Tuesday, August 29, 2006


shoftim: who are the prophets in our midst today?

a dvar torah that i wrote for this past shabbat:
In an era of hurricanes, wars, melting glaciers, explosive bottles of gatorade and slithering snakes on a plane, how do we distinguish fact from fiction – truth from static - the real threats from Hollywood’s imagination and pre-election manipulations? To whose voice do we listen - Samuel L. Jackson, Al Gore, Jon Stewart or Tony Snow? Who are the true prophets in our midst today?

Conveniently enough, in this week’s Torah portion (Chapter 18 of Deuteronomy), God actually explains the way that prophesy is ideally supposed to work. God spoke to Moses, saying …
    18 I will raise up a prophet for them from among their own people, like [Moses]: I will put My words in [the prophet’s] mouth and he will speak to [the people] all that I command him; 19 and if anybody fails to heed the words that he speaks in My name, I Myself will call him to account…

    21And should you ask yourselves, "How would we know if an oracle was not spoken by the Lord?" — 22 if the prophet claims to speak in the name of the Lord but then his oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by the Lord; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously: do not stand in dread of him.”
So now, basically, then if the prophet’s words do come true, he was a true prophet, and was recanting an oracle directly from God. But, if the prophet’s words don’t come true, he was, therefore, a false prophet, and was apparently speaking presumptuously.

If his words come true, he’s a prophet --- if they don’t, he’s a fraud.

Ok, I can sort of see that… but now then, wait a second, there’s at least one potential flaw in that logic. Can anyone think of it?

Well, if you can, then you’re in good company. Every Yom Kippur afternoon we read the story of Jonah, the prophet who was a little too smart for his own good, the famous thorn in the side of Adonai.

The Book of Jonah asks us to ponder the question of how long we have to wait, to find out if the prophet was indeed channeling the word of God. Because, what happens if the prophet accurately rants and raves, but then the people repent, and the doom and gloom never actually transpires. Aha – the famous prophetic loophole.

    "The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go at once to Nineveh, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me.”

    Jonah, however, started out to flee to Tarshish from the LORD'S service. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to sail with the others to Tarshish, away from the service of the LORD

    The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: “Go at once to Nineveh, and proclaim to it what I tell you.”

    Jonah went at once to Nineveh in accordance with the LORD'S command … he made his way into the city … and proclaimed: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

    The people of Nineveh then believed God. They proclaimed a fast, and great and small alike put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And then he had the following proclaimed throughout Nineveh: “By decree of the king and his nobles: No man or beast shall taste anything! They shall not graze, and they shall not drink water! They shall be covered with sackcloth – both man and beast - and shall cry mightily to God. Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty. Who knows but that God may turn and relent? He may turn back from His wrath, so that we do not perish.”

    God saw what they did, how they were turning back from their evil ways. And God renounced the punishment that He had planned to bring upon them, and did not carry it out. This displeased Jonah greatly, and he was grieved. He prayed to the LORD, saying, "O LORD! Isn't this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish …. Please, LORD, take my life, for I would rather die than live.”
This is presumably because Jonah fears that his prophetic reputation is now ruined; he’s like the boy who cried wolf. He’s afraid that no one will ever believe his prophetic wisdom ever again. Such is his prophetic paradox.

Jonah reminds me of Cassandra from Greek mythology:

    Cassandra had been the youngest daughter of the last King of Troy. Apollo fell in love with her. To win her affections, he made a proposal: If she agreed to love him, he would give her the gift of prophecy.

    Cassandra accepted, and she was given the ability to see the future. But she could not bring herself to love Apollo. Apollo was outraged. He begged her for a single kiss, and she consented. When their lips touched, Apollo breathed into Cassandra’s mouth in such a way that no one would ever believe her prophecies.

    Cassandra was thus doomed to a life of despair. She could see the dangers threatening others, but she could not prevent them. Cassandra warned the Trojans that the Greeks were about to attack, and she cried out to warn them that soldiers were hidden inside the Trojan Horse. But her warnings went unheeded. Troy collapsed under the Greek onslaught …
And what about today? What prophetic wisdom have we recently seen? Who are the present-day Jonahs and Cassandras in our society?

