Saturday, May 27, 2006

When boxing was a Jewish sport


“I was fighting as a kid,” said Rickun. “I fought every day. I didn’t hear the word ‘Jew’ directed at me [in a derogatory manner] because if I did, I’d split their heads open. I’d bang guys up if they called some other guys ‘Jew.’”

“I just had no direction at all,” he added. “Maybe that’s why kids like that become fighters.”


“I think [their memory] has been suppressed, because Jews weren’t so proud of it,” said Bodner in a telephone interview. “The fans [were proud], the parents were [proud] … the opinion makers were not. Jews weren’t supposed to be into violent sports.”

The DaVinci Code

I haven’t read the book or seen the movie. I did have to write an article about it, though. Here is what I found in “the heartland” of America: Area clergy view ‘Da Vinci Code’ movie as educational opportunity

Why is polygamy illegal?

I’ve been watching HBO’s latest series Big Love, which is about a polygamist Utah family. It’s an interesting and well-written show. The fear of the family getting discovered is a constant theme that hangs over the characters’ heads.

It got me to wondering why polygamy is illegal. If consenting adults decide they want to create such a family, why can’t they?

To me, it is similar to gay marriage. If gays get married, fine. What do I care? If a man wants multiple wives and the women agree to the situation, who am I to say no?

So why is polygamy illegal?

Saudi discussion II

I don't think my Saudi interlocutor wants to have a dialogue...

Ayman wrote:

Interesting. But I don't have time to reply and comment to all your crafted tragedy. Your job as journalist is not what I'm interested in, however I'll keep this mail as a sample of what Zionists see.


It's a sample of what ONE Zionist sees... there are many different types of Zionists. I do not speak for all Zionists or any person other than myself. For example, there are labor Zionsts, religious Zionists, revisionist Zionists... and the only thing that makes a person a Zionist is that they believe the Jewish people have the same right as all other people-- a right to self-determination. That's it.

My email had nothing to do with journalism; it's my own personal way of trying to understand the views of others. Unfortunately you don't want to play ball

I wonder what he meant by "crafted tragedy"? Then again, he's not a native English speaker...

Friday, May 26, 2006

Curious discussion with a Saudi

The other day I received an email from a Saudi whom I met years ago while working for the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. I was doing some sort of article about interfaith-feel-good stuff and ended up asking him some questions and taking a picture of him. He told me he had done a little freelancing for the Saudi newspaper Okaz, so we had a little something in common.

Over the weeks we corresponded via email, but I was sorely disappointed when he finally told me one day, “Look, Israel has no right to exist. What was taken by force must be retaken” or something to that effect. I thanked him for his honesty and held my tongue and temper in check.

Anyway, here and there I’d get an email from him that was obviously sent out to a bulk of recipients. I finally decided to reply to one. The following is the ongoing discussion. Enjoy.

Ayman B wrote: (I don’t see any reason to reprint his full name, Zak)Subject: FW: This could save your lifeDate: Mon, 22 May 2006 13:17:44 +0300Check your car tires today.

Then there was some attachment about the importance of checking your car’s tires.

Zak Mazur wrote:
I am surprised you'd want my life to be saved. After all, I am a Zionist, Israel-loving Jew!


Ayman replied:

You are mixing here between beeing an enemy and being human. "One of Allah's slaves". I want your life to be saved as long as we are not in the battle field.
You know! I even want your after life to be saved. I invite you to Islam.

I replied:

“You are mixing here between beeing an enemy and being human. "One of Allah's slaves". I want your life to be saved as long as we are not in the battle field.
You know! I even want your after life to be saved. I invite you to Islam."

Battlefield? That is a curious statement. I try to understand how Muslims perceive what is and isn't a battlefield.

So let me get this straight: In America you and I are both humans and should strive to help each other? I agree. But if I am on a bus in Israel one morning headed to university (which I was in the summer of 1995) and the bus is blown up by Muslim dude with explosives strapped to his chest, does that mean the bus is a legitimate battlefield, and all the civilians on it were soldiers? I ask because that happened to a bus I used to take to school, but that day I took a different bus to school after sleeping at a friend's apartment. That bus was a battlefield? Those people were "soldiers?" The middle aged American Jewish woman blown to bits who was in Israel studying Hebrew was a soldier? The little kids who had no choice about what country they were born and were just going to school were soldiers? The old lady, a soldier?

