Tuesday, December 22, 2020

One Last When Facebook Becomes Blogging

This will double as a message to everybody reading this rather than just the people who commented here.

I haven't answered the responses here for more than a week. I'm cutting down my facebook consumption for a time, possibly for more than a time, perhaps hopefully more than a time. It occurs to me that so many people in my life know me more as a social media presence than the actual person. I'll still be posting in cultural forums which are the things I really care about, and more than happy to keep in touch on facebook messenger or possibly by text. But this kind of exhibitionism is a chapter in my life that I'd like to be over.
I'm concerned that by presenting a public image of myself that is at once both a kind of weirdly pathetic 'public intellectual'/comedian, the more the 'real me' explodes out and makes itself known to a potential infinity of unsuspecting eyes, and the more the 'real me' therefore becomes the person who struggles profoundly with the battery of mental illnesses which it would be prudent not to expose to a thousand acquaintances at a time.
There are people out there who are struggling more than I and far more worthy and needful of people's attention and sympathy than I. I do my best through deeply complicated flaws, delusions, extremes of mood, and all the things that go along with those traits of character. What this comes down to is that I am not equipped to live through many circumstances which other people take for granted without basically insurmountable amounts of mental duress, so how much moreso is that then true for broadcasting my thoughts instantly on social media?
The time has come, as best I can, to gather my thoughts and emotions, if I'm capable of gathering them at all, into something more lasting, organized, thought through, well-considered before I vomit them to a public of acquaintances I barely know, and social media friends who think they know me but know only a two-dimensional version without context. The internet, or at least the internet of 2020, flattens everything, it makes heroes and victims out of deeply complicated people, it tells people only the very literal truth without the context. I began posting here nearly ten years ago as a way of trying to strike back from that, but I became the caricature of what I really thought and in that way am clearly like everybody I was angry with.
You'll probably still see writing on this page, but probably less often, of a length nobody here wants to read, and I am absolutely done with sharing articles and scrolling through a feed of other people that pissed me off, filled me with anxiety and despondence, and made me more and more the person I less wanted to be.
Appropriate Sentiments until next time,

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Beethoven 250

The cancellation of classical music's sestercentennial of Beethoven's birth is the best thing to happen to music in years and years and years.

It's not that Beethoven doesn't deserve it, but so do literally thousands of other musicians over a period of a thousand years, and this year would have been just one more go round of music we already know too well while a whole catalogue of unperformed genius continues to gather moss, generation after generation, waiting to be discovered because a few artists rule over the rest of us like kings, some artists from whom, like Beethoven, would find any ideology which places them as gods over everyone else an horrific anathema. And for those who feel like they've missed something terrible, don't worry, we'll have to do the whole thing over again in seven years for the bicentennial of his death.

There is something creepy in the celebration of dead artist birthdays. It's a bit like celebrating the birth of Christ or of Kim-Jong Un, only our theocratic dictator becomes the artist. These are not the celebrations of a friend but of a god, who views us as his slaves, and looks down upon us from the skies as toys for his own gratification as he coerces the faithful into appreciating him as though our lives would have no meaning at all if not for his presence. But if these artists - be they Beethoven or Shakespeare or Rembrandt, have any relation to our personal lives, it's not because of the awe their creation provokes but because the emotions they provoke are relatable to us as human beings. They're not gods or idols, they're friends, they're family, they're neighbors, sometimes they're antagonists, they're inescapable facts of our lives, and like any inescapable fact of life, sometimes they provoke extreme irritation or even feelings of hurt, rage, and betrayal. And in reality, the only people who would ever think to keep celebrating the birthdays of people after they die are quacks who go to seances.

I recently had a very weird interaction on a contemporary classical music forum where I got caught between two opposite trolls. When I mentioned that the cancellation of the Beethoven may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, I got a troll who accused me of 'trying to look cool' by being snarky against a genius. Now I can probably write out a couple dozen Beethoven works in full score with reasonable accuracy, while he could just troll online, so obviously my devotion to classical music is unequal to his. But then, when I proved that I knew more about Beethoven than that maladjust, I encountered a second malcontent, who used my comment as a screed to claim that Beethoven is the music of 200 years ago, and therefore has nothing to contribute to the present day.

The internet obviously brings out the worst in the worst of us, perhaps even the worst in the best, but whatever our pathology, the internet will magnify it. With every post on the internet, there are really three people who post: the person we are, the person we wish to present ourselves as, and the person our fears create. The more we want to present ourselves as person #2, the more person #3 takes over. Everyone who posts on the internet to virtuously fight for the greater good, whatever our political orientation, has never yet found a shred of evidence yet that they've improved the world, and encounters wall-to-wall evidence that all it's ever done is entrench in their ways those who disagree exponentially more so than they would be if we weren't yelling our opinions at them. We think what we are posting is our better angels, but angels have nowhere near the cunning of demons, and rage can so easily convince itself it's righteousness.

Beethoven would not recognize the details of this new world, but he would easily taste the revolutionary flavor, and far more than his most fervent devotees (probably far more than I) he would welcome it and do everything within his power to accelerate the process. It is not hard to imagine Beethoven being overwhelmingly distracted by social media, getting into the most heated debates over trivial insignificance, pouring all his potential for new Eroicas and Appassionatas into some social media screed, forgetting that the world probably has far more need of his art than his specific opinoins. What is the story of Beethoven's renunciation of the Eroica's dedication to Napoleon but Beethoven's way of saying "I wanted him to be Bernie Sanders, I didn't expect him to be Trump!"?

New technology does not change human beings, it reveals new dimensions of what human beings already are. Just as there would be no French Revolution and Napoleon without the Industrial Revolution to unleash the world's latent passions, there would be no Internet and Information Revolutions without these revolutions unleashing whatever dreadful revolutions and reactions likely to come in their wake.

Just as happened in Beethoven's era, when industry overtook feudal rurality as it was practiced for a thousand years, today's era of information overtakes the world of straightforward narratives like the written word and notated music and creates a world composited through data accumulated by the trillions and therefore with potential to evolve at trillions of times the speed. What hope has musical notation as we understand it to keep up with the developments of a new world in which any musical sound can be reproduced with digital immaculacy, then filtered, spliced, edited, compressed, and distorted into millions of musical worlds not yet visited? It is a cultural quantum leap for which not even Beethoven prepared us, and even if Beethoven still is, as I believe he is, the greatest musical artist in the history of the world, it is time for Beethoven to retire from his solo position and take his place as a still much honored member of the choir.

We live in the shadow of 1800. On the one side, the Enlightenment world of Mozart, Voltaire, Kant, Hume, Adam Smith, Johnson and Boswell, Newton and Leibniz, Spinoza and Locke, Lavoisier, Montesquieu, Goethe, Burke, and and the 'Founding Fathers' who used reason to conceive the possibility of a better world than the absolutes of monarchy and divine right and command, worlds of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But humans act by the dictates of reason only with the most titanic struggles, and it was not the enlightened who put the overthrow into place but those messy revolutionaries and romantics: Beethoven, Robespierre, Rousseau, Hegel, Keats, Coleridge, Byron, Blake, Delacroix, Goya, Berlioz, Pushkin, Mickiewicz, Emerson, Caspar David Friedrich, the Brontes, the Shelleys, Poe, and Napoleon, a revolution of liberty, equality, and fraternity procured for our future by the morbidly agonizing death of their present.

