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Barack, Baruch and Blessings for the Holidays

The alliance between African-Americans and Jews protected me when I was a little boy

Donald Trump has denigrated so many people, but he has saved his greatest ire for reporters, particularly minorities or those who appear to be marginalized.

Trump has bashed African-Americans, like CNN’s Abby Phillip, April Ryan and Don Lemon, three very capable and intelligent journalists, claiming that they are not intelligent or that they are rude.

He has mocked Serge Kovaleski of the New York Times, who has a congenital disability that affects the use of his arm.

And, most recently, he removed the press credential of CNN’s Jim Acosta, who is Latino, after Acosta asked a follow-up question that Trump did not like.

A federal judge restored Acosta’s press badge, saying that he had been denied due process.

The country and the planet have missed Barack Obama these past two years, and not just because of his ability to spell a word like cemetery, nor because he never conducted world and domestic affairs by tweet.

No, the country and the planet have missed Barack Obama because of his honesty, intelligence, ethical compass and good nature, even in dealing with the press.

When President Obama returned to the campaign trail to boost Democrats before the midterm elections, I was particularly heartened that he was willing to use the “L” word.  And I don’t mean “legacy,” a term with which all presidents seem to be obsessed.

No, President Obama spoke of Donald Trump’s “lying,” though Trump’s cursed presidency is, to an extent, interrelated with the legacy of our first African-American commander-in-chief.

During Obama’s eight years in the White House, I was at times critical of him.

Unlike Trump, who has demonized the free press and other civic institutions, President Obama, as was said of John Kennedy, has always relished a vigorous debate on issues.

I would hazard a guess that President Obama was less upset than were some of his devoted fans with my op-eds that were critical of him.

He might have even chuckled when I compared him to the Grinch.

I later wrote a piece, “My Apologies to President Obama,” in which I said publicly that I was sorry for being so tough on him.

Let me state now for the record that Barack Obama is the most inspirational U.S. president or political figure of my lifetime.

I am just a few years younger than President Obama, and I suspect that has some bearing on why I have had a few issues with him.

Perhaps, when he ran for president as a young U.S. Senator, I was a bit jealous that he did not have to spend nearly 40 years, as I did, in the wilderness of major depression, psychosis and schizophrenia.

It is not that I ever intended to run for president.  I have never run for anything; and I never will, though I was appointed, unopposed, to the post of secretary of the Independent Party in college.

As bizarre as it sounds, the reason I was jealous of President Obama was because, in my view, he had not suffered in the manner that I had!

Of course, I did not think that our former president had not suffered in his life.

I don’t doubt that Barack Obama had to battle and still has to battle racism of all nasty strains, including the hideousness of the “birther” lies championed by Donald Trump. 

I will never know what it is like to face that hideousness, even if I have had to deal with some anti-Semites over the years.

I also don’t doubt that President Obama endured much pain and anguish in growing up in a divorced family with an absentee father.

I did not grow up in a broken home, a circumstance that could not have been easy on a young Barack Obama.

Still, I suppose it bothered me that President Obama was able to leap to the presidency without having served even a term in the U.S. Senate.

This may seem silly, but, as a graduate of Yale, a school that has tended to prize modesty, I no doubt attributed Obama’s rush to the top as an unusual kind of hubris, generated at least partly by his having attended law school at Harvard, an institution that, let’s face it, will never be confused for prizing modesty.

President Obama once joked about this at a White House Correspondents dinner when he said that he had only one degree from Harvard, whereas Mitt Romney had two.  

“What a snob!” chuckled the president.

Like most of us, I have always been turned off by snobs, particularly when they have little other than a degree to recommend them.

Clearly, that is not the case with President Obama.

It was always obvious that he had much to recommend him, many political gifts, such as eloquence, poise, composure, endurance, youth, good looks, high intelligence, grace and great timing.

There is no doubt that President Obama came along at the right time and that he should not be faulted for being a political supernova.

I would have liked it if he had had more experience and humility by serving at least one term in the U.S. Senate, but he seized the moment; and he had every right to do so, though it must be pointed out that Hillary Clinton had essentially to pledge to New Yorkers that she would serve out her first term in the U.S. Senate and not run for president in 2004.

