Monday, October 29, 2012

Out of the Depths-An Inspiring Story of Survival

If you are looking for spiritual invigoration and a renewed sense in the strength of the human spirit, I may have a book for you.

Heading into the High Holidays, I said to the NFO, “I really need a few books to read-particularly one that I won’t feel guilty reading in synagogue when things get slow-or else I won’t make it.”

She responded in a big way and selected Out of the Depths: The Story of a Child of Buchenwald Who Returned Home at Lastby Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, who was Chief Rabbi of Israel.

If that’s all he had done, that would have been a notable achievement, but the story of the man and his struggle is one of the most remarkable I have ever read.

Israel Lau was born in pre-WWII Poland. His father was the rabbi of their town, the 29th generation of rabbis in their family.

The Nazis invade, do an Aktion (a rounding up of all the Jews) and all but Israel and his brother, Naphtali, end us surviving the war.

But surviving doesn’t even do that justice. It’s incredible moment upon incredible moment…and all of this done at the ages of 7 and 8 with indomitable will to survive and the never-ending dedication of his older brother.

Circumstances, luck, miracles, divine intervention…call it what you will, Lau is the youngest survivor of Buchenwald, makes his way to pre-state Palestine, and eventually becomes Chief Rabbi, where he is in a position to affect not just Israeli politics, but world leaders like Pope John Paul II.

Jewish or not, you’ll have a difficult time putting this book down and when you do, you’ll reflect on what makes people persevere in the face of atrocity and inhumanity and our obligation to ensure that such events never happen again to anyone, anywhere.

There are a number of powerful stories in the book and a surprise appearance by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but the quote that stuck out for me came when he talked about the trail of Adolph Eichmann and Lau confronts another survivor who had testified.

“You coined the phrase, ‘Auschwitz as another planet’-but it is not accurate.

If Auschwitz were indeed another planet, it would be easier to accept the Holocaust. But in truth, the disaster of Auschwitz is that it happened on the very same planet where we had lived before, where we live now, and where we will continue to live.

Those who carried out the cruel murders of the innocent were ordinary people, who returned home from their murderous acts to water the flowers in their manicured gardens. They tended the flowers lovingly and carefully so they would blossom, just after they had torn infants to pieces and shattered the skulls of men and women. Just after shoving thousands of people into the gas chambers to their deaths, they came home to play with dolls together with their little girls, and listen to classical music, eyes closed, engrossed n the uplifting spirituality of Bach and Beethoven.

They knew exactly what was going on in the camps, but were able to continue enjoying life as if unaffected.

Is  that another planet? Absolutely not.

Those were people just like you and me, and that’s the whole problem.

When you transfer all those horrors to another planet, you minimize the issue. You are saying that something like the Holocaust can never happen to us again. In my humble opinion, you are wrong.”

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Tough Mudder-Made It

tough mudder-mud shotI’ll say this about the Tough Mudder.

The training paid off…and, at the same time, I wasn’t fully prepared.

11.5 miles, 27 obstacles (I think) and a boatload of mud to complete my first Tough Mudder.

You may recall the debacle of early September in Maryland and what led me to decide to tackle it in NJ in late October.

Fortunately, the weather held up (high 50s and early 60s) and I completed the course in 2 hours and 50 minutes.

The map of the course doesn’t really do it justice, so herewith, a quick breakdown of the obstacles.

