that women throughout his kingdom would interpret this as permission to defy their own husbands if he didn't make an example of Vashti, Ahasuerus removed (executed?) her from her position as Queen. Before the sheets even cooled, the King summoned all beautiful maidens in the kingdom to present themselves as candidates for her replacement.

As it happened, a young Jewish woman named Esther was determined to be the fairest of them all and became Ahasuerus' new bride. Around this time, her cousin, Mordechai, overheard of a plot to assassinate the King. He reported the plot through Esther, thus saving the King's life. (Don't worry if you have no idea how any of this plays into my fantasy, but hang in there).

Also around this time-- a busy week in Persia -- Haman was promoted to be the King's Vizier, his right-hand man. Incensed that one man, Mordechai, a Jew, didn't bow down to him as he felt befitted his station, Haman told the King that the Jews didn't obey the King's laws, and therefore they should all be destroyed. The King agreed, and issued the decree to annihilate all the Jews of Persia on the date that Haman had chosen. 
('Purim' comes from the Hebrew word for 'lottery' as Haman drew lots to determine the date on which to wipe out the Jews of Persia.)

I'll finish the story briefly because, after a long buildup, this where my fantasy comes in (and it has nothing to do with wanting to be Queen or dancing in harem pants).

Whether or not it was the decision to annihilate an entire race, the King couldn't sleep -- "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown" (Shakespeare, "Henry IV"), as well it should be for someone in a position to destroy an entire nation. He called for his favorite reading material, a chronicle of past events in his Kingdom, and discovered that the man who had saved his life, Mordechai, was never rewarded for doing so.

Mordechai told Esther of Haman's plot and implored her to beg the King for a reprieve for the Jews. Skipping more details to get to the point, Esther did so, thus saving the lives of her people. And at the King's insistence, she revealed that it was none other than Haman who had wanted to destroy the Jews. Being no fool (this time), the King had Haman and his 10 sons executed.

So what does this have to do with me? When I was a teenager, I had an idea for an episode of Star Trek (the original -- that's how long ago I was a teen) that would be loosely based on the story of "Hamlet." I wrote it up and mailed it to Gene Roddenberry, though I knew his assistant would merely toss the script outline into the slush pile.

But in my fantasy, Roddenberry can't sleep, and since no one has been writing a history of Star Trek (at that time), he reaches for -- you guessed it -- the slush pile, reads my story idea, thinks it's brilliant, and the rest is history. Or rather, the rest is a version of history that never happened. But every so often, when I submit an article, a manuscript, an idea, etc., especially one with high reward potential, his fantasy returns but now it's an editor/actor/producer/etc. who reads my tossed-aside submission, and you know the rest. I don't think this fantasy is unique; every writer probably harbors some version of it, even ones who don't know the story of Purim.

So the joke from the beginning of this piece ends with eating three-cornered pastries filled with fruit that are called Hamantashen, symbolizing Haman's favored, tri-corned headgear.

I hope this wasn't too much of a let-down from the build-up, but the following definitely is: While checking certain details of the Purim story, I came across new information that I had not learned in Hebrew School. In January of this year, the Iranian government downgraded the status of Mordechai and Esther's tomb (not a World Heritage Site but a pilgrimage destination for Jews and Muslims), which is located in the somewhat ironically named city of Hamedan. This was because 250 militant students threatened to destroy the tomb in retaliation for Israeli archaeological excavation beneath the Al-Aksa Mosque. The Mosque, an Islamic Holy Site, is located in the Old City of Jerusalem (adjacent to the  Western, or Wailing, Wall) where archaeological digs have been going on for many years.

But the consequences of removing the sign that identifies the tomb are greater than confounding pilgrims. Fars, an Iranian news agency, is promoting the idea of Purim as a day of mourning for Muslims, blaming Mordechai and Esther for calling for the massacre of 75,000 Persians on the date when all Persian Jews were supposed to have been destroyed. 

In my recollection, the Book of Esther that tells the events of Purim ends not long after Haman and his sons were executed. But what I read about the 'Purim Massacre' is this: Ahasuerus agreed to spare the Jewish people at Esther's request. Unfortunately, the King was not permitted to reverse a royal decree, even his own, so he gave his signet ring to Mordechai, who declared that the Jews of Persia should defend themselves from their pending destruction. Even this doesn't sound so terrible, but it goes further: Mordechai didn't merely tell Jews to defend themselves -- he told them to massacre the Persians who would have killed them. Purim, then, in Iran, is known as the "Iranian Holocaust," and there are calls to make it a day of mourning.

An excellent article in The Guardian traced the source of the story to a 1934 article "imitating German anti-semitism, fabricated sensational reports of Jewish plots." The explanation of how this led to the declaration of the "Iranian Holocause" is described far better in The Guardian article than I could summarize it here, so I suggest reading it.