Where do we stand now that 1800's most promising nation has become yet another ancien regime, and seems increasingly like all of us could start losing our heads at any moment? When everything we thought we knew about whole world is no longer true, then all that remains is new possibilities, and the ability to evolve apace with the growth of a new world before that new world demands a revolution that can kill everything we ever loved.

Whatever the field, be it music or be it politics or be it science, it means that if we want to preserve old certainties, we have to let them go, and accept that many of the old are going to die. Nowhere in the world is there a place which more embodies the spirit of those old certainties than classical music, where orchestral boards and easy money have kept audiences fundamentally embalmed in 1913 long after the world before 1913 is guaranteed to pay to keep the lights on.

But no one in the world would have been more welcoming of that development than reliable old Beethoven. Like all great geniuses, and surely Louie was among the greatest, he is always ahead of us, and in this case, part of being ahead of us is the realization built into his music's DNA that huge changes to all of our lives are an inevitability. For those of us in the increasingly miniscule and destitute world of classical music, that means realizing that we have long since become dinosaurs, and our inability to move apace with the times has been a curse on music, not just ours but everyone's, millions of people who could have been deeply affected by Beethoven moved into popular music which, by its very nature, does not tell people what they don't want to hear, and deliberately keeps awareness of history's seizmic shifts and shocks at bay. (yeah, yeah, yeah... it's more complicated...)

It's been a hundred years since music needed massive orchestras to make massive sound. It's been a hundred years since music needed musical notation to demonstrate great virtuosity. It's been a hundred years since the great fissure between classical and popular, high and low, un-self-conscious erudition and un-self-conscious enjoyment, and Beethoven would have been scandalized by the whole thing. He'd want to seize us all by the throat as irresponsible custodians of this artform we claim to love, which he worked so hard to give a future rather than merely a present, and which we are allowing to die along with all the other certainties of an era that may yet kill us along with any future for Beethoven.


Tuesday, December 15, 2020


 Coming back to Judaism is a tough pill at times. It's very difficult to turn off the voice that says you're collaborating with all sorts of forces and notions of which should make us all sick, and one of those which makes me sickest is Hanukkah....

Even at its best, one has to acknowledge that Hanukkah is at bottom a stupid holiday that isn't really a holiday. It's not even Canonical, the Book of Maccabees is only in the Christian Bible. It's a minor festival clearly based on the Winter Solstice whose significance is as ancillary to the root story of Judaism as Israeli Independence Day, who saw its significance vastly blown up by a bunch of 19th century Reform Rabbis from its natural proportions to this Leviathan of Jewish life that has so little reason to be celebrated more than Shavuot or Simchat Torah except for its proximity for American Jews to the two-month Christmas season of which we can't participate without technically being idolworshippers, and similarly blown up in Israel because it's a holiday that celebrates one of the few times Jews won a war.
And that's only the charitable interpretation. The uncharitable interpretation is that Hanukkah is a celebration of fanaticism over rationality, of superstition over progress, of the idea that the most backward parts of our religion are worth killing over.
Now, I realize, that's incredibly uncharitable. The Selucid Greeks were proto-imperialists like any other, and they were trying to confiscate Jewish identity as they did the cultures of every other ancient civilization the Greco-Romans ransacked. Just as imperialism created the worst of Marxism, so did the excesses of the Classical world incubate the worst monotheistic practices.
But let's face it. If the Maccabees were alive today, they wouldn't just be living in an Israeli settlement or voting Likud, they'd be writing 'Kahane Tzodek' graffiti on the highways. They'd be throwing rocks at Palestinians and volunteering for the army jobs that let them do the worst harassment. They would be correctly reviled by all but the most reactionary elements in Jewish life, and to make a holiday celebrating them would rightly be considered an abomination.
But yeah, that's all 2000 years ago, and come on, if Christmas can be coopted to mean anything but the Birth of Christ, we can also incorporate whatever we want Hanukkah to mean. So what does Hanukkah mean now?
Like Christmas, like Winter Solstice, it is a 'festival of light' amid the darkest evenings of the year. For all the talk on Hannukah about Jewish identity and pride and preserving the faith, the best of Hanukkah is the opposite of unique to us.
For most of its 2150ish year history, Hanukkah was not made into a festival for an era of prosperity, it was made into a holiday for an era of desperation, and it is meant to remind us in dark times that better times are possible. In eras when Jews were slaughtered, it tells us that the slaughter is not inevitable. In eras when Jews were persecuted, it tells us that persecution can be resisted. In eras when Jews have been utterly defeated, it tells us that there will come times of victory. It is not just a festival of light but a festival of hope.
The very title of the pre-eminent Hanukkah song "Maoz Tzur" was made into the titular line of perhaps the preeminent English Christian hymn: "Rock of Ages." Unfortunately, the only verse we sing on Hanukkah is the verse that's entirely about slaughtering the enemies, but the hymn itself is the contradiction of Hanukkah, on the one hand, nearly every verse has something about slaughtering your enemies. On the other hand, when you're being slaughtered, it's difficult to remember that you should set an example of mercy. The crazy contradiction of Hanukkah, jingoism and murder on the one side, hope and light on the other, is shot through the whole song as it is the whole holiday. It is both, and while we all need hope, it's also a testament to how easily hope can turn into hopes for vengeance. Does that then mean that all hope is false hope?
I wish there was a more optimistic conclusion for this essay...
The full Maoz Tsur - a 13th century Piyut - in English:
"My Refuge, my Rock of Salvation! 'Tis pleasant to sing Your praises.
Let our house of prayer be restored. And there we will offer You our thanks.
When You will have slaughtered the barking foe.
Then we will celebrate with song and psalm the altar's dedication.
My soul was sated with misery, My strength was spent with grief.
They embittered my life with hardship, When enslaved under the rule of Egypt.
But God with his mighty power Brought out His treasured people;
While Pharaoh's host and followers Sank like a stone into the deep.
He brought me to His holy abode; Even there, I found no rest.
The oppressor came and exiled me, Because I served strange gods,
and drank poisonous wine. Yet scarcely had I gone into exile,
When Babylon fell and Zerubbabel took charge; Within seventy years I was saved.
The Agagite, son of Hammedatha, plotted to cut down the lofty fir;
But it proved a snare to him, and his insolence was silenced.
You raised the head of the Benjamite, but the enemy's name You blotted out.
His numerous sons and his household You hanged upon the gallows.
The Greeks gathered against me, in days of the Hasmoneans.
They broke down the walls of my towers, and defiled all the oils.
But from the last remaining flask a miracle was wrought for the Jews.
Therefore the sages of the day ordained these eight for songs of praise.
O bare Your holy arm and bring the end of salvation.
Wreak vengeance upon the wicked nation, On behalf of your faithful servants.
For deliverance has too long been delayed; And the evil days are endless.
O Reject the enemy into the shadows of idolatry, and set up for us the seven shepherds."