We remember that on August 6, 2001, President Bush’s daily brief contained a two-page section entitled "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US.” As we also prepare to remember the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on Tuesday, I want to read a few passages from a series that the New Orleans Times Picayune newspaper published in October 2002, entitled “Washing Away,” looking at the potential danger from a Hurricane hitting the Big Easy…

    "A catastrophic hurricane represents 10 or 15 atomic bombs in terms of the energy it releases," said Joseph Suhayda, a Louisiana State University engineer who is studying ways to limit hurricane damage in the New Orleans area. "Think about it. New York lost two big buildings. Multiply that by 10 or 20 or 30 in the area impacted and the people lost, and we know what could happen."

    Hundreds of thousands would be left homeless, and it would take months to dry out the area and begin to make it livable. But there wouldn't be much for residents to come home to. The local economy would be in ruins.

    "Evacuation is what’s necessary: evacuation, evacuation, evacuation," Jefferson Parish Emergency Preparedness Director Walter Maestri said. "We anticipate that (even) with refuges of last resort in place, some 5 to 10 percent of the individuals who remain in the face of catastrophic storms are going to lose their lives."

    "Another scenario is that some part of the levee would fail," Suhayda said. "It's not something that's expected. But erosion occurs, and as levees broke, the break will get wider and wider. The water will flow through the city and stop only when it reaches the next higher thing. The most continuous barrier is the south levee, along the river. That's 25 feet high, so you'll see the water pile up on the river levee."
And that’s exactly what happened…. I got chills reading these eerily prophetic articles online. Was this wisdom carelessly ignored, or am I falling into the trap of typical Monday-morning quarterbacking? History will be our judge.

Christian theologian Walter Brueggemann, writes that one of the prophet’s tasks is
    “…to bring to public expression those very fears and terrors that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we do not know they are there. . . The prophet must speak evocatively to bring to the community the fear and the pain that individual persons want so desperately to share and to own, but are not permitted to do so. . . .

    The prophet does not scold or reprimand … It is the task of the prophet to invite the king to experience what he must experience, what he most needs to experience and what he most fears to experience, namely, that the end of the royal fantasy is very near. The end of the royal fantasy will permit a glimpse of the True King who is no fantasy. But we cannot see the real king until the fantasy is shown to be a fragile and perishing deception.”
The prophet’s job is to announce that the Emperor has no clothes, regardless if the Emperor preemptively decides to get dressed. Davka, he should get dressed, that’s the whole point.

In an account described in the book of Numbers (chapter 11), Eldad and Meidad, two Israelite elders began to “act the prophet” in the camp, speaking in ecstasy, and doing other things that seemed upsetting to Joshua ben Nun, Moses’ attendant from his youth. Moses, though, instead of restraining them, as was Joshua’s request, exclaimed:
    “Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them!”
Would that all of us were prophets, that God’s spirit be upon us…. May God’s spirit be upon us, as we continue to develop our individual and communal prophetic voice. May this spirit of Divine wisdom guide us to better discern the true prophets from everything else that fights for our attention, amid all of the clutter of our day to day lives. May this be Your will. Ken Y’hi Ratzon. Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, August 28, 2006


ha ha ... HUD is punk'd over Katrina incompetence

via daily kos and cnn... this is the best katrina story i've heard all day... if only it were true...
KENNER, Louisiana (CNN) -- A man who pulled a hoax on Louisiana officials and 1,000 contractors by presenting himself as a federal housing official said Monday he intended to focus attention on a lack of affordable housing.

"We basically go around impersonating bad institutes or institutes doing very bad things," said the man, who identified himself as Andy Bichlbaum, a 42-year-old former college teacher of video and media arts who lives in New York and Paris.

"That would be HUD. At this moment, they're doing some really bad things."

Masquerading as Rene Oswin, an official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Bichlbaum followed Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to the lectern Monday morning at the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner.

In a speech to attendees of the Gulf Coast Reconstruction and Hurricane Preparedness Summit, he laid out grandiose plans for HUD to reverse course.

