One of the most moving and beautiful spiritual experiences an American Christian federal lawmaker can have is to take a Pilgrimage to the Holy Land and spend a week walking in Jesus' footsteps -- Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee, Jerusalem.
I'm not a Christian, and I'm not in direct, regular communication with Jesus, as so many leading figures in American politics are or regularly claim to be.
I wish I were. It's a real handicap to know what to think about a woman's right to abortion or same-sex marriage or federal licenses for Native-American casinos without clear and direct marching orders from Jesus or God.
Those who take their policy and voting guidance directly from Jesus have it all over clueless, secular me as I blunder through political controversies with no higher authority to guide me than obsessive reading, thinking, and lengthy discussions with my neighbors, who are mostly ordinary mortals without a cell phone * speed-dial code to Jesus' private line.
But His birthday's just around the corner, and I wonder what He'd think of many of these congressional Pilgrimages to follow in His footsteps if He found out they were all-expense-paid freebies by special-interest lobbying groups.
Imagine how surprised the humble Pilgrim will be when he confronts his Savior on Calvary, and Jesus asks: "Who's paying for this fact-finding junket, Larry?"
The good news is that it's not the American taxpayer.
The bad news is that it's not the American taxpayer.
The worse news is that it's not Larry.
So where's the harm?
Like Einstein was wont to do, try this Thought Experiment.
You're just a humble, ordinary American voter. You have an issue that's very important to you. For your issue to thrive, you'll need the help and understanding of many members of Congress.
Well -- to be really blunt and crude, you're going to need their votes on upcoming legislation.
You'd like to spend a week sitting next to your Congresswoman or your Senator, in the air-conditioned Mercedes tour bus, in the First Class section of an intercontinental airliner, or better yet, in the intimacy of a private luxury jet, in the Ritz Hotel bar, in a really magnifique 5-star restaurant in a dreamy faraway city, in the Sky Box at an Eagles game. Just you and your lawmakers all alone for hours and hours, and all the lawmakers paying close and very respectful attention to your every word. So you can chat informally and explain the importance of your issue to your federal legislators.
If you know a way to arrange these secluded rendezvous and these intimate tete-a-tetes, please Leave A Comment.
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Above, the masthead of the Yiddish edition of The Jewish Daily Forward, for more than a century, in Yiddish and in English, a newspaper obsessively read by the American Jewish community. Jewish "grinhorns" fresh off the boat (FOB) from Eastern Europe fell immediately in love with The Forward. For one thing, if you didn't speak or read a word of English, here was a daily paper in Yiddish. A few months later, when you were ready to take a whack at reading English, the same paper was for sale in that lingo and its alphabet.
Here was a daily paper written by European Jewish immigrants for European Jewish immigrants, to guide them gently and expertly through the frightening maze of their crazy new American life, laws and customs -- which, in 1900, differed slightly from those left behind in the shtetels of Tsarist Russia.
It was certainly not anti-religious, but it was entirely secular. The Forward was always happy to feature the opinions of prominent rabbis and religious leaders, but The Forward served the new life of its readership entirely through their eyes, and served their real needs. Which, on the Lower East Side of New York City, were no longer entirely Talmudic problems. If an Irish police captain or an Italian city councilor was more likely to have the answer to a Jewish immigrant's problem than Rebbe Saperstein, The Forward skipped the Rebbe and ran the cop's or the councilor's wisdom and advice. Translated into Yiddish.
Yiddish is pretty much German frozen around the 13th century. The freezer was the Ghetto, which isolated European Jews from the natural evolution of the German language; behind the locked walls of the Ghetto, Jews spent centuries mostly just talking to themselves, and Yiddish stratified and eventually developed its own literature, and the authentic status of a unique language.
(1-slice PizzaQ: Who got the Nobel Literature Prize for writing exclusively in Yiddish?)
Yiddish's other oddity is that it's German, all right, with German vocabulary and German grammar -- but written in the Hebrew alphabet (or alephbet). All a German speaker would have to do is familiarize him/herself with the letters and vowels of the Hebrew alephbet, and he/she can versteh about 70 percent of the headlines of a Yiddish newspaper or the window signs of a Yiddish store, probably the menu in an all-Yiddish deli too. There's one around the corner from le Crazy Horse in Paris. (Don't call me a perv, I've never been to Paris.)