Monday, December 14, 2020

Who Should Have Been Person of the Year

Since Time got it wrong again, here's a list I made for myself a little while back of every person who should have been Person of the Year back to 1984. My original list goes all the way back to 1914 but I still haven't figured out the years between 1930 and 1983.
Updated to now be a full list from 1914 through 2020:
1914: Gavrilo Princip
1915: Enver Pasha
1916: Douglas Haig
1917: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
1918: Georges Clemenceau
1919: Woodrow Wilson
1920: Pancho Villa
1921: Michael Collins
1922: Walter Rathenau
1923: Benito Mussolini
1924: Kamal Ataturk
1925: John Scopes
1926: Henry Ford
1927: Herbert Hoover
1928: Alexander Fleming
1929: Andrew Mellon
1930: Mahatma Gandhi
1931: Lord Irwin
1932: Franz von Papen
1933: Franklin Roosevelt
1934: Adolph Hitler
1935: Hallie Selassie
1936: Wallis Simpson
1937: Hideki Tojo
1938: Francisco Franco
1939: Chiang Kai-Shek
1940: Winston Churchill
1941: Joseph Stalin
1942: Georgy Zhukov
1943: George S. Patton
1944: Dwight Eisenhower
1945: Harry Truman
1946: Clement Atlee
1947: Jawaharlal Nehru
1948: George S. Marshall
1949: Mao Zedong
1950: Kim il-Sung
1951: Mohammad Mossadegh
1952: David Ben Gurion
1953: Jonas Salk
1954: Ho Chi Minh
1955: Emmett Till
1956: Imre Nagy
1957: Thurgood Marshall
1958: Abane Ramdane (posthumous)
1959: Fidel Castro
1960: Patrice Lumumba
1961: Martin Luther King
1962: John XXIII
1963: John Kennedy
1964: Nikita Khrushchev
1965: Lyndon Johnson
1966: Charles de Gaulle
1967: Robert McNamera
1968: Alexander Dubcek
1969: Neil Armstrong
1970: Richard Nixon
1971: Sheik Mujib
1972: Henry Kissinger
1973: Leonid Brezhnev
1974: King Faisal
1975: Yassir Arafat
1976: Pol Pot
1977: Anwar Sadat
1978: Deng Xiaoping
1979: Ayatollah Khomeni
1980: Robert Mugabe
1981: Lech Walesa
1982: Margaret Thatcher
1983: Stanislav Petrov
1984: Ronald Reagan
1985: C. Everett Koop
1986: Mikhail Gorbachev
1987: Robert Bork
1988: Benazir Bhutto
1989: Harald J├Ąger
1990: Vaclav Havel
1991: George Bush
1992: Bill Clinton
1993: Shimon Peres
1994: Nelson Mandela
1995: Newt Gingrich
1996: Jean-Bertrand Aristide
1997: Tony Blair
1998: Matt Drudge
1999: Bill Gates
2000: Dick Cheney
2001: Osama bin-Laden
2002: George W. Bush
2003: Donald Rumsfeld
2004: Karl Rove
2005: Ariel Sharon
2006: Francis Collins
2007: Steve Jobs
2008: Barack Obama
2009: Neda Agha-Soltan
2010: Julian Assange
2011: Mohamad Bouazizi
2012: Wayne LaPierre
2013: Bashar al-Assad
2014: Michael Brown
2015: Nigel Farage
2016: Donald Trump
2017: Tarana Burke
2018: Xi Xinping
2019: Vladimir Putin (person of the fifth-century)
2020: Anthony Fauci