After the speaker read from a text he said had been prepared by his boss, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson, a HUD spokeswoman said the department knew nothing about the man.

"Everything is going to change about the way we work, and the change is going to start here today in New Orleans," the man said during his speech.

Jackson, he said, had had to cancel his appearance at the meeting of 1,000 builders and contractors at the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner because he had to stay in Washington to meet with President Bush.

William Loiry, president of meeting sponsor Equity International, said he was duped.

"We were contacted about a week ago or so by someone who we believed to be [public relations firm] Hill & Knowlton [saying] that they were representing the HUD secretary and that he wanted to make a major announcement at this summit."

Loiry said he was told a few minutes before he had planned to introduce Jackson that the secretary would be replaced by Oswin.

"We've done 75 national conferences, 25,000 people participated, and we certainly never encountered anything like this before," he said.

The man left a flier bearing a HUD emblem that said attendees could go to a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a public housing project. A free lunch and transportation aboard buses were promised.

"They never materialized," Loiry said.

Loiry was not impressed with the stunt. "There are many people still in need," he said in a written statement. "To perpetuate a hoax on them is cruel and disgusting."

Impostor: 'We have failed'

In his speech, Bichlbaum said the department's mission was to ensure affordable housing is available for those who need it.

"This year, in New Orleans, I'm ashamed to say we have failed," he said.

To change that, HUD would reverse its plans to demolish 5,000 units "of perfectly good public housing," with housing in the city in tight supply, he said.

Former occupants have been "begging to move back in," he said. "We're going to help them to do that."

The government's practice had been to tear down public housing where it could, because such projects were thought to cause crime and unemployment, he said.

But crime rates in the city are at a record high and there is no evidence that people in the projects are more likely to be unemployed, he said.

The man added that it also would be essential to create conditions for prosperity.

Toward that end, he said, Wal-Mart would withdraw its stores from near low-income housing and "help nurture local businesses to replace them."

Wal-Mart was unmoved. "As evidenced by the fact that we recently reopened two stores in the New Orleans metropolitan area, there is absolutely no truth to these statements," said spokeswoman Marisa Bluestone.

In a comment that elicited applause from the contractors and builders, Bichlbaum said, "With your help, the prospects of New Orleanians will no longer depend on their birthplace, and the cycle of poverty will come to an end."

Finally, to ensure another hurricane does not inundate the city, Exxon and Shell have promised to spend $8.6 billion "to finance wetlands rebuilding from $60 billion in profits this year," he said.

HUD: 'Who the heck is that?'

Late Monday afternoon, in a telephone call with CNN, Bichlbaum said the gist of his comments about housing was truthful, even if he had to use subterfuge to deliver it.

"The only not-true part is, unfortunately, the part about them changing their minds. They are still going to tear down 5,000 units of affordable housing," he said.

The New Orleans projects are sturdily constructed brick buildings that, nevertheless, are slated for demolition, he said.

"Basically, the real reason, of course, is they want to develop New Orleans into something pleasing to tourists -- even more pleasing."

Bichlbaum said Monday's prank was the latest in a series pulled off by The Yes Men, whose members have recently masqueraded as representatives of McDonald's, Halliburton and Dow Chemical.

"Fortunately, the law protects freedom of speech," he said. "What we're doing is not actually lying. It's actually exposing the lies. There's nothing morally wrong with what we're doing."

Bichlbaum said The Yes Men plan to release a movie about their exploits next year, but that commercial gain is not their goal.

"The real reason we do it is what we're doing right now," he told a reporter. "You're paying attention to this issue of affordable housing and the absurd policies of HUD."

In Washington, HUD spokeswoman Donna White called the hoax "sick."

"This announcement is totally false; it's totally bogus," said Donna White in Washington.

No one named Rene Oswin works for the department, she said. "I'm like, who the heck is that?"

Jackson, White said, had never planned to address the meeting. "I don't even want to refer to it as a joke," White said. "At this point, it's not funny."

Annie Chen, media coordinator for Survivors Village, a tent-city protest for the reopening of public housing in New Orleans, applauded Bichlbaum's theatrics.

"Right now, a lie is better than the truth," she said.