Now, I know what you are thinking (no, I do not read minds!), so allow me to beat you to the punch: Please, don't point out some incident in which Israel killed civilians. Civilians die in all wars. We both know that. And Israel, like every country on the planet, is not perfect. But even if Israel intentionally targeted civilians in the same manner as does Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Fatah Hawks, would "martyrdom" missions still be ... kosher/halal? How can two wrongs (evils) possibly make a right? I always hear Muslim apologists for suicide bombings (especially in Israel) describe them as acts of self-defense, but how is killing unarmed people self-defense?

Further, why must you worry about my afterlife (although I appreciate it, thanks)? Doesn't the Koran say that Christians and Jews also need not fear about the afterlife since we are ah al-kitab?

Granted I am not a religious Jew, and therefore in your book I will not go to heaven (I do not believe in an afterlife anyway), but I would like to discuss some philosophical issues with you (I cringe at the term "spirituality, as I do not believe in spirits or souls).

First of all, why does God demand that we be His "slaves." I'm not trying to bait you as a Muslim; I ask these sorts of questions and others, to rabbis, Christians, etc. Seriously, why would a deity as powerful as God want or desire "slaves?" I've never understood why in Judaism, Christianity and Islam people are supposed to "fear" God or be His "slave." When I meet people in real life who demand that others "fear" them or be their "slaves" I consider that person to be a psychopath. Why does religion make God seem so... jealous and infant-like? Does God lack self-confidence? Do his feelings get hurt if somebody also thinks an ancient forest on a mountain is "holy?" Do the questions I just raised to you make God furious at me? Didn't He give me a brain designed to think rationally about the world around me?

And this idea of hell. First of all, even if I was a religious Jew, we do not believe in hell. But still, lot's of Christians and Muslims believe in it, and hell is even described in the Koran, as I am told. Forever burning in hell; agony; torture, all for eternity. And for what? For not having the correct beliefs in life? So all the Buddhists and Hindus and people that worship multiple gods are ALL going to hell, even if they were wonderful, caring people during their lives and never hurt anybody, or even saved lives? Hellfire for eternity? What kind of sick shit is that? Ever hear of "gross and unusual punishment"? What kind of God would torture His creatures for eternity; the types of tortures that even Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, Stalin and Hilter couldn't imagine?

So, the Bible and Koran tell us that God is jealous, demands complete obedience and if He doesn't get it, you suffer an eternity of unrelenting torture? Hmmm... not the kind of dude I'd want to be friends with, much less worship.

If I was Muslim, and you and I were in Saudi Arabia, could I even publicly ask these questions without being called an apostate or infidel and receive a whipping or beheading or even prison time? Why such a fear to doubt or question religion in Islam?

Many Muslims find America to be an immoral place. Parts of it certainly are. I could choose to rent porn -- it is there -- but I do not because it doesn't do much for me. But that's the key: choice. Here we have the ability to CHOOSE to be religious and virtuous, or not religious and virtuous, or bad, or evil, etc. But in Iran, Saudi, and other places, the government and/or society at large don’t want people to choose, they want to force religion, to make it law.

If there is a just God, who do you think He would prefer: the American who chose to follow religion, or the Saudi who never had a choice? Wouldn't God prefer that people CHOOSE to worship Him instead of HAVE to worship him? Whatever happened to the saying that there is no compulsion in religion? If not, why can't there be a church in Saudi Arabia, and why couldn't a curious Saudi visit it and worship there, if he or she wanted to?

Finally, astronomers are pretty confident that the Milky Way Galaxy is home to over 100 billion stars, one being the sun. Further, there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in space, each with their own hundreds of billions of stars. The chemicals required for life as we know it on this planet are abundant in the universe. Just by pure odds, it is very likely that there is other life out there, and some of it may be intelligent; perhaps far more intelligent than we.

If there is a creator of the universe (which I do not necessarily dispute; I'm an agnostic, not an atheist), why would It only make intelligent and sentient life on one tiny little planet on the edge of just another galaxy? Wouldn't that be a HUGE waste of stars and matter?

