Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Celebrating Tisha B'Av

With Dance and Song: Following Tisha b'Av, there are seven prophetic readings of consolation - starting with Shabbat Nachamu (this week), and all from Isaiah - that comfort us and prepare us for the upcoming High Holy Days. 

But you, Abq Jew's loyal readers, already know that (see Shabbat Nachamu: That Thing You Do! et al)! So let's talk instead about the prophet Zechariah.

Zechariah as depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Who [Zechariah 8:19] tells us that - sometime in the future -
The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months [Tisha B'Av and all related minor fasts] will be transformed into joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah. 
Jerusalem, as crowds assemble for a joyful and glad occasion.
Look at that sky!

Yes, dear readers. Tisha B'Av, the Black Fast, will become a happy festival.
Abq Jew can hear you ask:

To which Abq Jew must answer (he must! he must!):

Others wiser and faster and abler to sing in four-part harmony have gone before Abq Jew, and they have figured it out. Here is how: Boney M.
Boney M is a Euro-Caribbean vocal group created by German record producer Frank Farian. Originally based in West Germany, the four original members of the group's official line-up were Liz Mitchell and Marcia Barrett from Jamaica, Maizie Williams from Montserrat, and Bobby Farrell, a performing artist from Aruba. The group was formed in 1976, and achieved popularity during the disco era of the late 1970s.

Here are a few things that may help explain, clarify, and otherwise decode the song we have just heard. If you have not listened to the song (i.e., watched the video), Abq Jew strongly encourages you to do so now. Really. It's cool.

The Song
Boney M Music Video

Rivers of Babylon is a Rastafari song written and recorded by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of the Jamaican reggae group The Melodians in 1970. The lyrics are adapted from the texts of Psalms 19 and 137 in the Hebrew Bible.

The Melodians' original version of the song appeared on the soundtrack album for the 1972 movie The Harder They Come, which made it internationally known.

The song was popularized in Europe by the 1978 Boney M cover  version, which was awarded a platinum disc and is one of the top-ten all-time best-selling singles in the UK.

Psalm 137
By the Rivers of Babylon

Psalm 137 is the 137th psalm of the Hebrew Book of Psalms. The Greek Septuagint version of the Bible, and the Latin Vulgate, call this Psalm 136.

In English it is generally known as "By the rivers of Babylon", which is how its first words are translated in the King James Version.

After Nebuchadnezzar II's successful siege of Jerusalem in 597 BCE, inhabitants of the Kingdom of Judah were deported to Babylonia, where they were held captive until some time after the Fall of Babylon (539 BCE).

The rivers of Babylon [in case you slept through that lecture] are the Euphrates river, its tributaries, and the Tigris river.

Rabbinical sources attributed the poem to Jeremiah [look! another prophet!]. The Septuagint version of the psalm bears the superscription: "For David. By Jeremias, in the Captivity."

We all know this psalm, because we sing it all the time! It's the introduction to the weekday Birkat HaMazon!

(Actually, Abq Jew doesn't know anyone who actually sings it, reads it, or even looks at Psalm 137 before bentching on a non-Shabbat non-holiday.)

Psalm 19
The Heavens Declare

Psalm 19 is the 19th psalm in the Book of Psalms. Except (of course) in the Greek Septuagint version of the Bible, and in the Latin Vulgate, where this is Psalm 18.

In English it is generally known as "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork", which is how its first words are translated in the King James Version.

Psalm 19 is attributed to King David - not for King David - and has been set to music often ....

Psalm 19 is recited in its entirety during the Pesukei deZimra of Shabbat and Yom Tov. [JFKs (see In Honor of the JFKs) may not know this.] Verse 15 (see above) is recited during the closing to the Amidah.

Rastafari (Long Version)

Rastafari, also known as Rastafarianism, is an Abrahamic religion that developed in Jamaica during the 1930s. Scholars of religion and related fields have classified it as both a new religious movement and a social movement.

There is no central authority in control of the movement (Abq Jew likes it already!) and much diversity exists among practitioners, who are known as Rastafari, Rastafarians, or Rastas.

Rastas often claim the flag of Ethiopia as was used during Haile Selassie's reign.
It combines the conquering lion of Judah, symbol of the Ethiopian monarchy,
with green, gold, and red.

Rastas refer to their beliefs, which are based on a specific interpretation of the Bible, as "Rastalogy". Central is a monotheistic belief in a single God—referred to as Jah—who partially resides within each individual.

Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia between 1930
and 1974, is given central importance. 

Many Rastas regard him as an incarnation of Jah on Earth and as the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, another figure whom practitioners revere. Other Rastas regard Haile Selassie not as Jah incarnate but as a human prophet who fully recognized the inner divinity in every individual.