What these events show is that racism is, as we know, alive and well, it also demonstrates that hatred can always find a 'reliable' basis. It's sad to see that in a time and place in which there is already enough persecution, there are people actively looking to stir the pot of hatred until it is roiling.

Happy Purim, and please pledge to be tolerant even of those who hate us.
(Dedicated to Rachelle Pachtman)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Back in NY Too Soon

Usually I look forward to being in New York, even returning so soon after I just left, but this time it was for an unhappy reason: My 25 year old nephew died suddenly on Thursday, and the funeral was in NJ yesterday, prior to the family bringing his body to Israel to bury him today.

For days we all wondered about the cause of death. Ilan Tokayer was a wonderful young man with a passion for lots of things, and a remarkable ability to connect with a wide range of people. His sister, who spoke at his funeral, said that he was her best friend from the day she was born. And his best friend spoke about how they were both ushers in a wedding last week, and Ariel told Ilan to "Slow down, you're leaving me behind." Which he did with a lot of us.

About 1000 people turned out for his funeral, and it was remarkable how much there was to say about a young man who, theoretically, would just have been starting to live, but Ilan had already done a lot. He was, as of the day he died, in the oenology program at University of California at Davis, studying the science and techniques of wine making, a field in which he had been working in New York, Israel and New Zealand. His plan had been to open a winery in Israel.

At the time he developed his passion for (kosher) wine, he was already an accomplished cook, having pioneered a technique of poaching salmon in the dishwasher (seriously!) He had also spent a year and a half in the Israeli army, as he felt it was his responsibility to do so as a Jew, and as someone who had both lived in Israel and planned to return there permanently.

Even as I was hearing his (accurate) qualities lauded, though, I was thinking about his mother, my sister-in-law Reva. There can be nothing worse than losing a child (one reason why I was so struck by the book and the message in "I Will Not Hate."), and hearing and seeing my sister-in-law's justified tears made my heart ache.

Yet, during the funeral, she managed to get up to speak to, and about, her son that, even through her tears, showed a lot of poise, and was quite loving and moving. I thought to myself, "I'd never be able to do that under comparable circumstances."

Since getting the news Thursday night, I kept reminding myself to put my own challenges in perspective, but even with my grandfather's, and my sister-in-law's, examples, I still find that hard to do. Are certain people better equipped to handle difficulties that would destroy someone else? Does it matter that some people have support systems that are outside themselves whereas others have to find it all from within? It's hard to assign a degree of difficulty to an experience the way sporting events are graded. One thing that is clear is that Ilan made a difference in the world. That's clear, not just because 1000 people showed up for his funeral in NJ, and another 1000 to the funeral/burial in Israel, but because the speakers were able to celebrate his short life, and not only that he was taken from us too soon. He was like an angel who was only on loan to us for a short time, not only to bring joy into our lives, but to demonstrate how to live fully, passionately, and to leave an impact. That's my personal definition of The Meaning of Life: To leave everyone you touch a little better off, and Ilan left his touch on many people.
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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Recent Talks

It was a rare, warm(ish) day in NY on the day I went to speak in Princeton. The library, whose list of speakers I had always admired, was under half a mile from the train station (one takes a very short train called the "dinky" from Princeton Junction to Princeton) and it was a lovely walk. The town, which is dominated (at least along the route that I followed) by Princeton University, was beautiful with Gothic buildings (the sun set as I walked from one end of the campus to the other, and I watched as the old buildings began glowing from the inside), flanked by old (in terms of age but not upkeep) New England-style homes. I stopped for frozen yogurt and thought it would be prudent to ask if it was safe to walk back to the train station later that night; the young guy laughed, and said that there hadn't been a crime in Princeton for 43 years (which was well beyond his lifetime of experience). And I realized that the group in attendance asked the highest number of questions per capita.

Following my presentation in Princeton, I went to South Florida for two more speaking opportunities (and to visit my son, Mike). The first was organized by my sister-in-law, Chani, who spent all day baking, despite not knowing how many people would show up on a "school night." But a nice sized crowd flowed in, listened attentively and asked questions, and then quickly grabbed something to eat and headed h ome to make sure their kids finished their homework, bathed, etc. I was quite impressed with the turnout, as I know I never had that much energy late (8:30 p.m.) on a school night.

The following morning, I spoke at a synagogue in Boca Raton to a surprisingly large audience -- about 200 people. In contrast to the Princeton audience, this group asked the fewest questions per capita, but many of them came over to me afterwards to tell me about their own personal connection to my grandfather's story -- one woman's father had been born the same year as my grandfather, another one had had a relative who was in the same war, though he knew nothing about it; I even met someone who had been at my parents' wedding.

I'm starting to get enough experience to know which jokes work with which audience, and even though I regularly get laughs, my kids still insist that I'm "not funny." I'll just keep messing with their heads by letting them know what other people think.