She honored that pledge and later lost to Obama in the 2008 primaries, as we all know.

Maybe, she was being held to a higher standard; or maybe, if we are honest, Hillary Clinton just wasn’t as attractive, as admirable, or as blessed a candidate as Barack Obama.

Speaking of blessings, we know that President Obama’s first name of Barack is linked to the Hebrew word, Baruch, which means blessed.

And the name, Barak, means lightning in Hebrew, though I have noted before that Barak, a judge from the Bible, was not as lightning-quick as his name suggested.

By the time he arrived to fight Sisera, who wanted to destroy the Israelites, Jael had already killed the enemy.

As a result, it is she, not Barak, who is blessed by the Jewish people.

Of course, a person’s name does not define him or her. 

We can bring our own free will to anything, including the seeming fate imposed on us by our names.

We need only recall that Abram did not become Abraham until he was prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac.

And Jacob did not become Israel until he wrestled with the angel.

All of which tells me that we need to earn our names and earn our destinies.

As it concerns Israel, there is no question that Barack Obama had a complicated relationship with the Jewish state during his time as president.  Part of that was due to what one might term a personality clash between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu.  Part of it was due to policy issues, such as the Iran nuclear deal, which troubled some Israelis in that the deal seemed to reward a regime that has funded terrorism.

There are some Jews who feel that President Obama damaged our country’s relationship with Israel.

I am not among them.

It is true that President Obama should never have allowed “daylight” between our two nations on a host of issues, such as when he instructed Joe Biden to leave Israel after the Jewish state announced that it was building new settlements in the West Bank.

And it is true that President Obama should never have referred to Prime Minister Netanyahu, a decorated commando, as “chickenshit.”

Having said all that, I have never doubted Barack Obama’s affinity for the Jewish people.

Our former president has spoken of his fondness for the Israel of the 1970s, for Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir, Jewish heroes of the past.

And he has mentioned many times that a number of his mentors were Jewish.

In spite of the friction between Obama and Netanyahu, I can recall watching a White House meeting some years ago when the Israeli prime minister said before the cameras that he came from a “small people.” 

President Obama, seated next to him, chimed in, “A great people.”

That was a beautiful response.

I could say the same of African-Americans.  They too are a great people, and many of them helped me when I was a little boy.

Throughout my years in elementary school and junior high, I was by far the smallest and wispiest kid in my class.

I stood about 4-foot-9 and weighed about 70 to 75 pounds when I started 7thgrade at Hopkins, a private school in New Haven, Conn.

I have written about my experience in public school, which began in 1970, not long after Vatican II.

I described how my anti-Semitic kindergarten teacher shunted me, the only Jewish kid in the class, to the “dunce corner.”  She did so after I missed a few days of school for the Jewish High Holidays, and she smacked my left hand when I used a scissors for a cut and paste exercise.

She refused to let me be a lefty.

As I noted in that previous piece, I no doubt suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.  I survived it by dissociating, an evolutionary adaptation that percolates subconsciously.

But it has taken me nearly 50 years to heal from that kindergarten trauma and other traumas that followed.

Indeed, the sadism directed at me did not end with my witch of a kindergarten teacher.   My so-called best friend for many years in public school mocked me as “Parrot Nose.”

And when I entered Hopkins in 1977, a bigger kid in the 8thgrade, who had known me in public school, started to bully me.

Thankfully, a few kids in my class and in the 8thgrade looked out for me.

They were mostly African-Americans, although there were a few others, including a couple of tough Jewish kids from Sunday school and summer camp, who also protected me.

Again, it might sound odd, but I knew about none of this at the time, because I was so traumatized.

It is quite possible that the architecture of my cortex—its synapses and dendrites, its flaps and folds—had been damaged by my kindergarten teacher, as I wrote in the previous piece to which I referred.

Not unlike Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a psychologist, who spoke during the Kavanaugh hearings of how norepinephrine “encoded” in her hippocampus the memory of her alleged sexual assault, I stored in that part of the brain all the details from my traumas that began in kindergarten when I was five.