Rastafari is Afrocentric and focuses its attention on the African diaspora, which it believes is oppressed within Western society, or "Babylon".

Many Rastas call for the resettlement of the African diaspora in either Ethiopia or Africa more widely, referring to this continent (everyone's homeland) as the Promised Land of "Zion".

Rastafari (Short Version)

Since Rivers of Babylon is based upon Psalms 19 and 137, one might think that the song is about the Children of Israel and the Land of Israel, as we Jews understand them. However, one would be wrong.

That's because the Rastafari song Rivers of Babylon is all in code. Zion refers to Ethiopia (or, more generally, Africa). Babylon refers to the Western world. And then there's Haile Selassie.

And not only is the song all in code - it's in toned-down (for the non-Rastafari) code.
The Rastafarian language was excised from the lyrics for the Boney M version. 
Although the group performed an early mix of the song on a German TV show and sang "How can we sing King Alpha's song" [referring to Haile Selassie] as in the Melodians version, it was changed to "the Lord's song", restoring the original, biblical words, in the versions that were to be released. 
To fit the meter, "O Far-I" became "here tonight" rather than the original, biblical "O Lord".

The Song 
1979 Sopot International Song Festival

ICYMI: The Sopot International Song Festival is an annual international song contest held in (surprise!) Sopot, Poland.

Same song, same (Boney M) singers. But Abq Jew thought you, his loyal readers, might appreciate a live version. Backup singers, full orchestra.

The Dance (Remix)
Boney M Does Disco

Abq Jew was ... researching ... on YouTube, looking for still more versions of Rivers of Babylon to share with you, his loyal readers. And came upon this - a wonderful dance remix of Boney M's disco version.

The dancers appear to be part of Rock that Swing, "The Extraordinary Boogie and Swing Festival [and Dance Camp]" held in Munich, Germany.

WARNING: This is a dance remix. It is impossible (at least, for Abq Jew) to tell what music they are actually dancing to.

But who cares? The dancing is just too good!

But back to Zechariah. Who told us (see top) that - sometime in the future (speedily, in our days!) -
The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will be transformed into joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah. 
Zechariah closes that verse with an admonition that still speaks to us today.

YES! May we celebrate as the Holy City of Jerusalem continues to be rebuilt, and as the Holy Land of Israel continues to be restored. 

And may we soon dance and sing on Tisha B'Av.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

El Paso: 'Do Something!'

Jupiter; now Saturn: Have you been watching The Planets on PBS? It's a new, fascinating series that explores and explains everything you always wanted to know (or not) about our solar system.

Abq Jew has been watching. And thinking about Jupiter and Saturn, the two largest planets. And thinking about El Paso, Albuquerque's down-the-block and across-the-street neighbor. Which this week suffered an immense tragedy.

A new simulation suggests our solar system's giant planets,
Jupiter and Saturn, could have played an important role
in helping life get a foothold on Earth.   
(Image: © NASA/JPL)

How, Abq Jew hears you ask, could there possibly be a connection between Saturn (particularly) and El Paso?'s Sarah Lewin wrote (in 2016):
Life on Earth Can Thank Its Lucky Stars for Jupiter and Saturn 
Without Jupiter and Saturn orbiting out past Earth, life may not have been able to gain a foothold on our planet, new simulations suggest. 
The two gas giants likely helped stabilize the solar system, protecting Earth and the other interior, rocky planets from frequent run-ins with big, fast-moving objects, researchers said. 
In other words, giant planets appear to have a giant impact on giant impacts.  
Thus - Jupiter and Saturn protect Earth from asteroids, comets, meteors, etc that could have destroyed life (or could in the future destroy) life on Earth.

Everyone sort of remembers that Jupiter protects us.
But we forget that Saturn protects us, too.

Here in America, we Jews are (to a great extent, but imperfectly) protected from white supremacist antisemitism.

First of all, by the African-American community, at whom most American sinat chinam (unwarranted hatred) is directed. You know -


And also by the Mexican-American / Latino community. We forget that hatred of them protects us Jews, too. But we were reminded this week.


At a memorial for the victims of the shooting in El Paso, Tex., on Tuesday.
Calla Kessler / The New York Times