  1. Artic Enema-
    You jump into a pool of ice and swim for 10 feet. It’s your “welcome to Tough Mudder” moment and I can’t even begin to describe how cold it is and how quickly you numb it. It takes a good 4-5 minutes to even being to thaw out.
  2. Mud Mile-tough mudder-dos equis poster
    Up and down a series of mud hills into a pool of mud (chest high) and back again. I think they mixed the mud with cow manure for added effect.
  3. Berlin Walls-
    Not too bad a climb up over an 9 foot wall
  4. Kiss of Mud
    Honestly, I’m not even sure what this is. Probably more mud.
  5. Balls to the Wall
    With a rope, you scale a 20 foot high wall, then back down the other side.
  6. Pirate’s Booty
    A swim across 100 ft or so of open water. I used the rope to help pull me across.
  7. Firewalker
    A run between some live fires. Fire Dept. and all, but not a huge deal.
  8. Electric Eel
    You crawl on your belly (in mud again, see the theme), while live wires of electricity shock you. I didn’t even feel them until the end, but some girl next to me was screaming in pain.
  9. Underwater Tunnels
    A jump into a pond (about neck deep-ish) and then you bob in and out in between barrels on top.
  10. Hangin Tough-
    Using rings, you are supposed to swing like a monkey from one side to the other over a pool of muddy water. I made it halfway through, fell into the water, and felt a small “pop” in my shoulder. Injury #1
  11. Ladder to Hell
    Not a big deal, climbing a wall and then back down.
  12. Smoke Chute
    Unexpected. You climb up a wall and then see a tunnel on the other side with a straight down drop. It’s a leap of faith. Oh, and while you are there, you can’t see so much because it’s so smoky. Eventually you land in a pool of…yep, muddy water.
  13. Peg Legs
    They place logs vertically (like lily pads) in the water and you are supposed to hop from one to the other to get to the other side. Your shoes are caked in mud. The wood is slippery. I took an absolutely nasty fall, slamming my chest and leg into the wood pylons, landing in the water. At this imagemoment, I distinctly remember think, “this may have not been such a good idea. I could have gotten a concussion or died and I have kids. Then, I said ‘I am definitely going to feel that in the morning.”
  14. Twinkle Toes
    This may seem like an easy one, but it was the one of which I was most proud. A balance beam over water. A few times, I almost lost my balance, but thinking back to my yoga practice, I regained balance and made the 15 foot trek.
  15. Funky Monkey
    Monkey bars that go on an incline up and then back down. I had really practiced this one, but only made it half way before falling down into the water. The water up the nose was the worst part.
  16. Boa Constrictor
    Crawling on your stomach through water and under barbed wire.
  17. Walk the Plank
    A 25 foot drop into a pool of water. Straight down.
  18. Trench Warfare
    Climbing on your belly for about 35 feet over mud and rocks in a darkened tunnel that bends and winds. Killed my knees and arms.
  19. Berlin Walls 2
    12 foot high walls to scale. Impossible to do without the help of other people. More on that in a minute.
  20. Wounded Warrior Carry
    TM is very connected to Wounded Warrior, so this part pays homage to disabled vets. You carry one of your teammates for about 50 yards
  21. Everest
    You sprint at full speed (remember, this is after 11 miles) and run up the side of a half-pipe, trying to grab the top and pull yourself up. I managed to make it happen on go #1 and did have some assistance to pull me up (another theme).
  22. Electroshock
    With the finish line in sight, you dash through (what they say are 10,000 volts of electricity.)
    Honestly, I didn’t feel anything, but took a nasty spill at the end and some photographer was right in my face. 

Now, keep in mind that when you are running, you are (for the most part) running through mud, so every step is real work.

What impressed me about Tough Mudder were a few things.

  1. The Marketing-after all, it’s what pulled me in in the first place. They play to your ego, your ambititough mudder--i dont always drink beeron, your desire to be tough. By teaming up with Under Armour and Dos Equis (I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, it’s after the Tough Mudder and it’s Dos Equis), they really bring it home. The signs, the music, the attitude…everything is so well done. Even the “pump you up” MC at the beginning.
  2. The Camraderie-as they say (constantly)… “Tough Mudder isn’t a race, it’s a challenge,” and “Leave No Mudder Behind.” Everyone is supportive and helpful, particularly on the obstacles that require assistance. Very impressive.