I did not retrieve those memories for decades, but fortunately the brain is plastic and malleable.

After decades of therapy, medication, work and love, I have restored my health and started to summon not only the traumatic incidents of the past, but also the acts of kindness that were bestowed upon me by some people.

That many of those friends, who helped me, were African-American should be no surprise.

Jews and blacks in this country have had a long and soulful alliance in empathy, highlights of which include the beginnings of the NAACP, founded partly by Jews; the funding of many historically black colleges by Jewish philanthropists; the marches in the South during the civil rights movement, when Jewish clerics like Abraham Joshua Heschel and the rabbi at my temple, Rabbi Robert Goldburg, joined Rev. Martin Luther King.  

Rabbi Goldburg shared a jail cell with Dr. King, who later spoke at my synagogue, Mishkan Israel.

In fact, Jews and blacks have bonded for at least 3,000 years, since King Solomon married the Queen of Sheba, who was from Ethiopia and whose progeny included Haile Selassie, the Lion of Judah.

Barack Obama, of course, traces his roots to East Africa, to Kenya, if not Ethiopia.

And as I mentioned earlier, his name, Barack, is closely associated with the Hebrew words, Baruch and Barak. 

But for all his blessings, President Obama is not without flaws.

I would not be a serious journalist, the only kind our former president respects, if I did not hold him accountable for his mistakes.

If we are honest, we all know that President Obama did not protect us from Russia’s hacking and misinformation campaign during the 2016 presidential election.

He told Vladimir Putin to “knock it off,” which was a pretty ineffectual approach to handling a hostile, foreign power.  

And, during the 2016 campaign, President Obama did not call out Donald Trump for his treacherous links to Russia.

Our former president has admitted that he did not want to be perceived as tilting the election in favor of Hillary Clinton.

In short, he did not want his “legacy” stained.

But in gaming the situation, he endangered our country; he allowed Russia to wreak havoc with our democratic process and our social media platforms and to do so basically with impunity.

Would President Obama have behaved differently if he had had more experience?  If he had served more than one term in the U.S. Senate?  If perhaps he had a little more humility?

I would hope so, since the primary role of every U.S. President is to keep our country safe.

Maybe, that is what President Obama was trying to do recently when he hit the campaign trail just prior to the 2018 midterm elections.

He was not just trying to help Democrats; he was trying to offer another path from what I have called the Baalism or bullyism of Trump.

President Obama was offering a path of civility and thoughtfulness, integrity and fair play. He was trying to restore us to our founding roots as a democracy, as a nation of ideals with respect for the rule of law and the Fourth Estate.

With Thanksgiving approaching, let me say that I am grateful for President Obama’s return to public life, for his inspirational speeches, for his rallying people across the country to vote for Democrats, who, in January, will take the gavel of House committees with oversight of Trump.

I am grateful for the role of brave journalists, some of them minorities, who have exposed Trump’s corruption, who have asked him tough questions and who have upheld with honor the freedom of the press.

And I am grateful for the historic partnership between Jews and African-Americans, both of whom have known slavery and oppression, and both of whom have been victimized by hatred, even in their houses of worship.

That partnership has been strained at times over the decades, but it will always have a place in my heart, especially after the loving response of Rev. Eric Manning of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., who hugged Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, as they lighted candles and sang “This Little Light of Mine,” following the recent massacre at the temple.

As for those young men, who looked out for me years ago when I was being bullied, I am grateful to them too.   

Overwhelmingly blacks and Jews, those childhood friends got me through a difficult adolescence.  

A few may have suffered because they stood up for me.  I feel terribly about that.  I was so traumatized as a little boy and for decades later that I did not know what was happening.

Some of my old friends may not remember what they did for me years ago, but I remember how selfless and kind, how strong and loyal, they were; and I want to thank them.  

In particular, I want to thank Jeremy Lewisohn, Bernie Rodriguez, Andrew Grant-Thomas, Dan Freeman, Todd Howell, John-Luke Montias and Billy Meltzer.

They were mensches, who saved my spirit and maybe saved my life. 

Happy holidays!  And le chaim!

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