Bringing us down to Earth - Simon Romero (see Hate in NM: March 2019), Caitlin Dickerson, Miriam Jordan and Patricia Mazzei wrote in The New York Times:
‘It Feels Like Being Hunted’: Latinos Across U.S. in Fear After El Paso Massacre 
After 22 people were shot to death at a Walmart in El Paso over the weekend, a Florida retiree found herself imagining how her grandchildren could be killed. A daughter of Ecuadorean immigrants cried alone in her car. A Texas lawyer bought a gun to defend his family. 
For a number of Latinos across the United States, the shooting attack in El Paso felt like a turning point, calling into question everything they thought they knew about their place in American society. 
Whether they are liberal or conservative, speakers of English or Spanish, recent immigrants or descendants of pioneers who put down stakes in the Southwest 400 years ago, many Latinos in interviews this week said they felt deeply shaken at the idea that radicalized white nationalism seemed to have placed them — at least for one bloody weekend — in its cross hairs. 
“At least for Latinos, in some way, it’s the death of the American dream,” Dario Aguirre, 64, a Mexican-American lawyer in Denver and a registered Republican, said about the impact of the killings on him and those around him. 
Mr. Aguirre moved to San Diego from Tijuana when he was 5, and was raised by his grandmother in poor Mexican neighborhoods. He enlisted in the Air Force, and later became an immigration lawyer — a classic American success story.
A vigil in El Paso on Sunday. Latinos across the United States
expressed alarm about radicalized white nationalists placing them
in their cross hairs.
   Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The New York Times

And many clients have told Mr Aguirre:
 ‘We’re the new Jews, we’re just like the Jews.’
“It’s quite a transition from being invisible to being visible in a lethal way. It’s something new to my community. We are used to the basic darkness of racism, not this.”

These are the Nine Days - the first days of the Hebrew month of Menachem Av. This coming Shabbat we will note, and beginning on Motzei Shabbat will observe, the Fast of Tisha b'Av.

These Nine Days have been especially hard in America. In Gilroy. In Dayton. And, alas, in plenty of other American cities. But especially in El Paso.

On Tisha b'Av we Jews traditionally remember our Holy Temples that were lost - and, at least in our hopes, begin to rebuild.

Tisha B'Av
Transforming Grief into Action
Sunday August 11     1:00 pm - 2:30 pm
Jewish Community Center of Greater Albuquerque
5520 Wyoming Blvd NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109

On Sunday, August 11, we - a coalition of New Mexican Jewish organizations and individuals - invite you to gather in Albuquerque and observe Tisha B'Av, the Jewish fast day of communal mourning.

This day is traditionally a remembrance of the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. Tisha B'Av is also a day Jews mark and mourn brokenness, loss, and shattered ideals.

We feel compelled to reflect on the contemporary tragedies and atrocities committed right here in the U.S.

We must turn our attention to the disaster and brokenness of this nation that hunts down, detains and deports immigrants, separates families, cages children and turns away asylum seekers.

Together we will explore our communal culpability in this tragedy and ask honestly: where do WE stand in the face of this cruelty and violence? Join us to study, read, sing, bear witness, and build our collective New Mexican Jewish voice to take action.


Organized Locally by Bend the Arc Jewish Action: Moral Minyan New Mexico, Jewish Bridge Project of New Mexico, Jewish Asylum Seekers Initiative, Congregation Nahalat Shalom, Congregation Albert, as well as committed unaffiliated individual organizers. Space generously donated by JCC Albuquerque.

Organized Nationally by T’ruah, Bend the Arc, National Council for Jewish Women, the RAC, J Street, HIAS, and Torah Trumps Hate in response to a call for action by United We Dream, the largest immigrant youth-led network in the country.

Jim Morin, MorinToons Syndicate

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Forgotten At The Library

Of Burnt Books: Do you remember the pure joy, the immense pleasure, the awesome power you felt when you received your very first library card from your local library?

Abq Jew sure remembers!

So, you may ask: What ever happened to Alexandria's Great Library? The Ancient History Encyclopedia tells us:
The infamous destruction by fire of the Library of Alexandria, with the consequent loss of the most complete collection of ancient literature ever assembled, has been a point of heated debate for centuries. 
What exactly happened to this amazing storehouse of ancient knowledge, and who was responsible for its burning? 
The prime suspect in [the] destruction of the Library of Alexandria is Julius Caesar. After Caesar's death it was generally believed that it was he who had destroyed the Library. 
So - was it JC (see Beware Already)? That would have been around 48 BCE. There is no one left for us to interrogate. And there are other theories of the crime, other persons of interest.

The truth? Unknown. Or forgotten.

 Firefighters battle a blaze at the LA Central Library
downtown on April 29, 1986   Jack Gaunt / Los Angeles Times

And then there was the fire that devastated the Los Angeles Central Library on April 29, 1986. Don't remember it? Neither does Abq Jew, who was living in Aberdeen, New Jersey at the time.

First of all - it was Passover! We were celebrating! Local (and national) news barely mentioned the fire. And - wasn't there something else going on just then ...? Like ...

An aerial view of the damaged Chernobyl nuclear-power plant,
photographed a few weeks after the disaster, in May 1986
Laski Diffusion / Wojtek Laski / Getty

The Chernobyl Disaster

Oh yeah, Chernobyl. But let's go back to the LA Library fire.

To refresh our memories of what happened, here is the beginning of Carolyn Kellogg's October 2018 review of Susan Orlean's newest, The Library Book. From the LA Times, of course.