Sunday, December 13, 2020

To Be Deleted Later

Not gonna lie, I know 2020 was a bad year for us all, but mine looked to be quite a bit better for a little bit, and then recently got a lot worse. The woman I still loved who dropped me without warning last year dropped me quite suddenly for a second time this year, it was as predictable as it was devastating, and just as last time, I am left navigating the emotional detritus of a presence that once was completely here and now is as absent as as a black hole.
She emailed me to apologize about how things ended. As these things often go, I had no intention of anything happening from there, but within twenty-four hours we'd fought and made up and decided to be friends, within a week we confessed we still had deep feelings for each other, and within a few days of that, we were dating again more seriously than ever before. I doubt either of us intended it at first nor ever thought it possible, but the ways of the heart could not be 1% so joyful nor terrifying were they more predictable.
She came into my life without warning, she left my life without warning, she returned to my life without warning, and without warning she has left it again, and twice, she's nearly destroyed it. She was whom I was just beginning to truly know, and every time she came, with barely even a fight, she would break things off just when I began to think that this was going to last. I prayed she would return, and I prayed we could somehow find a way through the chaos to work with each other as a team for many years to come, only for her to leave me twice with the chaos of her absence.
'I'm not going anywhere this time amore. I promise.' And I tried to tell myself that I had no idea what was in store for us, it filled me with equal excitement and terror, and I could promise neither her nor myself nothing. I had so little to offer but my brain, so different from other people's, with both its skills and its troubles. She had hardly seen me at anything like my worst, and I'd like to think I had given her more than forewarning of its horrors, but nobody knows what it's like to see a person in the grips of insanity knows what it's like until it's there. I'd hoped that in a few years with increased success and confidence I could get certain things under control as I never could before, and in the meantime we would take it somewhat slowly as we must.
All I know is that from the moment we first met, I valued her company as I have valued no one else's in the short yet very long history of my life. Her natural instinct was for whirlwind romance, attraction like magnet to metal, and my instinct is always as I do, to worry that whirlwind depletes shelf-lives, increases instability, and every beautiful experience meets its reactive ugliness, and as it turned out, I was correct both times.
And yet it was so long, so long...., since I had thrown any caution to the wind in any aspect of my life, the wall of my caution and worry is so thick that only alcohol, which I've basically given up, could ever find its way through the inhibition. She was the embodiment of the hope which the universe, whatever its creator may be, seemed to have thrown me, and in these two brief periods gave my life a beautiful meaning I doubt it ever otherwise had. I hoped, I prayed, for its stability, through whatever turbulence and terror makes itself known. All close relationships, of whatever type, are a boat through waters stormy and calm, the storms will come as surely as the beautiful views, but to whatever possibility of predestination is out there, I prayed we'd have been blessed with its good grace and better angels.
But she was clearly as crazy and intense as I, and inevitably, the brighter it burns, the quicker it extinguishes. She constantly assured me the feelings were mutual, and yet before the romance could even burn out of its own accord, it was over with barely a fight, and I was left at the restaurant to foot the bill, and process the end of the two most hopeful periods of my life entirely on my own.
I think anyone who says they like dating is either lying or having a great time at other people's expense, but I particularly loathe dating: everything about it, every minute of it, every interaction, every letter of every word, every toe on every footstep on the path to rejection multiple hundred and something. It's hard enough to date while simultaneously trying to finding a way to own up to a mental duress that is nearly perpetual (one ought try and avoid the term 'mental illness' because the power of judgement it gives to others is almost insurmountable), but once you do fess up to the inevitable, the chances of almost immediate rejection are well over 99%, and those few who would have you as a member of their club inevitably turn out to be as mentally suspect as you are.
So preoccupied are you with putting a realistic portrayal of yourself in the best possible light (while still trying to find it...) that you rarely even get a chance to think of whether or not the woman is right for you. And on the path to inevitable rejection, if it looked at all promising, you're stuck on an eternal mental replay, looking for all the things you did wrong, replaying everything on mental loop, second to second-thousandth guessing every move, every word, every moment, forever beating yourself up for allowing your hopes to exceed the veracity of your situation, which is that love as others understand it is a virtual impossibility, and that wisdom dictates that after half a lifetime of consistent emotional abrasions, you must resign yourself to endure its second half exactly as you did the first, with overwhelming difficulty in something resembling lifelong bachelordom - because nobody in their right mind would take this on. The blessing and the curse of strong personalities is that they seem all too complete to the untrained eye, because who can possibly exist in a space with a personality that big?
There are, so we're all told, many ways to find fulfillment without relationships. And god knows, so many relationships we've all watched have been atomic explosions, but eventually, no matter how much fulfillment you derive from every other activity, you must return home, there is either someone else there, or there isn't. There are either people at home for you to take care of and take care of you, or you're only taking care of yourself - and you were never very good at that...
In a certain way, you get used to the rejection. Rejection after rejection stings for a couple hours, but one by one, you forget about them all. But you never, ever get used to the loneliness. It is waiting for you every night, as present as the presence of another person ever could be.
Perhaps if you were taller, thinner, better looking, women would keep you around for a little while before realizing that you are an investment of incalculable risk, and if your moods were at all controllable, if you ever gave any sense of being able to operate on any mode but spontaneous combustion, if you ever developed a modicum of self-control over the inner monologue's diarrhea, if you ever were able to get ahold of yourself, win the fight for self-control and discipline and all those things so many thousands of others do so easily, then, perhaps, you could live a completer life.
'We the single' are far from America's most oppressed demographic. Indeed, perhaps our worst oppression is our complete lack of oppression from others. We are our only company, a tunnel of infinite space and eternal time stretched out before us in every direction that each of us must fill only for ourselves. And since the more relaxed among people are the ones who find companionship more easily, it is not those calming inner monologues who find themselves without interconnectors. With no one present to calm us, we self-oppress better than any persecutor. With no one to challenge us, we self-destruct better than any potential murderer.
For people who live their lives as an individual game, time and space exist on a scale nobody else understands. People who play their lives on a team give of their time to others as obligation, and there is never enough time in any day. And yet for us there is nothing but time, no one to whom we give our time who truly wants it, and every interaction becomes a fraught and fear fueled guessing game of why the only person we may talk to over the course of a day doesn't spend more time in our company. The end of each interaction, no matter how long or short, just another chapter in a self-composed epic of renunciation. Sure, they have so much more to do: more responsibility, more activity, more questions to answer, more hypotheses to test, more answers to determine about the meaning of their lives. But for us, there is only meaning in our racing minds, and no one fully present to slow them down and remind us that our worst terrors are ridiculous, and we ruminate, and ruminate, and ruminate about mistake, after mistake, after mistake, until all the great and small mistakes of our lives become a tangibly vivid movie of regret, and shame, and horror.
Life for us is an an endless supply of empty minutes to occupy in an endless surfeit of empty days over a multiplicity of empty decades, and when our minds cannot fill those lives with possibility, it rather fills our lives with agony. Our lives were not measured in children but in coffee spoons. Just 'me,' 'my' work, 'my' hobbies, 'my' thoughts, 'my' space, 'my' feelings, about which none really care but me, and the reason none care but me is because we are so clearly unworthy of care.
Maybe a few of us truly wanted to be alone, but I doubt many actively chose it. We may have chosen solitude at times because the other options seemed so paltry, but were the possibility of a loving relationship presented to us in a way that really seemed as though our lives could objectively improve from a partner's presence, would even one in a thousand among us have such desire to remain alone that we'd say no? And even had we filled our lives with friends and fun and other family, there is always that moment when it ends, and you return to seclusion, the knowledge that there is always a draconian seeming limit to the amount others will abide by you, and that rejection never goes away. It is not only the poison of loneliness, but the poison of asking, over and over again, why me o Lord? What have I done? And inevitably, the mind finds so many things you've done that justify constant rejection over so many years that time's arrow exaggerates memories into abominations rather than the absurd.
Dad's about to turn seventy-five, Mom's about to turn seventy, and their friends begin to drop like flies. And it's almost all not the married ones, it's the single ones, the perpetually complicated, unattached, grouchy, mercurial, the ones who never quite got it together, and as a group, they're not making it past their early seventies. Maybe it's a lifetime of emotional stress that finishes them off the moment they finish their threescore and ten, or maybe grandchildren motivate the elderly while the single pass on from a lack of familial reason to get through the day. Or maybe there's just nobody around to remind them to get that thing checked out. But whatever it is, I get it, the years take their toll, and for whom are these years being lived? There's no one for whom you're saving money, and there's literally no reason not to have that extra night out, that extra drink, that five-course meal, that expensive dessert, that regrettable hookup, it's all you have, and may be all you ever have. There are so many days when your only options are to do the inadvisable, or to do nothing at all but listen to your own emptiness, and if the inadvisable makes you leave the party twenty years before everybody else, what else were you sticking around for?
And so the twenties become the thirties, which soon become the forties, and what before seemed as though it might be a fulfilling life with a regrettable first act now begins to seem as though it will be a regrettable life with a possibility of fulfillment by the third act. And you work and wait, and try to self-improve, and do everything you can to free yourself from the chamber of inner horrors, and yet it is always there, it is your only true relationship. It will always be there for you, and jealously guards you from any affairs on the side.

Why Yell At People

Social media talks about this all the time, but lot of people these days think that we should completely write off people who politically disagree because the stakes are just too high and people who can deal with people who disagree with each other just don't have enough skin in the game to realize how important the issues are.
Believe me, one way or another, I'm tempted to do just that literally every day of my life. But the problem is this: once you write them off, you can't supervise them anymore. If they have no examples of liberals/progressives/socialists in their lives, there is absolutely no filter on their imagination of how evil we are and how much punishment we deserve. Keep your friends close but your enemies closer, and if you isolate them, they will fight to defend themselves a lot harder than they already have.
There's no question in my mind that the wrong political opinions say something unflattering about other people's moral character, and considering that my opinions are different than many people's, that becomes more complex. Living between hipster and Jewish Baltimore means living between two worlds that really and genuinely hate an enormous amount of what the other believes, and realizing that neither of them will ever accept you as a full member because you don't really buy what either of them is selling.
But what happened to the idea of simply yelling at friends: "You're fucking evil!" "You're a collaborator and a piece of filth!" "Don't walk away, if you believe this shit take your fucking medicine!"? Real friends tell us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear (braces himself for blowback...), and the reason people are so angry now is not that they've been yelled at too much, but that fake friends have told us all that it's possible to isolate ourselves from the ugliest conceivable disagreements, and then when we can't, it drives us all insane. It's one thing when a person is genuinely a danger to you, or if a deadbeat abandons you multiple times unprompted (no personal experience there...), then isolation is probably extremely wise, but when the isolation comes from abstract disagreement, that is a perfect way to turn the abstract concrete.
If you need distance from people who disagree with you, take a break. But when you don't return, they inevitably return, maybe with friendship or maybe with extreme enmity. That is how wars happen. The world of enemies is always replenished with new ex-friends. It is much better to scream and yell and bully your friends to exasperation than it is to completely write them off and then sustain the possibility that they come back into your lives as enemies, and if that's true in personal life, it's even more true in public life. If you live as close to violent conservatives as we do, then if you want them out of your life, the only way you get them out of your life is if you end their lives or if they end yours. So I will always be on the side that it's much better to yell my disagreements with people than it is to isolate them, because so long as the yelling keeps happening, I know what the other side is thinking, but if the yelling stops, there's literally no limit to what they can imagine about us all, and what they could do to defend themselves against the people they increasingly think we are.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Secret Santa

