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February 2018
Norman Mailer in Synagogue
The best writer of his generation addresses the pews.

Seeing Shlomo
A bittersweet remembrance of my teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

Where There's Smoke
A politically incorrect view of the current rage to ban all smoking everywhere.

Building the House
The contractor -- can't live with him, can't kill him. Or can you?

A Wing and a Prayer
Finding a small homecoming in transit.

Gunning Down the Cockroaches
Roach problem? Just call the expert.

Waiting for Death
Our parents taught us how to live. Their final gift -- showing us how to die.

On the Road
Driving beyond the Green Line prompts a look in the mirror.

Dog Days
Summer ended when they came to kill my dog.

On Guard
Guys like me don't carry guns, right?

Learning to Pray
It's slow and not easy. But that's not all.

Turning 50
Some thoughts on a millstone - uh, make that milestone - birthday.

Outsider Art
Simply the most compelling art exhibit I've ever seen.

Dave van Ronk
A visit to the world of my favorite folk singer.

Remember: "stressed" spelled backwards is "desserts."

New Year’s Celebration
Watching the ball drop slowly in my daughter’s life.

My Father's Blessing
A poignant final moment strengthens my fragile connection to my father.

Going Crazy
Being at war while normal life continues makes life in Israel feel crazy.

Visiting Rose
Old and poor, she's got one hope left: the movie of her life.

Against Family Values
In praise of the wild, sexy, unpredictable amusement park of reality.

Ozzie, Harriet, David and Rick
I suppose my family is just the sort of folks that the "family values" people would be proud of - solid, hard-working, church-going consumers. Why, I even took a couple of days off from work last week to spend some quality time with my near and dear, good husband and father that I am.

On Sunday, we went to the County Museum. As always, the most interesting viewing was the other people.

I was especially struck by one thirtysomething couple because the woman, dressed in jeans, with shoulder-length auburn hair, was - a man. S/he was pleasantly busty in a black sweater but flat-hipped; the ultimate giveaway was a tough masculine face with five o'clock shadow. I discreetly followed the two of them around for a while to be sure. A guy in drag; take my word for it.

At first I was shocked, having become provincialized, I guess, by spending so much of my time in the relentlessly bourgeois environs of the "organized" Jewish community. (One hardly ever sees cross-dressers at morning minyan, for example.) But after my initial shock, I felt glad to see this nervy fellow. Isn't it merry it is to live in so diverse, sexy and surprising a world?

At midweek, my wife and I took our daughter and a couple of her buddies to Magic Mountain ("Tragic Mountain," a friend calls it, having been there too often with her kids). The experience was quintessentially American.

For one thing, it began and ended with homeless people asking for alms. As we left L.A. in the morning, we gave money to the grandfatherly fellow standing with a "Homeless Please Help" sign at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Crescent Heights Drive. On the way home - it was 11 at night by then - we encountered a whole family with their sign in the curbside grass at Olympic Boulevard and Highland Avenue: husband, young son, wife nursing baby.

We gave them all the food remaining from our day of "fun" - roasted chicken, raw vegetables, bread, fruit - exchanged greetings with them, then drove off in silence, pained and frightened by their vulnerability. For if we, unable to gauge their desperation, had made sure to have our gift ready to pass to them through our car window, they were just out there on the sidewalk in the dark, unprotected against any crazy or vicious person who might come along.

But I digress. I was talking about amusement parks and family values.

Magic Mountain requires you to wait for hours in order to go on roller-coaster rides that should have names like "Die Upside Down" and "Vomit Till the Dawn." Some people, including my intrepid daughter, apparently like being spun head-over-heels and getting drenched while plowing at high speeds through artificial lakes. Including admission fees, arcade games and souvenirs, the five of us spent about $250 during the day. I didn't have a bad time exactly; it was just mindless, contactless and without content - very Middle American and full of "family values," I suppose.We should have stayed home, thrown the kids down the stairs, dumped water on them and flushed our money down the toilet instead, we agreed later.

I figured out a couple of weeks ago what the big mistake was at the beginning of Western culture. Read it in your Bible. At Mount Sinai the Israelites, scared witless by the voice of God, begged Moses to intercede for them, and he did. Why didn't they just ask the Almighty to talk more quietly or more comfortingly? Then they could have maintained their direct contact with the Voice and we could all have avoided having to listen to leaders talk about "values."

Just last week, a Reform rabbi, objecting to someone else's remark about Reform Judaism, preached against "divisiveness." In a newspaper interview, an Orthodox rabbi suggested that contracting AIDS is a sign of God's displeasure with one's behavior. (You don't get it from learning Torah, he said smugly.) These are just examples. Out in the general society, it's at least as bad. There are people, and a lot of them are leaders," who want to eliminate diversity, who call for "unity" and mean uniformity, who want to make the world more boring so they can boss you better.

Okay, time to confess. I do think children in general grow up best in strong families; I do favor honesty, integrity, ego strength, ego restraint, mutual support and interest-free loans. I am against crime, injustice and much of what I see in the movies. Now you know.

But I am also against "family values," which is a code for repression, for return to the mythic amusement park of the 1950s, when everyone was well-behaved and white. Those were the days before sex was so open (let alone homosex), before marijuana and rock 'n' roll, when they could still keep Elvis's pelvis off television.

There are people who don't like a world that is wild and sexy and unpredictable. There are people who not only want to live the way they think is best but want to force you to live that way, too. There are people, in brief, who want to kill you with family values.

So I say: Keep that photo of your favorite candidate, guru or community "leader" above the family hearth. But hang alongside it a photo of Elvis's pelvis, to remind you of other wondrous possibilities. The great enemy is boredom. Feed the poor. Love your neighbor. Resist family values, and urge your family to do the same.

First published in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, September 4, 1992.

Finding the Lost Tribes
Traces of the Tribes are popping up all over.

Ellis Island Revisited
Did your family start out as immigrants? You've come a long way, baby.

Dennis Prager: A Profile
The man behind the golden voice.