Susan Orlean displays a book that was damaged in the fire.
Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

Must Reads

Who started the 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Library? Susan Orlean investigates in her new book
Curiosity is Susan Orlean’s superpower.
Hundreds of L.A. firefighters fought the devastating downtown’s Central Library on April 29, 1986. Thousands of people contributed to the Save the Books campaign afterward. Millions heard the news that the library was burning and then that it was caused by arson. 
But more than three decades later, only Orlean was asking who did it and why, and wondering whether anyone today should care. In a reverse “Fahrenheit 451,” Orlean took a fire and turned it into a book. 
Titled — aptly and ingeniously — “The Library Book,” it tells the story of the mysterious fire that burned 400,000 books while also tracing Orlean’s love of libraries, from trips with her mother to taking her son. Along the way, she relates the unexpectedly colorful history and future of the L.A. Public Library.

Abq Jew first learned of Susan Orlean's new book from (you guessed it!) The New Yorker. Wherein, also in October 2018, was published an adapted excerpt from "The Library Book."

And Abq Jew is just now beginning to read "The Library Book." Wherein he found a most powerful exposition of the power of memory and the fear - everyone's fear - of being forgotten.

It turned out that these paragraphs were among those selected for The New Yorker's article. Which begins:
Personal History
Growing Up in the Library
Learning and relearning what it means to have a book on borrowed time.
I grew up in libraries, or at least it feels that way. 
Illustration by Lilli Carré

Susan Orlean describes the pure joy, the immense pleasure, the awesome power she felt when visiting the library, as a child, with her mother.

And then:
I found myself wondering whether a shared memory can exist if one of the people sharing it no longer remembers it. Is the circuit broken, the memory darkened? 
My mother was the one person besides me who knew what those gauzy afternoons had been like. I was writing about libraries because I was trying hard to preserve those afternoons. 
I convinced myself that committing them to a page would save the memory of them from the corrosive effect of time. 
The idea of being forgotten is terrifying. I fear not just that I, personally, will be forgotten but that we are all doomed to being forgotten; that the sum of life is ultimately nothing; that we experience joy and disappointment and aches and delights and loss, make our little mark on the world, and then we vanish, and the mark is erased, and it is as if we never existed. 
If you gaze into that bleakness even for a moment, the sum of life becomes null and void, because if nothing lasts nothing matters. 
Everything we experience unfolds without a pattern, and life is just a baffling occurrence, a scattering of notes with no melody. But if something you learn or observe or imagine can be set down and saved, and if you can see your life reflected in previous lives, and can imagine it reflected in subsequent ones, you can begin to discover order and harmony. 
You know that you are a part of a larger story that has shape and purpose—a tangible, familiar past and a constantly refreshed future. We are all whispering in a tin can on a string, but we are heard, so we whisper the message into the next tin can and the next string. 
Writing a book is an act of sheer defiance. It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory.

The writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ once said that, in Africa, when an old person dies, it is like a library has been burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize that it was perfect. 
Our minds and our souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories catalogued and stored inside, a private library of a life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share; it burns down and disappears when we die. 
But if you can take something from your internal collection and share it—with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story told—it takes on a life of its own.

For those who are especially curious, here is a bit of Susan Orlean's story. Yes, she's a MOT. Betcha didn't know that!
Susan Orlean (born October 31, 1955) is a journalist and author. She has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992, and has contributed articles to many magazines including Vogue, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Outside
She is best known as the author of the 1998 book The Orchid Thief, which was adapted into the film Adaptation (2002). Meryl Streep received an Academy Award nomination for her performance as Orlean. 
Orlean was raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the daughter of Edith (née Gross 1923-2016) and Arthur Orlean (1915-2007). She has a sister, Debra, and a brother, David. Her family is Jewish
Her mother's family is from Hungary and her father's family from Poland. Her father was an attorney and businessman.
Best. Short Story. Ever.
The Fable of the Goat (מעשה העז)   Shmuel Yosef Agnon (שׁ״י עגנון)

We Jews are about to enter the Nine Days of melancholy - beginning with Rosh Hodesh Menachem Av (see Consoling The Father and May Father Find Comfort, et al) - leading up to the Black Fast of Tisha B'Av. It is a time when we remember the fire and destruction of those terrible days.

Those who mourned the loss of the Los Angeles Central Library were privileged to rejoice in its rebuilding. And the Talmud states (lehavdil) that all who mourn the destruction of Jerusalem will merit to rejoice in its rebuilding.

During these days, as Jerusalem is being rebuilt, it is that promise of full redemption which makes this period one of hope and anticipation.

We Jews go on telling our stories. We defiantly and exuberantly write books (and even blogs!), for we are the People of the Book. And we will forever believe in the persistence of memory.