The concept of 'Secret Santa' astounds me in so many different ways. The logistical hurdles of it alone seem to me like a nightmare:

1. How is gift giving for people you don't know particularly well a practical idea?
2. How is buying gifts for people you don't know particularly well not creepy?
3. How does the drawing of lots for who gets a gift from whom not cause eventual bitter feelings because inevitably somebody gets a superior/inferior gift?
4. How does one establish a price limit on gift giving without causing fights about what the agreed upon price should be?
5. How is this not effort better spent giving gifts to people whom you know better?
6. How does the inevitable premature discovery of one's Secret Santa not up the pressure to deliver a better/realer gift?
Most importantly, 7:
If we're all at the age already to establish that the person/benevolent force we all once assumed was Santa is not, in fact, Santa, then what is the purpose of 'Secret Santa?' The whole concept of Santa Claus is already predicated on a secret: that Santa Claus is in fact your parents who love you far more than a supercentenarian stranger who comes down your chimney from the North Pole. So once that cat's out of the bag, there's no secret anymore, and Santa Claus is back to being just a strange person getting you a gift, but in reality, when a person who doesn't know you gets you a gift, it's always gift you didn't want.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

More than 50 Million Republicans

52-56 million Republicans. That's how many Republicans seem currently convinced that the election outcome is a lie. When you come down to it, it's not quite as big a number as it seems. It's only 1/6th of the country's population, and let's face it: it's densely concentrated in the older half, the fatter half, the sicker half, the coddled half, and the dumber half. But it's obviously a sixth that cares very, very much, perhaps the sixth that cares by far the most....
Now, let's just assume that due to peer pressure, somewhere around one-third of these 'truthers' are, to varying degrees, lying... that still means half of Republican voters - perhaps 35 million adults - believe with whatever organ they think their brain is that this election was stolen when there is impartial certification after certification, and that means the majority of them are, to various degrees, willing to 'do something about it.' And that also probably means that another third of this sample, 15-20 million, is quite ready to believe far far worse - probably beyond what QAnon believes currently. The more of them believe insane things, the more they convince each other of further insanities, and the more convinced each of them becomes of the necessity of acting on beliefs of which they've convinced themselves.
The continuity of any society depends not only on the consent of the governed but on the consensus - a wide and diverse variety of people have to operate under widely shared basic assumptions of how a society should be constructed. The construction may be unfair and unequal and unjust, or even incorrect, or even an illusion, but because the consensus is widely shared, the society does not collapse. But once the consensus collapses, once the basic perceptions of reality alter from person to person, so then does the limitations of what people will convince themselves to do in order to enact what they believe is the correct way to build a society - and that's how people die by the millions.
So on the one hand, I have no end of horror at the unthinkables that may soon come for us all. On the other hand, I'm as fucking exhausted as anybody during all this - because everybody else in America is currently convinced that they're absolutely right too, and nobody is listening to them either. At this point, to a small extent at least, we all just sort of say 'them's the breaks,' 'c'est la vie,' 'azai geyt das.'
So on the other hand, no matter how much of my own life I live in crippling emotional agony, I feel slightly less lonely by knowing that in a few years all of our problems will be insignificant, because it seems to me in my melancholia-tinted lenses that war is probably coming for us all - civil war, war with China, war with Russia, any of them could be so chaotic that once we're caught up in the maelstrom, the details are insignificant. How do you even fathom planning for any of these eventualities? No matter how likely they may be, every contingency within them seems imponderably distant.
But statistics compiled in good faith don't lie, and economically, militarily, politically, and historically, it just makes sense that war is coming for all of us: good and evil, deserving and undeserving, those who want to live and those who pray for death. However good or bad we feel right now, it doesn't matter. I could take whoever wouldn't be bored enough to stop reading through a mountain of statistics, you don't want to read it dear lurker, and I am too depressed to do the homework, yet again....
But no matter what comes next, what always matters is survival, not our own survival, but the survival of us. At some point, death comes for every person, but the society, the polity, the communities, the institutions, the families and the extra-human organizations which forms each of us into individuals who draw meaning through our lives - they can live on so long as some humans live on long enough to take care of them. A good life is a life that lets those organizations live on past our deaths. So therefore the young always take precedence over the old. What gets us through to the other side, what gives us the will to keep going, as in every conflict, is the hope that the next generation may get the chance to get things right that we didn't get, and if not them, then the generation after them, and the generation thereafter, and after, and after. So long as life keeps going, we can at least try to give who comes next a chance to get things a little more right than we did.
....maybe a part 2 later....

Monday, December 7, 2020

The Black Dog

It's taken a month to get this bad, but it is currently as terrible as it's been in three years. Hands tremble, breathing is labored, chest pain never ceases, muscles never stop tensing up, the heartbeat becomes irregular, sleep becomes an impossibility even with pills, concentration is absolutely lacking, the ability to trace thoughts slows to a crawl, the ability to remember how words are spelled goes, even the physical act of typing is difficult, the torrent of words slows to a drip, and every sentence must be rewritten five times else it all reads as gibberish because so fragmented the mind becomes in such weeks - and the worst usually lasts for two weeks at a time. Could I ever finish this essay? For weeks at a time, there is almost nothing but a void, an absolute lack of anything but bad feeling, and the void is so wide that it takes on an absolutely physical dimension of pain. Gradually, as the weeks go on, the reserve of ability for any conviviality at all depletes until it is gone entirely, and all that remains is a hound with the scent of my blood.
The deafening bark never stops, the ears scream with ringing, obsessive rumination, reassembled copies of memories more vivid than ever before, reinterpreting every event, showing me ever more vividly the monster it was afraid I'd forgotten I am. The voice always in the back of my head that living is agony itself becomes the dominant voice in my head. Every day, I try to tell myself 'things are not as bad as they seem,' 'your thoughts are bullshit,' 'you deserve happiness and you will be happy,' 'just breathe Charlap,' 'you're so dramatic,' 'just shut the fuck up and calm down,' 'everything is ok,' and every day, the ability of your mind to overcome any and all good thoughts grows ever stronger. Whether by emotional breakdown or simple physiological breakdown, how can this thing not one day kill me?
Over the years I've developed a reputation for unreliability - cancellation of social plans, parties I'm supposed to host, jobs unfilled, projects unrealized, education failed, relationships un-pursued (assuming the other party ever wanted one), friendships abandoned, all dreams eternally unrealized. What else can I do? When I was much, much younger, it drove me to endless humiliation, it drove me to terror in the very act of living. Was it all based on some kind of initial trauma? Or am I just that lucky to be born this way?
This is the extent of what I can write at the moment. Excepting stupid commentary, it is the most I've been able to write in a month.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

A Quarter Through Obama's Memoir

So far I've read 20-25% of Obama's memoir. There will probably be a number more of these 'beneath the fold' hot takes about it, but those who read it will not find any surprises. He goes through all the same events we all lived through with him, and he says pretty much about all of it what you'd expect him to say.