The Forward's masthead (above) works this way. After the founders named it The Forward, its staff and readers enthusiastically and universally mispronounced it in their thick Yiddish accents as "Forverts." So Hebrew letter by Hebrew letter, from right to left, you have not FORWARD but FORVERTS. Consonants are the Big Hebrew Things, and vowels (like "aw") usually appear, when they bother to appear at all, underneath the consonants. Except "ooo" (rhymes with the sound an English cow makes) which, when it appears, appears as a single dot to the left of the Consonant Vav, and makes its V sound silent. Unless they don't bother to print the dot, but you're supposed to know they meant to. But you can also write "ooo" with 3 slanted dots under a consonant. Alles ist klar perfekt?
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This is the first letter I've ever written to The Forward, and I have no idea if they'll run it, so here it is on Vleeptron.
I don't know if there's a more delicious, more wildly spiced flavor to political controversy in any other culture on Earth. Jews scream and we yell and we curse and use the filthiest and most vulgar words and innuendos at each other just to tell one guy he's a schmuck for voting for Kerry and the other guy that he's a meshugineh momzer for voting for Bush. No one ever forgives anyone for shouting an unforgiveable insult, and the next day we have the same screaming argument all over again.
momzer (Hebrew): the Biblical word for bastard
meshugineh (Hebrew): insane
schmuck: the male genital organ
bum (English): a loafer, a liar, an undependable and worthless person; also, an umpire who makes a clearly prejudiced call against The Red Sox.
perp walk (English): a public march past TV crews and newspaper photographers of a just-arrested criminal suspect, usually handcuffed.
schnorrer: a freeloader, a parasite. In "A Night at the Opera," when a chorus of wealthy aristocrats sings
Hooray for Captain Spalding
The African explorer!
Captain Spalding (Groucho Marx) suspiciously mutters:
Did someone call me schnorrer?
Aipac or AIPAC: The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a bunch of momzers and ganefs.
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Letters to the Editor
The Jewish Daily Forward
To the Editor:
"Jewish Groups To Challenge Ethics Reform" by Nathan Guttman (1 December) signals a pathetic, shameful and doomed leap from the starting gate of the new Democratic-led Congress. Even the headline smells like two-day-old sushi.
The finish line will be on the front page of The New York Times a year from now: the list of corporations, lobbyists and special-interest groups who led the PAC with free golf and Holy Land junkets for our new majority friends in Congress and the Senate.
This is a race Jews should scrupulously want to lose, a list whose bottom we should aggressively dive to. The Democrats took the Hill because American voters were disgusted by the Republicans' ethical lapses, missteps, and occasional handcuffed perp walks to federal prison.
To suggest that an authentic tightening of ethics rules in Congress is bad news for Jews -- regardless of your vision for Israel and the American Jewish community, begging to keep Capitol Hill and K Street's porous jet-setting ethics is the guaranteed fast track for worse things for Israel.
Some have noticed that Israel has not had a particularly good year -- which ended when disgusted American voters threw the Republican bums out. We're free to remember them as Friends of Israel -- but our Friends are out of power now.
I'm sorry both parties have tolerated so many bums, schnorrers, momzers and whores. Our concerns for Israel should still be ethically clear enough not to stuff these weak, pathetic jerks full of freebies. When they go down as we've just watched the Republicans go down, our leaders, our lobbies, and Israel tumble painfully with them on front pages and the nightly news. America's voters have just proven that ethics myopia is the poorest of all long-term strategies.
In scheming and scurrying to prevent ethical reform in Congress, AIPAC itself is no friend to America or to Israel, and The Forward does us no favors by fully and fairly pleading their cause of unethical, corrupt, sleazy political behavior.
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The Jewish Daily Forward
English edition / New York City USA
Friday 1 December 2006
Jewish Groups To Challenge
Aipac, UJC To Face Off With Dems on Junkets, Earmarks
by Nathan Guttman
Two of America’s most influential Jewish organizations are gearing up for their first direct confrontation with the incoming, Democratic-led Congress. The topic: Democratic proposals for congressional ethics and lobbying reform.
At issue are two key congressional perks, targeted for elimination, that Jewish organizations rely on to achieve community goals: overseas junkets, including dozens of trips to Israel each year, funded by Jewish organizations; and an estimated $25 million a year in earmarked funds for Jewish communal projects. Both the trips and the earmarked funding face possible elimination as part of the Democrats’ pledge to fight corruption on Capitol Hill.
Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi has said she plans to bring up the ethics reform legislation "within the first 100 hours of the 110th Congress," which will begin its session in January 2007. Activists with several Jewish and pro-Israel groups said they will be working in the coming weeks to head off or soften the specific measures they fear most.
With 41% of voters pointing in exit polls to corruption and scandals as an "extremely important" factor in how they voted last month, the Democratic victory is widely seen as a call for an overhaul of congressional ethical standards.
Most of the ethics reform measures being considered are described as lessons learned from the investigation of disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, which revealed a widespread culture of lawmakers accepting free gifts, lavish tours and personal favors in return for their votes.
Democrats are now debating the exact language of ethics reform legislation. The most sweeping proposals call for the establishment of an independent committee to oversee congressional ethics issues. More modest versions would seek only minor changes in the existing rules. Congressional sources predicted this week that in either case, the legislation will include curbs on gifts and trips sponsored by lobbying groups, limitations on earmarked spending and greater transparency in campaign finance.
Jewish groups, though supportive of most measures, are concerned about two aspects of the reform: the ban on privately funded congressional travel, and the limitations on earmarks. Both measures might -- depending on the final language adopted -- restrict actions of Jewish and pro-Israel groups on Capitol Hill.
All-expense-paid tours to Israel are among the most common overseas trips made by members of Congress and their aides. Watchdog groups, using data from congressional filings, have reported that Israel is the leading destination for privately sponsored congressional trips. In the years 2000 to 2005, 164 of the 1,922 overseas congressional visits were to Israel. In the past year, 62 Congress members and staffers visited Israel on trips funded by pro-Israel and Jewish groups. Most of the junkets are sponsored by the main pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, through its sister organization, the American Israel Education Foundation. The foundation is the second-largest sponsor of overseas trips.
Other Jewish groups sending lawmakers and their aides to Israel include United Jewish Communities, the national association of federated Jewish philanthropies. UJC operates through local federations and their affiliated community-relations committees.
The best-known political visit to Israel is probably that of President Bush in 1998, while he was governor of Texas. During the visit, which was funded by the Republican Jewish Coalition, Bush was taken on a helicopter ride over Israel and the West Bank with Ariel Sharon as his tour guide. The president has since mentioned this visit in many speeches on Middle East policy and in meetings with the Jewish community.
Jewish groups are now lobbying Congress to make sure that educational trips, such as those to Israel, be allowed to continue even under the new restrictions being considered. "Trips to Israel sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation have long been considered among the most substantive, educational and valuable trips available for members of Congress," Aipac spokesman Josh Block said. "While in Israel, members have the opportunity to meet with both Israeli and Palestinian officials, academics, journalists, elected officials, hearing from speakers representing diverse views across the political spectrum, and get a personal, firsthand view of issues of great importance to American policy in the Middle East."
Aipac is one of the few lobbying groups that had enacted full disclosure of trip information even before Congress made this disclosure mandatory.
Officials from several Jewish organizations have been holding intense talks with Democratic staffers over the past week to ensure that Israel educational trips will be exempt from the new restrictions, but several sources said it is too early to determine where the Democrats are heading with the legislation. "I believe that we can draft some language that keeps bona fide educational trips kosher and makes boondoggles trayf," said William Daroff, chief Washington representative of UJC.
But for UJC, the travel limitations are only a side issue. The charity network is more worried about another part of the ethics reform legislation, directed at congressional earmarks. These are items that lawmakers are allowed to insert into spending bills to direct federal funds toward specific projects in their districts. The earmark system has been criticized as a backdoor for pouring billions of taxpayer dollars into so-called pork-barrel projects to strengthen lawmakers’ popularity among home voters, or big donors.
From an estimated $64,000,000,000 spent annually through earmarks, Jewish institutions enjoy no more than $25,000,000. Most of that goes to a UJC program, Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities. The program is designed to deal with graying neighborhoods or apartment complexes by financing on-site social service programs that allow elderly residents to remain in their homes.
This past year, UJC managed to get NORCs included in the Older Americans Act reauthorization bill, which could pave the way for funding the program without the need for earmarks. For now, however, a ban on earmarks will do away with funding for the program, which operates in 41 cities around the country.
Congressional sources stressed this week that a total ban on earmarks does not seem likely, due to the heavy reliance of lawmakers from both parties on them as a political vehicle. The ethics reform, however, is expected to include requirements that each earmark have the name of its individual sponsoring lawmaker attached. Drafters of this version hope that abuse of earmarks will be reduced if funding perceived as corrupt bears the name of its sponsor.
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