Everything matters, for something always lasts.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Asylum Seekers in Albuquerque

Cared For By Jewish Volunteers: When it comes to facing the immigration crises - there's more than one - emanating from our southern border, we Jews are getting involved.

After all, it's our issue - as groups like Never Again Action make clear.

Led by Jewish activist group Never Again Action, hundreds marched down
Market Street to the San Francisco Federal Building to protest conditions
in migrant detention camps, July 5, 2019. Photo / Gabe Stutman

We Jews especially remember the SS St Louis, which entered American waters - and was turned away - 80 years ago last month. As Catherine Rampell writes in The Washington Post:
It’s hard not to think about such shameful episodes of U.S. history amid our current treatment of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Our rejection of innocents seeking refuge from persecution, based on excuses that they might become an economic burden or national security threat. Our disingenuous claims that people need only to follow the rules and get in line.
But what we are doing today, Ms Rampell says, may be worse.
Today, we know exactly what we’re doing when we turn refugees away. Today, we know what happens when the “doors [are] closed” to a persecuted people, as White House senior adviser Jared Kushner’s grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, put it in her own oral history
Today, we know the drive such people have to succeed in the United States despite their persecution, as evidenced by the ancestors of Trump’s de facto immigration czar, Stephen Miller, who came here fleeing pogroms
U.S. policy toward displaced or persecuted peoples has never exactly been generous. But adjusted for the lessons that history now affords us, rarely has it been so deliberately stingy.

Here in New Mexico, we Jews are also getting involved. This is not new, but our concern and awareness of what is transpiring - in our name - at our border has been greatly heightened.

To help us better understand just what is going on, photojournalist Diane Joy Schmidt (see Our Prayers Are Heard, et al) investigated the situation.

Ms Schmidt reported the results in this summer's issue of The New Mexico Jewish Link. Her article is reprinted here with her permission.

Asylum Seekers in Albuquerque
Cared For By Jewish Volunteers
A Humanitarian Crisis Driven By Climate Change

Article & Photos by Diane Joy Schmidt

In the first week of June, border policy suddenly shifted and the stream of asylum seekers with children that were being released by ICE and the border patrol in El Paso and arriving on buses in El Paso, Deming and Albuquerque suddenly turned to a trickle.

On June 12th, faith groups in Albuquerque were told that the number of refugees that ICE and BP are releasing had suddenly decreased significantly, and that for now, many hospitality sites will not be receiving refugees. They have no way of knowing if this will continue and for how long.

As of the last week of May, parents with children arriving from Central and South America who crossed the U.S. border from Mexico and were detained by the U.S. Border Patrol surrendered and requested asylum.

They were given an alien number. 

If they had a credible fear of persecution and a sponsor who is willing to accept responsibility for them, after being fitted with ankle monitors, those with children were being released within a few days into nearby towns along the border, to find their way to their sponsors.

Once they reach their destinations, they check in with ICE and their ankle monitors are reset to within a 75-mile radius of their sponsors’ home. They are then given a date, sometimes months hence due to court backlogs, to return for a hearing to determine if they will be deported or can provisionally remain.

Abby, a 76-year-old volunteer and grandmother, carried a basket of toys around
that she had bought at discount stores to give the children. “I love children,” she said.

With detention centers dangerously overcrowded, in March, April and May, bus loads of asylum seekers wearing ankle monitors were suddenly being released into border towns in New Mexico, as well as in Texas, Arizona, and California. Annunciation House, the principal faith group that has been assisting asylum seekers in El Paso, a major detention point, became completely overwhelmed.

In the last few months, the cities of Deming and Las Cruces in New Mexico suddenly began to receive busloads of asylum seekers. After first declaring a state of emergency, the city council of the small city of Deming voted to allocate one million dollars to shelter the asylum seekers and help them on their way.

Five faith groups in Albuquerque answered a call for help from Mayor Tim Keller (see Urgent! Asylum Seekers Crisis!), and chose to take a lead in handling the busloads that began arriving here.

Among those present that day, including Catholic Charities and Lutheran Family Services, was Jessica, from the Jewish community, whose daughter Emily had gotten her involved. She noticed she was the only Jewish person present. She stepped up and since that day, she has taken a lead role in organizing a humanitarian relief effort within the close-knit Jewish community in Albuquerque.

ICE takes everything from people, including their shoelaces. These ten-year-old twins
from Honduras spent four nights in the ‘icebox’ a concrete cell, with just a mylar
‘space’ blanket. They tore off strips of it to make shoe laces for their shoes.

Beginning in March, with family and friends, she put together a coordinated team effort of volunteers from the Jewish community, and beyond, that has been funded completely by donations. So far they have assisted over 300 asylum seekers in traveling to their sponsor destinations around the country.