I'm still reading about the campaign, and the campaign, rather than the Presidency, was everything about Obama that I found objectionable - pretty much the opposite of well over 50% of the people I knew... It becomes clear as you go through it that Obama is not a typical politician. I doubt he was nearly as reluctant to become President as he claimed (though I'm sure Michelle was...), it's just a far-fetched leap of faith to believe that he does not have the same engine of ambition that knows no rest as 20,000 other overachievers do in every generation of this country. But it also becomes clear that Obama is a bit of what we call in Yiddish a 'luftmensch', one of those people who breezes through the air without a scratch, goes through life knowing that he will be uniquely lucky, and thinks of world politics as an opportunity to set up experiments in his own personal laboratory about whether transformation of national politics into the transcending of partisan divides for common good is possible.

The words 'transformation' and 'transcendence' seem to come up again and again, and whether in politics, or religion, those are words for which I have a particular kind of distrust, because the bill is always paid: somebody, somewhere, is going to pay for the increase in somebody else's prosperity.

The most interesting part of the book so far is about his brief period in the Senate and his interactions with older colleagues. When he gets to Washington, he seems amazed to find that his older colleagues had very little trouble transcending party lines, and that whatever their primary motivating ideological differences, when it came to the business of government, the willingness of all but the extreme Republicans (and Socialists....) among them to get in the way of the essence of government was little to none. This was, of course, not the essence of later politicians who came up through the Gingrich revolution, but it takes at least a generation to replace one form of public servant with another form of public masters. And if the complacency of even the best moderate republicans like his sometime mentor Dick Lugar created the modern Republican party, then the unstinting belief in the possibility of governmental transformation created the Bernie Sanders movement, which in turn hollowed out the ability to stop the modern Republican party from taking over literally everything until government is so dysfunctional that we can only stay in our houses for a year at a time.

So there's an unwritten implication in what he writes that he selectively omits. The implication is that his belief that we needed some sort of partisan transcendence and common good was exactly wrong: we already had it, and over a period of a half-century, we gradually let it blow up to hell, small piece by small piece. And so in retrospect, his belief that the country required some sort political transcendence toward a communitarian good set the country in exactly the wrong direction, because it delegitimized the achievements of what the US government already was. However bad things seem, how far we've come is a history book away (so long as the history book isn't lying to you...), and it exponentially dwarves all progress made in the entirety of human history. The more we delegitimize the progress already made, the more disastrously the delegitimization backfires. If you make the argument to the average American that the current amount of working toward the common good isn't enough to make a proper difference in their lives, what need, they will reason, is there for common good at all? Furthermore, they will reason what need is there for trust in government and institutions and hope itself? And thus far, Obama's refusal to marry hope to hard-headed realism about life's limitations already backfired with a movement around America's most worthless human being so nihilistic that its sole purpose was to set whatever remains functional in the US government on fire.

It speaks to the real intelligence and decency in Obama, qualities that I wonder if a number of eminent Democrats and pseudo-Democrats to his left lack, that when presented with the facts, he evolved along with them. Obama the President was generally as realistic as Obama the candidate operated in bad faith. If Obama's movement felt betrayed by him, and was dissatisfied with the speed of progress, well, hopefully 2020 has taught them a lesson or two (though I'm not holding my breath). This year, 2020, when we're all sitting on our couches in the valley of the shadow of death, this is the real world, everything until now has been a system-induced mirage which hundreds of millions of people devoted to and sacrificed their lives to put in place so that we could have better than the shit lives they did.

Obama is now the past, and to everybody's amazement, Biden is the future. The immediate future seems to be embodied by the old government of Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson, and Biden is probably the last chance we get that someone with institutional memory of how to put back together an America when the trajectory of progress was continually upward. It already seems like he's doing it against most of the country rooting for him to fail, but this sort of 'restoration', whether it's restoration of Obama, or restoration of Kennedy and Johnson, or restoration of FDR, is our last best hope for the better angels of our nature to save us, because I think you've all noticed by now, we just came really close to something truly deadly, and if we came this close already, we'll come even closer soon.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

When Facebook Becomes Blogging

 For the most of you who don't know who Ari Roth is, it's difficult to convey how shocking this is. Five years ago, Ari Roth was forced out of Theater J for making them produce works that took the Palestinian point of view into account. Now he's being thrown out of the new theater company he formed for not producing work that only takes the Palestinian view into account. Maybe it's jingoism or parochial provincialism, but I will always believe that while Jews are self-evidently no more morally reliable than anybody else, the continual Jewish centrality to world history makes Jewish issues a particularly reliable canary in the coal mine, so no matter how obviously horrible the American right is and how clearly they are the current imminent threat, the speed with which the far left has gone mainstream is bad news for the country, and especially bad news for Jews. We will all eventually pay a price for it, but Jews particularly.

Dear Boychik - First 3500 Words

 Dear Boychik, 

I guess I'm supposed to be writing this for you but I know it's really for your tateh who's just making me to write all this down even though he knows every bisl of it and like he always does he's forcing me to do his work for him, but still, it's for you more than anybody else because it's important that you know our meicehs and your tateh always gets the details wrong so I guess he's right that it's better that I tell you myself. Nobody gets the details right but me. Still, he should have paid better attention. 

He should have paid better attention when I spoke to him in Yiddish too, but like every other responsibility your farshtunkeneh tateh and his briders dodged, they refused to speak back to me in Yiddish so now they don't know bupkes and Yiddish is gonna die out with me. So I guess I can't write this in Yiddish because I'm gonna die soon and if I don't live long enough to teach you deh mameloshen, you wouldn't be able to read this at all. But gott in himmel you're gonna learn some Yiddish even if those goyisheh kinder of mine take you out every Sunday for a ham!

Right now, your Mameh is in the hospital geboring you, and for your tateh it's probably a very geboring process just like it was for me. I told him to bring a camera with him to the hospital so he can film your birth just like I filmed his. We didn't need the footage, but it gave me something to do while your Bubbie got all the attention and accolades, and if your Bubbie ever buys too much crap, I can always threaten to accidentally email the birth video to her friends. 

So what your tateh wants is for me to tell you the story of your mishpocheh. I don't think that's the real reason. I think the real reason is to give me something to do while he's raising the baby so that I don't tell him all the things they're doing wrong with you. You haven't even been geboren yet and I already know every mistake they're going to make. They're gonna hold you wrong, they're gonna hit you too lightly to burp you, they're gonna set the temperature in your room too warm, they're gonna mix the formula wrong and feed you at the wrong times, they're gonna buy the brand soap and oil, they're gonna buy you baby food rather than just put their food in a blender, they're gonna want to buy new cribs and carseats when we've got perfectly good ones in the garage from when your tateh and uncles were young, they're gonna buy new outfits and try to get out of dressing you with old baby clothes every day, and just so you know, all that money they spend is coming out of your inheritance, but I've promised your Bubbie that I would keep myself busy so that you stay the person they want to murder rather than me. 