If there are other life forms, what do they believe? Do you really think they too believe in books just like the Bible and Koran?

Oh wait, I'm still not done. Faith. Why do you think some people have faith and others do not? Who gives us faith? Personally, I've always somewhat envied those who have faith, because faith gives answers to mysterious questions that will never be answered-- unless one has faith. Where does it come from? Does God give it to some and not others?

I do not expect you to answer everything at once.



Prayers in Mecca and tea at Izumi's

With so much bad news coming from the Middle East, I’d like to share some positive things that I’ve recently experienced.

Yesterday I met a friend for lunch at a Japanese restaurant. His name is Mohammad and he’s from Kuwait. I met him through a Turkish friend; they shared an office at the University where both are working on their doctorate dissertations (well, Yavuz is finished now). Yavuz is a secular, pork-eating Muslim, if you can even call him a Muslim. He enjoys a drink on the weekend and dates women. Friendship between us came easily and naturally.

The first time I met his friend Mohammad, I didn’t know what to expect. Mo’s face had a kind, friendly look to it; his voice was gentle and he was quick to smile. But this was coming on the heals of the outbreak of the last “Intifadah.” I was living and breathing the conflict, and not in the mood to have an accusatory finger pointed in my face by anybody.

I was eating dinner at the bar of a restaurant, and having met Mohammad before, we scooted our seats together and shared dinner. After gentle probing from both sides, we started talking about the Middle East. Rather than immediately repeat the typical litany of Arab complaints about Israel, he seemed to want to hear my side instead, to listen to the impressions and perspective of a Jew.

I don’t remember exactly what we discussed, but I remember it was civil, and that there seemed to be a sincere desire on his behalf to listen and consider what I had to say. We parted smiling and shaking hands.

Anyway, Yavuz is back in Turkey. He was the glue that barely held Mohammad and me together. But recently Mohammad emailed me in response to an article I sent to him about reformation in Islam. He suggested we meet for lunch, and we agreed on a Japanese restaurant that we both like and that has a very affordable and agreeable lunch menu.

Of course we started talking about general things. We also both ordered tea. Sipping tea, downing miso soup (Mohammad tries to avoid soy, as it gives him migraines); we just talked about human issues. We got on the topic of anxiety, I think because we were talking about the pressures and rigors of school. I admitted I had suffered anxiety (and depression) in the past, and he told me about an Egyptian friend of his who was bi-polar, and how his family refused to listen to him or understand his condition. Just as I was about to say that I have read that Arab culture avoids mental health issues, Mohammad took the words out of my mouth.

“There is no acceptance of psychotherapy or anti-depressants for many people in Arab culture,” he said.

Hmm… I liked that he was willing to be open and honest, especially about a topic that requires one to show “weakness,” or better yet vulnerability. This is not easy for a Muslim Arab male to do, because showing “weakness” questions ones’ manly honor. When a Muslim man’s honor is questioned, we get into the realm of shame; shame and honor being two huge components in many Islamic societies (and something that non-Muslims need to learn more about and understand). I won’t get into the shame-honor dynamic because it is too broad, but many of you readers are probably familiar with it to an extent.

Now, I’ve chatted with many Muslims about Islam, the conflict, Westernization, etc. An Iranian guy I used to chat with, who used to live in Iran and now studies in India, hated Islam with the same intensity that the Ayatollah Khomeini loved Islam (or hated the West… you get the point). He is a secular fanatic; a Persian nationalist; not nearly as open-minded and as thoughtful as I would have preferred him to be. Too much hatred, not enough understanding; and then again, I didn’t grow up in Iran and I haven’t walked in his shoes.

But after griping with him for a few months about how, yes, the Mullahs are crazy, and yes, Israel is a cool country (at first it’s amazing to hear that from an Iranian, after a while it looses its ring), and “death to the Mullahs,” etc. “Fuck Islam” and “Long live Iran” can actually get stale when you’re original goal for going to “Persian chat” and meeting Iranians is to try to understand the Muslim mind and what chances there are for a modus vivendi or even true peace between Islam and the West, Islam and Israel.