Friday, August 25, 2006


my very easy memory jingle seems useless now

my very eager mother just sold us nine pickles? nine pizzas? nine presents? or did she just merely serve them? or did my very excellent mother just spank ugly naked people?

i guess it doesn't matter any more. poor pluto, i hardly knew you...

pretty please, what's now going to happen to my dear aunt sally? will she ever again enjoy king henry's cookies? (we all have to admit that, king henry does make a delicious cookie mix...) roy g biv, where are you? Does every good boy still do fine? king phillip, come out for goodness sake!

Thursday, August 24, 2006


new orleans: a city without old people..

from the philadelphia inquirer:
Rescued, now trapped: Thousands of older New Orleanians fled

By Natalie Pompilio, Inquirer Staff Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas - Dot McLeod's post-Katrina world is defined by the bare, white walls of a one-bedroom apartment in a city where she is a stranger.

McLeod, in her late 70s, is confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk since September, when the helicopter rescuing her from the hurricane's floodwaters sputtered and knocked her against a roof. Her New Orleans home destroyed, she was taken to Texas - and left here.

McLeod is lost - sad, lonely and homesick. She has no one to take her out, nor anywhere to go in this foreign place. In the last year, she has felt the sun on her face only about five times. She cannot give visitors directions to her building because she does not know where it is. She assumes the facility caters to senior citizens because she sees so many of them from her window.

"I've never seen anything but this room," McLeod said during a recent interview. "I would like to go home, but everybody says there's nothing to go home to."

McLeod is one of thousands of elderly evacuees whisked away from their southeast Louisiana homes in Katrina's wake and dumped in cities hundreds of miles away. Like so many others, McLeod owned her home but had no flood insurance, meaning she lost everything she knew and owned, and received a pittance in return.

In New Orleans, although she had no husband or children, she had a close-knit network of neighbors, a grocery store she could walk to, a paid-off property with low taxes. Now she has just one friend - a fellow New Orleanian who shares her tiny apartment - and she relies on Meals on Wheels, waiting nervously for the daily knock because the delivery man will take the food and leave if no one answers the door immediately. Her $650 monthly Social Security check, once more than enough to live on, is no longer sufficient.

"I didn't need anything else in New Orleans," she said. "It costs three times as much here."

More than anything, McLeod wants to go home to New Orleans. But she can't.

"How can I go back by myself?" she asked, her voice quaking. "There's no buses, no people. Ferrara's, where I shopped for 50 years, is gone."

Post-Katrina, the New Orleans area has few elderly care facilities or nursing homes. Rents for undamaged or rehabilitated housing are rising, moving out of the reach of those on fixed incomes.

It is unclear exactly how many elderly residents Katrina displaced. But anecdotally, it seems everybody knows somebody who can't get back.

In the Lower Ninth Ward, an octogenarian who is rebuilding his own house pointed to a hole in a neighbor's roof. That's where the neighbor - "my partner," the octogenarian called him - hacked his way to safety as the waters rose. That man, also elderly, is not returning, nor are the older folks who lived across the street or others who lived down the block.

In Lakeview, a sign in front of one house features a photo of a white-haired woman and reads, "Bring Mrs. Mary Home," listing a bank-account number where donations can be sent. That's for Mary Espiau, 88, who now lives with her daughter in Garland, Texas.

Like so many others, Espiau had no flood insurance and she lives on a pension. Many of her neighbors have gone, and she ticks off a list without pausing: "Irene isn't coming back. She's with her daughter in Houston. And Mr. Mintz is in Metairie, waiting to see what the storm season does before redoing his home. Barbara and John across the street have their house for sale."

But Espiau is determined to go back to the city where she raised her children and where her husband is buried. She has poured her entire savings - about $50,000 - into rebuilding her home. Other money and appliances have come from donors.

"There's nothing like your own home, and I'm homesick," Espiau said. "I'm going to try it out, see how I make out. I know it's going to be bad. But I think I'm going to be all right."

McLeod spent time in an Army hospital after being injured during the evacuation. From there, she went to an assisted-living facility. She left a few months later, unable to pay the bills.