I don't know when you would read this, maybe your tateh wants to give this to you as a Bar Mitzvah present, or maybe when you go off to college, or maybe when you get married, but I don't know how he would even keep track of it until then. I know your tateh, he's kind of lazy. He doesn't misplace things nearly as often as I do, but I'm eber buttel, I have a lokhen kop that's only getting larger. That's why I have a system to keep track of everything. The most important thing you can have as you get older is a system to remember where everything is. He doesn't have a system, so he's probably going to lose this a couple days after I give it to him. But if I go completely eber buttel before you're old enough to remember me, the most important advice I can give to you is "Have a place where you put everything important." When you're old enough, always remind your tateh to remind you to have a place where you put everything. Always have a backup: make a duplicate key for your house and leave it with your parents, make a duplicate for the car and put it in a magnet on the back bumper, have a basket at home where you always put your wallet and keys, always write reminders before you go to bed of everything you have to do tomorrow, always write down every password on a piece of paper and put it in the basket, and always, all the time, alle mol, take care of everything right away and never put anything off until the last minute: putting toys away, doing homework, filling applications, making a shopping list, cleaning the house and the yard and the car, getting the oil changed, and especially paying bills. Your uncle is particularly shreklekh at that. 

The system is everything: it's how you survive, it's how we survive, it's how your mishpoche, your nation, survived a million tzuris. The whole emuneh of the people you were born into is based on this system, and if the velt is about to be something we have to survive again, it's because people stopped following the system. Nothing else matters: faith, love, kindness, intelligence, those are all nice, but sometimes they go away and sometimes they come back. If you want to survive, if you want your kinder to survive, having the system in place to follow is the only thing that matters.

Everybody hates it when I get ongeblozen about this drek, especially your uncle, but soon I'll be dead, and they can do whatever they want. Everybody also says that I'm exaggerating when I say I'm gonna die soon, and I always have the suspicion it can't come soon enough for them, sometimes I wonder if it can't come soon enough for me either. That's why I've left instructions with my lawyer that on the night after you become a Bar Mitzvah, your first responsibility as a man is to put a pillow over my face as I'm sleeping - that is, if your Bubbie hasn't done that to me already, since I'm pretty sure that's been her plan since our first date fifty years ago. 

So the place to start is to tell you about the town you come from. Not Baltimore, where you're going to live, or Pikesville, where you should be living if your Tateh understood how much easier he would have it if he lived closer to us, but Bransk, the shtetl you come from, the place your great-grandparents were born, the town where two hundred fifty years of Charlaps lived before you. 

Your last name, Charlap, is an acronym standing for 'Khiya, Rosh l'Galut Polin.' Which means one of three things. 

1. That we might be direct descendents of a Rabbi so important that he gets his own acronym, and all the best Rabbis get acronyms. 
2. One of your descendents was really smart for a Pollock - though your uncle tells me that slurs like Pollock are considered offensive now, but since this slur is about white people I think it's ok. 
3. One of your ancestors was a brilliant medieval Jewish merchant who realized that he could mark up his prices if he lied about his ancestry and exaggerated his Yikhes. 

As it happens, my cousin Yonatan recently emailed me and told me, with lots of exclamation points, that Charlap means 'Khiya, Rosh l'Galut l'Portugal,' not 'Polin', so apparently we're Portuguese and Sephardic Jews after all who came to Poland only after about two-hundred years in Salonica, which is a city in Greece, and Greece is just about the only major country where part of your family didn't live during my lifetime. But it would seem that most Jews arrived in Poland a little after 1500, just after they were expelled from Spain and Portugal, I don't think anybody knows how we ended up in Bransk, but some Jews left Salonica in the 1680s after a bunch of Jewish followers of a false messiah named Shabbetai Tzvi converted to Islam and moved to Salonica to establish their new community there - there goes the neighborhood....  

Bransk was a shtetl in Northeast Poland - 'shtetl' is a Yiddish word meaning "here we buy wholesale." There were about six-thousand inhabitants, half Jews, half Christians, mostly farmers, a town which never produced a single person of any note or distinction - here in America, we would call the inhabitants of a town like Bransk hicks. 

Jews aren't supposed to be hicks, though your cousin who hasn't had a job since he mooned his boss sure acts like one, but the truth is your whole family is Jewish hillbillies on every side, you, me, your tateh, your Bubbie, probably your mameh and her family too, though your Bubbie doesn't want me to ask your Sabba and Savta about their background because she thinks it'll start a fight about Trump. 

According to wikipedia, the key event in Bransk history seems to be in 1264, the same year as the Statute of Kalisz, which guaranteed Polish Jews protection against blood libels (we'll explain what that is later but for the moment, just think Jeffrey Epstein crossed with Hannibal Lecter), and forced baptisms (think Ernie in a bathtub with Mel Gibson). 1264 seems to be the year of the "famous" Battle of Bransk, which pitted the Yotvingians, a poorly armed tribe from whom the Lithuanians descend - more on them later too - against the mighty Krakovians, for whom the great city of Krakow was christened - a city later that was later the center of the Polish Renaissance, which is a bit like saying that Lakewood, New Jersey is where all the Jewish football players come from. But Krakow would find a lot of fame around the time your Tateh was born because it's the city that produced the first Polish Pope, who believe it or not, is involved with your family's history. 

It's tough to know what to say about our family before your alter Zaydie's parents were born. It's not like there are family stories handed down about your ancestor Yechiel who smoked opium in front of the Golden Calf, it's only right before my father was born that there's any historical documentation of our family at all. When your uncle Joel was born, your alter-zaydie wanted us to name him after his alter-zaydie, Velvl Daniil. I didn't even know he had a great-grandfather named Velvl Daniil. 

So by the time Joel was three and your father was seven, a West Highland Terrier started yelping outside our house for days. Day after day, the tiny bitch screaming outside my window every five seconds. I told your Bubbie not to give him any water and he would leave, but of course she gave him water when I wasn't watching. I told her not to feed him, but of course she gave him leftover dinner when I was in the bedroom. I absolutely, positively, would not let the dog in the house, but when I had almost ready to give him away, your uncle Abe started crying and screaming every day. I hate dogs so much, and I hated that hoont more than I hate Arafat, so eventually I had to keep him. By then, your alter-Zaydie couldn't even remember his own name, so instead of Joel, we named the dog Velvl. 

But the family lore does not begin with Velvl Daniil, it begins with a dream from my own Zaydie, who I never met. He might have been a hundred-fifteen years old by the time I was born. 

Rebbe Yaakov Kharlap: he was a small town rabbi who wasn't even the Rabbi for his town. Just a kheder instructor, where he taught Jewish boys only a few years older than you how to write Hebrew letters, how to daven, how to read, how to memorize pages of Torah and Talmud - and if he was to his students anything like he was to my tateh, he probably used a ruler on them for every mistake they made. 