It costs between five and six thousand dollars for her group to assist one busload of fifty asylum seekers over a period of two to three days. 

Since March, the five faith groups have now helped thousands of adults with children that have come through Albuquerque. In May, the Albuquerque city council, despite considerable hullabaloo, finally voted to spend $250,000 to help out the faith groups.

Meanwhile some 60,000 men, women and children wait in wholly inadequate detention facilities at the border. The Office of the Inspector General of Homeland Security released a scathing report on May 28 about the El Paso Bridge site, demanding immediate action after their spot inspections revealed inhumanely crowded conditions.

On Friday before the Memorial Day weekend, while preparing for their fifth busload, Jessica received an urgent call from Rueben García at Annunciation House in El Paso. Could they take an extra busload? They scrambled and got as ready as they could.

On Sunday, two busloads of legally processed asylum seekers pulled up to a nondescript motel in Albuquerque after a five-hour drive from El Paso. One hundred parents with small children slowly got off the buses under the watchful eye of an armed guard, and with dazed expressions, were welcomed with clapping, smiles and greetings by volunteers from the Jewish community and friends who stood ready to receive them.

As they gathered under the shade of a tree, they stared with a dark intensity at the speaker who addressed them in Spanish.

They heard, “We are here to help you. You are safe,” repeatedly. By the third time, eyes began to soften and, among the women, some to redden. 

Jessica’s daughter Emily, a 21-year-old recent UNM graduate with a double major in Chicano(a) Studies and Spanish, explained to the group in fluent Spanish that they would each be checked by a doctor, stay in hotel rooms in groups of four, receive hot meals, clean shoes and clothes, have travel arrangements with their sponsors made, and be sent on their way.

An eerie silence pervaded as they shuffled into the building. When they had first surrendered at the border requesting asylum and were brought into detention, their shoes had been stripped of shoelaces, from parents and children alike, their belongings taken from them, and their alien numbers affixed to paper bracelets around their wrists.

In an orderly, if seemingly chaotic, frenzy, within two hours, everyone was checked in by the intake team, among them social workers who checked the children for signs of traumatic stress. They were handed toothbrush kits and toys, brought in groups of four to their rooms by the hospitality team, visited in their rooms and given a checkup by a medical team of a doctor or nurse practitioner and translator, and then brought to the ‘store’ where they were able to pick out clean underwear, shoes and clothing. There were supposed to be four doctors there that day, however three had suddenly rushed off to Deming when they got a call that a busload of 400 had unexpectedly arrived there.

A tee shirt worn by a Congregation Albert volunteer coordinator. 

A volunteer ran up to Jessica to report that one woman, who was still nursing but whose baby was already in Houston, urgently needed a breast pump. The volunteer was immediately dispatched to Walgreens with a handful of gift cards to buy one.

A woman from Honduras with two small children, whose husband had been murdered in the streets there, suddenly discovered that her cousin in Houston was refusing to sponsor her. After she contacted another friend in Virginia who agreed to be her new sponsor, Jessica worked the phones to get ICE to establish her new destination. Her two children showed me how they had made shoelaces by tearing off strips from the thin mylar blanket they were given while in the cold “icebox” detention cell in El Paso.

A third family would remain distraught; they had been forced to board the bus for Albuquerque without their grandmother, who was mute. She had never been left alone before. They were advised to continue to their destination. A week later, Jessica would finally locate her—she was still in the makeshift detention camp under a bridge in El Paso surrounded with razor wire that was supposed to be only a temporary holding area, an outside area that the Inspector General had not even been shown on his spot checks.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General used this photo
in a report to show crowded holding cells at an immigration facility in El Paso.
The government shielded the faces of detainees.
Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General

On May 31st, The New York Times reported El Paso Immigration Center Is Dangerously Overcrowded, Inspector General Warns, with a DHS photo showing inhumane conditions and a report released by Homeland Security’s own Office of the Inspector General that revealed, among other horrors, a holding cell designed for 35 that held 155, where people had been kept for weeks in standing room only conditions.

At six that evening, volunteers from a congregation brought in hot meals they had prepared: baked ziti, steamed vegetables, salad and rolls. The second night they brought baked chicken. The travel team worked non-stop through the night, contacting the sponsors to arrange for them to send money to pay for bus and plane tickets where needed, and then arranging a pool of drivers who would be taking them to the airport or bus station.

The travel team pitched in their own money together and bought car seats and booster seats for the children to use in this next short trip. At the airport, they would be greeted by a team member of a different ad hoc group who would assist them with TSA processing.

Within two days, the hotel would fall silent as almost all were now on their way out of New Mexico. The rooms were paid for and the housekeeping staff of the hotel received monetary compensation for their work. But of course, there would be snafus.

Climate change is the greatest driver of this humanitarian crisis, as one story shows. 