The building where she now lives is sterile and strict: No pictures can be hung on the walls. Wet shoes must be removed before entering apartments. No toilets can be flushed after 11 p.m. The downstairs neighbor will bang a broom on the ceiling if she thinks McLeod - who uses her wheelchair on a thick rug - is making too much noise.

McLeod has been unable, physically and financially, to get back to New Orleans. When her beloved cat, Poupon, was found alive five weeks after the storm, she had no way to return to her pet or to bring the animal - who has since died - to Texas. When her brother passed away in December, she could not attend the services.

When she heard that the city was requiring people to gut their homes or face demolition, she asked members of a religious organization if they would do the work for her. They did, and sent her the few treasures that survived: her grandfather's pocket watch, still half-filled with water; the crucifix that adorned her mother's coffin; a set of deer antlers she purchased when she lived in Germany.

"It's all gone," she said. "Sometimes you feel like going to jump off the balcony, you don't even know where you are. There's so much on your mind when you're fighting FEMA, the insurance company, the post office, all at once."

In recent weeks, McLeod has found something that cheers her: She ends her day by watching the purple martins, thousands of them, as they fly outside her window to settle for the night. She had never seen such a sight in New Orleans, and her face lights up when she describes the birds, the way they flitter and play and tease one another.

She can't exactly explain what she likes about the birds or why they bring her such joy. But the reason seems clear: The martins, unlike McLeod, are free.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


but at least they're not FEMA....

john oliver on the daily show:
"... from what I hear, [Hezbollah] is very keen to take on their next project... the reconstruction of New Orleans. As the residents of this war-torn country point out, Jon, Hezbollah may be a rag-tag group of under-educated Islamic extremist militiamen, but, at least they're not FEMA"
click below on the arrow to play


hezbollah vs fema

i think hezbollah is pulling ahead in the reconstruction road race... FEMA, it's time to learn from Construction Jihad...
As an example of Hezbollah’s hold on everyday life in southern Lebanon, Ali Bazzi, the mayor of Bint Jbail, outlined his big dreams for his half-demolished town as workmen raced past and tractors rumbled.

“We are going to turn this city into a model city,” Mr. Bazzi said, his arm clutching a trademark Hezbollah two-way radio. “There will be streets organized in grids, parks in every neighborhood and apartment blocks.”

Mr. Bazzi is counting on Construction Jihad. Just a day after the fighting stopped, Construction Jihad enlisted the volunteer services of 1,700 engineers, electricians, plumbers, architects and geologists who have cleared streets, dug ditches and built temporary bridges.

While the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has just begun organizing committees to study the reconstruction of the country, Construction Jihad has all but completed surveys of southern Lebanese towns.

“We were victorious over Israel,” said Mr. Bazzi. “Now we have to rise to the occasion that follows.”

Teams of volunteers wearing Construction Jihad baseball caps have crisscrossed Bint Jbail and other southern cities. On Monday, the organization began signing up families for grants of between $10,000 and $15,000 to help cover rent and furnishings until new homes are built, and began helping small businesses reopen. They have worked to help restore electricity in many towns and to get water flowing again.

“We consider this work to be like prayer and fasting,” said Fouad Noureldine, director of projects in southern Lebanon for Construction Jihad.

Thursday, August 03, 2006


tisha b'av and new orleans

for me, the parallels this year with tisha b'av (today) are strongest with thinking of new orleans. the one-year anniversary of katrina is august 29. listening to lamentations last night ... the emotions of exile and loss still ring true today.

there are lot of websites, blogs and news articles that are and will be sharing people's experiences - those who were forced into exile and those who were there for the aftermath and recovery. not to mention the hbo spike lee documentary on katrina that's beginning to get some buzz...

i went to college in new orleans, and was there volunteering for a week in april, gutting houses with acorn.

some websites that i've found recently:

"If I Forget You O New Orleans" - from the Forward

"By the Waters of Babylon" - by Anya Kamenetz - in the village voice - written last year

an article from the washington post, describing the funeral/tahorah-like experience of gutting a moldy new orleans house

the Katrina blog project on Daily Kos

from the blog project - a powerful first-hand account