The story goes that when he was fifty years old and his wife Miriam was forty-five, an angel appeared to him in a dream. They'd been married for thirty years, but in all that time, they'd never conceived a single child. The angel in the dream told Rebbe Yaakov that his wife would bear him twelve sons, all of whom would survive into adulthood, and Reb Yaakov must name the twelve after the twelve sons of Israel. 

Well personally, I think the story is completely meshuggeh. If Reb Yaakov and Miriam were that old, and there's no way to really know, then there's certainly no way the kids were entirely theirs. I think all his children were probably just cheder orphans he adopted and Miriam took care of, and Reb Yaakov was meshuggeh, so he changed all their names to be named after the twelve tribes of Israel. 

But anyway, that's the story. And there were definitely eleven boys and a girl: Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehuda, Dan, Naftali, Gad, Asher, Yissachar, Z'vulun, Dinah, and Yosef. And if there's still family resemblance between them all now? Well, it's the shtetl, we're all inbreds. 

Apparently Reb Yaakov had a rich twin brother, Ezra, who had a factory in Bialystok, the nearest city. Ezra sent Reb Yaakov money every week for his enormous family, but Ada was an 'enlightened' woman of the 'Haskalah' - never mind what the Haskalah means but depending on who you ask it's either the best or the worst thing that ever happened to us. Ada apparently couldn't stand Reb Yaakov, thinking he was just a nar from khandrikeville, and my father always referred to her 'die mechashayfeh' so I'm guessing the feeling was always mutual. 

Whatever the fights were about, they clearly centered on money. Ezra sent his brother enough money that for shtetl dwellers living on a cheder stipend, they could live pretty well. Your greicer-onkle Jake still has the silver menorah Tateh buried before the war and dug up to take with him on the boat over here - and of course who should get that menorah after he died could have been a huge fight, so I let him take it. We showed him though, we found the same design menorah on ebay for a hundred twenty-five! 

But whether or not Reb Yaakov was ever worried about money, he was terribly worried about his career. He was apparently thirteen years old when Rebbe Chaim Schkop came to Bransk, and Rabbi Schkop was always dying, but he never died. Apparently he could never even stand up and just issued rulings from a bed installed in his Bet-Din (think People's Court for frummies). 

But on the very day Rebbe Schkop gave up the neshawmeh, in his eighties, just a year before my Tateh was born, Rebbe Yaakov fainted in his kheder. He'd been functioning for years as basically the town Rebbe, school melamed, din-torah and tateh tsu tsvelf kinder and was already in his seventies. 

The town makhers wrote immediately to the Mirrer Yeshiva about a miraculous emergency in which the Rebbe and his Yursh dropped dead in the same hour (give or take a few...). Reb Yaakov had come to within an hour and was back to work the next day. But just a few days before his initial installation, the Mirer Rosh Yeshiva wrote back that after much discussion, the Rabbis at Mir had ruled that this was a sign that Bransk would require a Rabbi destined for great things, and one of their grayster yunge khkhams was already on his way to become the new Bransker Rebbe. 

Nobody told Rebbe Yaakov until the day of his installment. They didn't want to make him faint again. But just as his kinder were packing the house to move into the Rebbe's heus and he came over a little early to figure out with the carpenter how to move Rebbe Schkop's bed out of the Bet Din, he saw a young boy he'd never seen before next to a young girl holding a baby. The carpenter called this young boy Rebbe Zilbershteyn. 

But if Rebbe Yaakov's career went nowhere, his family life was clearly overpopulated. Still, he needed one more son to complete the set: a Charlap who'd complete the vision of his dream that he would name Binyamin. That Binyamin was your Tateh's Zaydie, Benjamin Charlap. 

The day of your alteh-Zaydie's birth was a pretty terrible one: Rosh Hashana 1899. Apparently a couple of deh briders used to hang out in the cemetery, they were apparently the 'cool' shtetlers known as 'Deh Kharlap Khaleriyas'; they'd smoke cigarettes, they'd probably pish on the tombstone of the Rebbe, and I'm sure they'd brag about all deh sheyneh Branskeh maydlach they felt up in the barns. But apparently one day your uncle Shimon, who was clearly a hot tempered type, got roughed up by a gang of Polish hoodlums who left him for dead after he told them that their priests and boyars were murderers. I mean.... he was probably right, but don't let anybody tell you Jews are smart, some Jews if they were twice as smart they'd be idiots. But apparently later that same day, your uncle Asher killed one of the Polish kids who roughed up Shimon so he already had to leave Bransk before the big news. 

What was the fight about? Well, this all was during the Dreyfus years, a story which nobody really cares about now except Jews and the truth is, maybe we shouldn't have cared about it even then. Being one of us is trouble enough, but we have this way of making trouble for ourselves whenever some shtik drek oysshteller thinks he can climb the goyisheh ladder and then has the kind of shlekhteh mazel every Yid has to expect when they think they can be a greyceh goy. 

Of course, boychik, Dreyfus wasn't any schtik drek. These na'ars had to know who Dreyfus was. There was no Jew who didn't know in 1899. And for five years, Reb Yaakov probably was the only Jew in Bransk with enough money and literacy for a newspaper subscription - he probably bludgeoned his kinder's oyers with every new detail of Dreyfus and his legal dybbuks. He probably brought new news of Dreyfus to the denizens of the Bransk shul, all of them his former talmids, who never much considered why they cared so much for the tzuris of a wealthy Jew in the French military who after after five years in prison would probably shpay on them in the street. They probably cared much more about Reb Yaakov's vissen and khokhma than they ever did when they were his students. Reb Yaakov probably told his kinder every day over breakfast after their mother would awaken them at four-thirty every morning to milkh deh kauz and plau de felds before they go to shul for Schacharis, and then tzu arbet. 

It probably wasn't until 1896 that Reb Dreyfus would come onto the mental radar of a shlemazel like Reb Yaakov, when it became known that Dreyfus's exile to a prison island was a framing to cover for a mer vikhtik officer with much greater Yuchus: Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. Why did they put a Dreyfus away and not an Esterhazy? Because the Esterhazy's were the Hungary in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (I'm not gonna explain the Austro-Hungarian Empire to you, because even though your farshtunkiner teachers probably never told you about Dreyfus, I'm sure they never told you about Austria-Hungary, and there are some gaps in education for which there's no hope that your generation will ever fill), and however rich the Dreyfus family might have been, Dreyfus is just the name of another German town Jews were expelled from in the Middle Ages. You do the math boychik.

But it wasn't until 1897, when the Dreyfus Affair was reopened and Esterhazy was acquitted after a two day trial that all the Reb Yaakov's went meshuggeh. This Yid who barely knew he was a Yid was suddenly the grayseter Yid of us all. Their shtures got even worse when Esterhazy fled to England, and doubled even again when Dreyfus was re-tried and found guilty, and reached its hits grad as the mob outside the courthouse changed 'Death to the Jews!'

You can even imagine the scenes the Dreyfus-khopteh caused in Bransk. You can imagine Rebbitzin Zilbershteyn's mother weeping loudly in the synagogue whenever she heard the name Dreyfus. Imagine how he probably got a special M'shebeirach every Shabbos from Khazzen Nudler, from which everybody in shul competes for who can shout 'AMEN' the loudest!