I met and ran with some great folks. My personal favorite was a Chabad guy from Crown Heights, Brooklyn who had 6 kids and single-handedly destroyed the stereotype. He was super fast and strong. Seeing his beard and tzitzit (religious undergarments) totally caked in mud was priceless.

Would I do it again? I don’t know. I’m hurting now and I’m sure I’ll be in ridiculous pain tomorrow. That one Peg Leg moment was really scary, but the feeling of accomplishment, of overcoming the fears was certainly worth it.

Experiences for the Discerning Traveler…

My friend, Renee Blodgett, has launched a pretty interesting travel site,

We Blog the World is an online culture and travel magazine that focuses on off-the-beaten path cultural events and unique adventure and high-end travel experiences for discerning travelers. A global travel blog network made up of independent voices from around the world, the new travel magazine will add in-depth coverage of cultural events, including festivals.

She’s looking for people to check it out and provide feedback (which you do here or there).

Obviously, travel is a crowded area, so I’ll be interested to hear if you think this is something remarkable…or more of the same.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Obama, Romney, and my 15 minutes of Debate Fame…

So, I’m in Seattle, looking out the window at a beautiful sunset over Puget Sound. I take a picture and think “I should upload that to Facebook.”

At that exact moment, my phone goes crazy with notifications, vibrations, emails, and messages as apparently, some guy named Jeremy Epstein, asked the first question in the Presidential debate.

Now, remember, I wasn’t watching, so I’m trying to figure out what is going on (it took a bit) and parsing it all together in 140 characters or less.

Then, I figure out that the topic of “getting Jeremy a job” is a recurring theme.

At that point, I have no choice but to issue a statement that, in fact, I do have a job.

Anyway, a fun little episode.

And here are some of the fun comments…










Monday, October 15, 2012

Obama, Election, Race, and Time to Duke It Out…

Disclaimer: If you are easily riled up and can’t think rationally instead of letting your emotions guide you, then stop reading now.

I had so much fun starting heated political discussion last time around (mostly between commenters) that I figured, “what the heck? Let’s do it again.”

After all, what is the subtitle of this blog?

My Voting Priorities
For those of you new to the blog since last time around, I vote on 2 primary issues.

  1. Economic policy
  2. Foreign policy

When it comes to economics, my general philosophy is that business (particularly small biz) is the primary driver of growth, innovation, and jobs. The best thing we can do (and having started 2 small businesses, I have a bit of experience here) is to make it as easy as possible for people to do that.

On Foreign Policy, I believe in American exceptionalism. I’ve traveled to about 60 countries, lived in 3 of them, and speak 3 foreign languages. In my experience, there is no country on the planet that is founded on ideals and beliefs to the extent that the US is. That doesn’t mean we can impose our will, but it does mean we look at things in a unique way and, I believe, it is the best way.

So, generally, I side with the Republicans (I’m registered as an Independent). I’m not in favor of their social stance. I’m pro-choice, fine with Gay Marriage, and I hate their cavalier attitude towards the environment (remember, I have solar panels, a composter, and am vegetarian.)

However, in my estimation, the two priority issues are necessary pre-conditions for the social environment I want to foster.

And, let’s be clear, the Republicans have done a lot to mess things up. They don’t get a pass.

Still, when I weigh the general approach of each party, that’s where I stand.

Assessing the Election
Ok, onto the election.

I live in Maryland, where it is 5-1 Democrats outnumbering GOP. Plus, a lot of Federal workers, so I live in a bubble and feel like I am surrounded by Pro-Obama people.

To get some balance, I call my cousin, Lee, who lives in Ohio. He tells me that the issue there is “jobs” and that’s why he thinks Romney has a chance.

My uncle in Texas had a different take. He breaks it down by the numbers.