Leaving behind his wife and other children, Miguel, 32,from the western highlands of Guatemala,walked two days carrying his four-year-old son until he reached a paved road where he was able to catch a ride north. He said that after they crossed the U.S. border in a truck, they were apprehended and they surrendered to the border patrol.

We sat down in a meeting room at the hotel on Monday. Speaking with him through a student translator who spoke rudimentary Spanish, we didn’t recognize that Miguel himself only spoke and understood very limited Spanish. His simple answers were barely adequate to articulate the sorrows that had brought him down from the cloud rainforests to a strange land.

Miguel said he was not able to go to school and so he cannot read and write. These communication barriers would cause an almost tragicomic mixup later that day.

Miguel’s native tongue is Chuj, one of the Mayan languages. It is spoken by the Chuj people, who number about 50,000, and who live at an altitude of about 7,700 feet in the high mountain range of Guatemala that borders Mexico.

One of the oldest proto-Mayan language groups, the Chuj have inhabited Guatemala going back at least 4,000 years. When asked why he had left home and family, Miguel explained simply, “When we go to ask the people with the money for work, they beat us.”

The Mayan people have been the most vulnerable victims of racism, and most persecuted of all inhabitants of Central America. Systematically denied rights, their land and water taken from them, 70% suffer from malnutrition and stunted growth, a rate that is the sixth worst in the world.

Over the last three years, sudden early frosts and drought have caused their subsistence crops of maize and beans to fail. There is no longer wage work to be found in the coffee plantations because the plants have shriveled. With no produce to eat or sell, the fragile remaining woodlands are being chopped down to sell for firewood. Denuded, the mountains are further destroyed by mudslides.

For fifty years renowned Guatemalan climate scientist and former environmental minister Luis Ferraté has been sounding the alarm that this trend would become irreversible.

And now, because of climate change, their cloud rainforest is drying up. It is estimated that within the next fifty years, all the high mountain cloud rainforests in the world will be gone, a study funded by the USDA Forest Service International Institute of Tropical Forestry shows.

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen traveled to Guatemala to see for himself: “I have never been anywhere that conveyed such a palpable sense of the earth dying. President Trump thinks climate change is a joke. He should come here. He would understand another big migration driver.”

The land is dying. Cohen linked his May 10th column, ‘Here There is Nothing’, to another in-depth report, by The New Yorker staff writer Jonathan Blitzer, How Climate Change Is Fueling the U.S. Border Crisis.

Climate change has tipped the scales. Climate change is happening too fast for humans to adapt, if they stay in place. A U.S. agricultural aid program working with the highland farmers to try different methods to deal with climate change was showing some results after three years. Trump has cut all such programs.

A volunteer receives a goodbye hug from a child seeking asylum.
When the families arrived, they shed tears.
When they left, the volunteers cried.

While we spoke, Abby, a 76-year-old volunteer and grandmother, jumped up to bring Miguel’s small son a box of crayons and a coloring book. She carried a basket of toys around that she had bought at discount stores to give the children.

“I love children,” she said. When asked about some members of her congregation who do not agree with helping the asylum seekers, she sagely replied,

“I don’t know about that. I surround myself
with people of like mind.”

The boy quietly colored during the half-hour that we talked, using only one color, a light blue crayon, on a page of the book. Perhaps it was only the color, but his lines seemed more tentative, lighter than those made by other children that colorfully filled other pages.

In the early 1980’s the Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt announced that to be poor was a sin, and sent the army to kill some 300,000 indigenous men, women and children. Miguel said that yes, he knew about this, because his uncle was killed then. Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide in 2013 for trying to exterminate an entire Mayan ethnic group.

Steven Speilberg’s [USC] Shoah Foundation has documented the testimony of survivors of the Guatemalan genocide, the only project they have pursued in the Western Hemisphere.

The current Guatemalan president, Jimmy Morales, has not provided much in the way of aid to the drought-stricken areas. However, he welcomes the new plan Trump offered this week after shutting down aid programs—advisors to stop the flow of migrants.

Miguel hopes his son will have the opportunity to go to school. He would do any kind of hard work to earn money to send to his wife, who is sick, and to some day to build a house for her.

I felt devastated by his story, knowing it was something of a miracle for him to have reached this first safe harbor, and the challenges he will face from here. Rhonda, one of the lead organizers, insisted, “You must return tomorrow and see the change in people. After a good night’s sleep, some kindness, a meal, and a plan to reach where they are going, they are smiling, they are laughing.”

When I returned Tuesday after a sleepless night worrying about him, Miguel and his son had already been put on a bus late the night before, headed, they thought, for Alabama.

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches being made to take on the long bus ride journeys
across the country to their sponsors. 