The upside of talking with Mohammad is that he’s a faithful Muslim. He believes in his religion strongly. He believes that the Koran is God’s word, immutable. It’s people like Mohammad that I want to talk to. And not just that, he’s also very knowledgeable about the Middle East and totally unafraid to be self-critical (as an Arab, not as a person; he’s a good guy, no reason to be overly self-critical).

What was somewhat concerning to me was his strong faith in the immutability of the Koran. He admitted that he doesn’t believe in a total separation between mosque and state. But, at the same time, he said, “The Prophet Mohammad said that we should be moderate in everything we do. So, even though I don’t believe in a complete separation of mosque and state, it doesn’t mean I agree with Saudi Arabia, or Iran’s version of Islam and politics.” Hmm… wiggle room.

Mohammad reminded me of an orthodox or ultra-orthodox Jew. It wasn’t his beliefs, obviously, but his general “live and let live” attitude, coupled with his fervent faith. Mohammad might disagree with Muslim women leading prayers, or agree that the sexes should be separated during prayer, but at the same time he would never promote or support the use of violence against people who disagreed with him. Like Orthodox Jews, he would just disagree—and then go and do his own thing.

In a large sense, isn’t that the crux of the problem at the heart of the Islamic world? We all know there are Muslims who want to liberalize and reform their faith; we know they aren’t all fanatics. Isn’t the real problem, then, that would-be liberalizers live in mortal fear from the extremists, who will and do use violence against them?

To reiterate: There are many different streams and denominations of Christianity. Many vehemently disagree with the other, and what do they do about it? They just go to their own churches. Violence between sects is unheard of, especially here.

Any Jew is aware of the difference between the Reform and the Torah-observant (orthodox). But do the Torah observant use violence against the Reform who don’t keep kosher, allow women and gays to be rabbis and cantors, and have mixed prayer? The answer is, no. They disagree—vehemently so—but that’s it. It ends there. You go to your synagogue, Yankele, and I’ll go to mine (or in my case, I won’t go at all unless it’s for a simcha in the family or among friends).

And then there is P… she is a girl whom I met online while trying to pique the mind of the Persian. I thought she was a he, but learned otherwise when we turned on our web cams. Expecting a hairy middle aged Persian male on my screen, I saw (what to me) was (is) the epitome of exotic Persian beauty. P and I have been in close contact ever since. There is more I’d like to write about P, but to make it short, she is currently in Saudi Arabia visiting her sister, who lives and works in a compound. It’s her first time out of the Iran. She is going to Mecca today, and even though she is not religious herself, she asked me what prayer I wanted her to say for me when she was there. I said “Pray for peace in the Middle East.”

So, despite the seriousness of the conflict, and without trying to see the world with only rose-colored glasses, I also needed to remind myself via this stupid essay that there are chances for peace in the Middle East, and that we should not give up hope, despite how bad things look at times. There are certainly a lot of Islamic-freakazoids over there, but there are also many who are not. Arabs and Jews, Muslims and Jews, are not genetically designed to be enemies. Friendships can come easily.

Right now an ostensibly Shiite Persian young woman is saying a prayer in the holy Islamic city of Mecca for an agnostic Zionist Jew. Earlier, I and a devout Arab Muslim spent over two hours sipping tea and talking, like so many people in the Middle East do—and it felt natural.

I think that’s cool.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Clean as a whistle?

As readers of this irreverent blog must have noticed by now, occasionally I wax philosophical about an oft-heard figure of speech. Here’s the figure of speech of the day: Clean as a whistle.

WTF does that mean? How is a whistle clean? Whistles aren’t clean, are they? I'd figure they're filled with germs and bacteria; that they stink like rancid coach/referee breath. Not my idea of clean.


Is it the sound of the whistle that is considered "clean?" Then shouldn't it be, "As clear as a whistle?"

And Irish Spring soap... are the Irish really so clean that they deserve their own brand of soap? Why not "Uzbeki Spring Soap?" Or "Jewish Spring Soap"... actually that's not funny.

I guess because the Nazis turned Jews into soap, we can never have our own brand of soap. That's fine; I'm content with Lever 2000.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

I hang with astronauts

Yes, that's how damn cool I am-- I hang out with astronauts.

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