  1. No one who voted for McCain is going to vote for Obama this time around. Let’s assume most of them still vote for Romney.
  2. Of the people who did vote for Obama, there are three camps.
    • Those who still believe that he is the man of Hope and Change
    • Those who don’t believe in him anymore, but can’t bring themselves to vote for Romney, so will vote for Obama anyway.
    • Those who don’t believe in him, can’t vote for Romney, and thus will not vote at all.

The big question is: how large is that third group?

My Unscientific Polling
Having been part of a poll the other day (we have a big issue in Maryland re: a new casino—I’m against it), I see (yet again) how easily the questions can be written so as to skew results.

I’m skeptical of the polls that we all see/hear about.

So, while I am not a formal pollster, I take the liberty of asking my circle of people whom I call on their birthday, etc. to get their take.

It may not be huge, but it’s a larger than average base.

The Surprises
Two things have surprised me among past Obama voters.

  1. the number of people who claim (at least now) that they are thinking about not voting. And this is from people I would expect to be likely voters.
  2. the number of people who admit to having gotten “caught up” in the Obama excitement

Yep, Here We Go…
Obviously, a sensitive topic, but what has really shocked me is the number of past Obama voters (good, solid liberals) who will say (either prompted or unprompted) that Obama’s race was a factor in their decision to vote FOR him.

As one said to me, “I was enamored with the idea that we would have an African-American president.”

Was it the ONLY reason?

Of course not, but there were more than a few who said that reverse racism was at play last time around and they got attacked here on the blog.

For me, race was never an issue. I just didn’t like Obama’s politics, but I have found this element of the election to be just fascinating.

Why Introduce the Race angle?
While I know there is a decent chance that it will start some passionate debate, I am hoping that it can be civil and allow us to better understand ourselves as a country in 2012.

A risk? Perhaps. We’ll see if civil discourse is indeed possible. I have faith in Americans (and those visiting my blog from other countries as well).

Sunday, October 14, 2012

9.79 The Validation

It’s been 24 years in the making, but the proof is here.

ESPN has made a documentary called “9.79.”

Yes, you read that correctly.

For why this is so significant, here’s my personal connection to it.

The greatest race of all time.

And now everyone knows what a few of us have known for years.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Why Jewish Holidays Aren’t Always Restful

For traditionally observant Jews, we’ve just finished a marathon month of holidays. No fewer than 7 days (all during the work week, I might add) were set aside for various religious activities, festivals, and the like.

My work colleagues were understanding and supportive, but I sensed a slight misconception stemming from the word “holiday.”

While I’ve never attended Christmas or Easter services, my sense is that those days are somewhat different that Jewish holidays, hence the misconception.

We spend an average of 3-4 hours in synagogue on each of the holidays (in some cases, more). The services are followed by meals which are usually elaborate and lavish and can take anywhere from 1-4 hours.  Now, this sounds great, but having hosted them (and the NFO having prepared them), I can tell you…it’s a LOT of work.

But, as they say, “wait, there’s more.”

You have to remember that while all of these holidays are occurring, you are operating under the traditional prohibition of using electricity, operating motor vehicles, or phones, etc.

So, while you don’t sit in the dark, you can’t exactly load up your dishwasher and push “start.”

Yes, there are ways around this, but even that is an effort to figure out an appropriate loophole that enables something that is forbidden.

Some might say “well, what’s the point,” and I can see where the cynic or skeptic might offer that opinion, but the mental challenge is half the fun.

But, let’s set that aside for a moment, shall we?

Essentially,  you’ve got 24-48 hour periods where you can’t use your phone, email, TV. You can’t drive anywhere, so you are limited by walking distance. If you have visitors staying with you, they are homebound (in your house) if it’s raining, for example, and “sleeping in” is done, but the idea is you should be in synagogue.

The point I am trying to make here, I suppose is that the holiday is really a lot of work and effort.

In some cases you end it feeling refreshed and relaxed, but in other cases, you end it as tired (if not more) than when you begin.

Then, of course, you log-on to your email after having been away for 2 whole days and find 267 messages waiting for you.