With the best of intentions

Tuesday night Jessica got a call from Miguel with the one-hour phone he had been provided with that was preprogrammed with her number and that of his cousin, his sponsor. He was waiting at the bus station in Alabama for his cousin to pick him up, and now the bus station was about to close. He wanted to know how far it was from the station to the town where his cousin lived.

Jessica asked to speak to the bus station attendant. The reply, “What?! This is Santa Ana, California!” Somehow his tickets had accidentally gotten switched with a fellow traveler’s before they left Albuquerque.

Frantic phone calls located the other traveler and his son, who thought they were in California. They got off their bus in Shreveport, Louisiana and three hours later were re-ticketed onto another bus headed back west. Meanwhile, Miguel and his son were ferried by an Uber driver forty-five minutes to LAX, where a police sergeant met and escorted them to a plane.

When they changed planes in Houston, through another congregant’s contacts, a Southwest airline employee made sure they got on the right flight.

After the core teams had handled emergencies nonstop for days, did Jessica have any regrets that she had taken on this project? 

“None whatsoever,” she answered without hesitation. 

And there has been a ripple effect. She added, “We are now reaching out to other Jewish organizations who will be able to further assist the asylum seekers once they leave our site and continue their journeys .”

Right now, there are no asylum seekers coming through Albuquerque.
Donations are not needed at this time. Click here to sign up for the 
JASI (Jewish Asylum Seekers Initiative) email list and stay in the loop.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Seduced By the Sounds of Cuba

The Mamboniks and Martin Cohen: Have you been celebrating the Jewish experience through cinema at the 6th Annual ABQ Jewish Film Festival 2019 presented by the Jewish Community Center of Greater ABQ?

An entire, complete plethora of good films is (not are; Abq Jew checked) being presented this year. But the one that, in easier* times, Abq Jew would most be looking forward to is

The Mamboniks
Film Festival Finale
Sunday July 28 @ 2:00 pm
NHCC - Bank of America Theater
Bagels meet bongos in this surprising story of Jewish dancers
who fell in love with the Cuban mambo in the 1950s,
sparking a dance craze that swept the nation and the world.
Only a revolution could stop it.

Lox and bagels meet salsa and congos in Peabody Award winner Lex Gillespie’s joyous and singular celebration of the Jewish love affair with Latin music and dance, set in New York, Havana, Miami Beach, and the Catskill Mountains. 
During the 1950s, free-spirited, mostly Jewish dancers from New York City fell head over heels for the mambo, the hot dance from Cuba that became a worldwide sensation. 
Their love for Latin rhythms earned them a nickname: the “mamboniks.” Now retired, yet still dancing in Florida, a lovable, somewhat zany collection of dancers from the ‘50s share a passion that age has not cooled. 
With colorful first-person accounts and an infectious Afro-Cuban soundtrack including Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, and “mambo king” Pérez Prado, The Mamboniks explores a largely unexamined and exhilarating aspect of Jewish life and culture, and a time when Jews, Latinos, and African-Americans met on the dance floor, although America was racially segregated and anti-Semitism was commonplace.

And as long as we're talking Jews & Cuban music -
here is Martin Cohen's bongo story.

How a "poor, Jewish guy, who can't speak Spanish"
succeeded in making his mark on the Latin music industry

From NPR and
How I Made It: King Of The Bongo Makers
by Jeanne Montalvo Lucar 
In the late 1950s, a young mechanical engineer from the Bronx named Martin Cohen stumbled into Birdland, the famous jazz club in New York City. He discovered the rhythms of Latin music and thus began a lifelong love affair with percussion. 
In the 1960s, when Cohen wanted to get his own set of bongos to learn how to play, he found he was unable to get a high-quality instrument, due to a trade embargo with Cuba. 
He decided to start his own company, Latin Percussion (LP for short). If you’ve ever seen a band play percussion instruments—like congas, a set of bongos, or a cowbell, chances are you’ve seen an LP branded instrument. 
Cohen started by making drums, something he says he knew nothing about, and decades later, some of the greatest percussionists in the Latin music scene have played with LP instruments. 
Though, as of 2015, he no longer runs the company, he remains enmeshed in the world of Latin music. In the early 2000s, he created, a site dedicated to Latin music and percussion, with articles, photos, and live performances of bands from all over the globe. 

Mr & Mrs Abq Jew have not felt much like dancing or singing since the November passing (see In Memory of Sheila Kronrot) of our beloved Mother, Mother-in-Law, Grandmother, and Great Grand Mama - who would have turned 95 this past June. We are still mourning, and in some ways will always be.

And then - this Sunday (actually, Shabbat) is the fast of Shiva Asar B'Tammuz, which begins (see The Three Weeks 2016) a traditional period of mourning during which singing and dancing are ... discouraged.

Nevertheless, when the Holy One, Blessed Be He, grants us the strength ...