Friday, October 30, 2015

My Speech (10/24/15)

Before I begin, I must say how pleased I am to share this day with Evelyn Attia Laufer.  Putting aside for the moment the legal implications of taking another wife, I think that it is appropriate that I am paired with a woman who is a psychiatrist and a world-famous authority on eating disorders.
My dear friend Steve Schneider likes to time how long it takes me in conversation to bring up an old girl friend.  Well, I'll make it easy for him and start immediately with a recollection from almost 50 years ago when a girl friend asked me if I liked being Jewish.  She volunteered that she did not like it, for very practical reasons.  Her father was a very prominent rabbi and he was beset by demands on his time and energy from his congregation and the community at large.  She felt isolated and ignored as a result, although her father was devoted to her, but in that undemonstrative way that many fathers -- Jewish and otherwise -- have of holding their affection back.  She connected her unhappiness to her father's position, and, by extension, to Judaism generally.
On the other hand, I had no hesitation expressing my satisfaction with being Jewish, although it came at a time in my life that I entered a synagogue only for a few minutes during the High Holidays and for those life cycle events where the intimacy of the association made attendance unavoidable.  That period of abstention actually lasted for many decades to come.
I was physically absent from organized Jewish life while maintaining a strong sense of Jewish identity.  This seeming disconnect was, to my mind, a natural outcome of my Jewish childhood.  My parents kept a kosher home, but, of course, on occasional Sunday afternoons they took us to Wu-Han’s Chinese restaurant, one flight up on Pitkin Avenue in Brownsville, Brooklyn.
Friday night dinners were always chicken soup, chopped liver, chicken and a 12 ounce bottle of Pepsi-Cola that my brother and I divided with as much attention as paid to the first splitting of the atom.  Candles were lit and then my parents welcomed in the Sabbath by making their weekly grocery shopping rounds to the A&P, Bohack’s and Daitch Shopwell.  
There was Hebrew school, heder.  That meant a dusty, airless room at the top of the Sutter Avenue shul.  I say the Sutter Avenue shul because our houses of worship were identified by location alone and I doubt that my father or my observant uncles could provide the formal name for the Sutter Avenue shul, closest to us, or the Fountain Avenue shul, closest to my Grandmother Gotthelf.  
Rabbi Colmanovitch (as he was called) was the sole teacher for the two Hebrew classes that met after school weekdays.  The earlier class was for younger boys, 8 to 10, the later for boys approaching Bar Mitzvah.  And it was only boys, with the exception of the Rubinstein sisters -- I remember the older as Rachel, nearly my age.  In contrast to the boys, these girls came solely for the sake of education.  No girls at that shul could expect to have a Bat Mitzvah, and I think that the balcony where the women sat would have collapsed if it were attempted.  By an odd coincidence, about 30 years later, I sat next to Aaron Rubinstein at a banquet dinner and learned that he was their baby brother.
Rabbi Colmanovitch would not hesitate to swat his inattentive scholars, and I was a big and deserving target, yet my memories of the Sutter Avenue shul were mostly pleasant.  While West End Synagogue has services marked by Bob Dylan music and ee cummings poetry, only discordant, unsynchronized Hebrew chanting and Yiddish conversation were heard at Sutter Avenue services.  I still remember starting my Haftorah, the warbling sing song that is the artistic highlight of a Bar Mitzvah service, when an old man began chanting his own version at a speed and pronunciation distinctly different than mine.  
While that beginning of my Haftorah was less than perfect, it ended, as was typical in those days, with a shower from the women’s balcony above of brown paper bags, filled with candy.  The boys from heder scurried around to collect as many bags as possible from the floor, not only for the sweet treats, but aware that, in vivid contrast to today's lavish Kiddushim (the meal after services), the congregation could only expect rye whiskey, pickled herring and honey cake in the synagogue's basement afterwards.

I especially looked forward to other boys’ Bar Mitzvahs at the Sutter Avenue shul because my maternal grandmother, the wonderful Esther Malka Goldenberg, sat front and center in the balcony, recognized as a community leader because of her ownership of a grocery store a few blocks away.  Esther Malka used her position of influence very much to my advantage by gathering many of those brown paper bags from other women before they could be launched onto the floor below and holding them until I made my way upstairs to visit her.  She called me, contrary to the physical evidence even then, “the Klayner” because I was the younger of two children.
Even now, I can’t think about being Jewish without thinking about Esther Malka.  Not just because of the candy that she hoarded for me on those Saturday mornings, but because of the generosity that she showed to so many people in varying ways.  On one or two occasions, while I was in high school, I stayed with her for a week when everyone else was out of her household.  After a couple of mornings, I got used to the mailman sitting down for breakfast as part of his daily rounds, but I was surprised when the Fire Marshall sat down, at her urging, while inspecting the premises, which included the grocery store below the living quarters.  
Of course, all interactions with those folks and any members of the general public, Jewish or not, were conducted in her distinctive Yiddish-English.  Two of her most memorable locutions were admonishing my mother for allowing me to go to shul on a Saturday morning dressed in “Tangerines,” and identifying people that she met on shipboard on her trip to Israel in the late 1950s as coming from the Western state of “Coca Cola.”
With that legacy, how could I ever move away from Judaism, even if I stayed away from synagogues?
As my horizons broadened and my skepticism deepened, I remained Jewish at the most visceral level.  I talked Jewish, I thought Jewish, I ate Jewish, although this was not always easy outside New York City.  My first wife was Jewish and we were married by a Rabbi, but nothing distinguished our household in Los Angeles as a Jewish home.  Her parents' experience as refugees from the Nazis in Vienna, escaping halfway around the world to Shanghai, stripped them of whatever connection to Jewish customs and rituals that they may have grown up with.  This neutered condition bothered me, but I thought that the arrival of children would return Jewishness to my life, with Hebrew school, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and family celebrations.  But, there were no children, the marriage collapsed and I returned to New York.  
Thinking back, I can only remember going to shul once in the nine years that I lived in Los Angeles.  I didn’t miss the worship, the Hebrew language, the too frequent standing up and sitting down, and the vapid sermonizing.  It was the Being There, taking my place, if only for a brief time, among the Jewish people, that strange river of humanity rising in a past that we insist not be forgotten. 
Actually, my exposure to vapid sermonizing began after we left Brooklyn, because Rabbi Sininsky at the Sutter Avenue shul, a stubby man with curly red hair, delivered his remarks exclusively in impassioned Yiddish, with tears.  When, with great reluctance, I accompanied my parents to a conservative shul in Queens for High Holy Day services, I first heard sermons in English and slid further down in my seat.  Conservative shuls were the place where I spent an hour or two each September or October while my mother, who lived to nearly 103 years old, was still able to, and therefore insistent upon, attending services.  
Additionally, I made a visit to a synagogue, rarely the same one twice, each November for my father’s Yahrzeit, the commemoration of his death.  My presence among a small group of strangers at evening prayers brought me little comfort, always raising questions and doubts about my connection with those people.  But, I felt that it was my connection to my father that I was asserting, and I often wondered who might connect with me in the future.
In 1996, I met America’s Favorite Epidemiologist.  We married in 2003, using a Rabbi who actually knew us.  We moved to the building immediately behind where we are now seated, although the presence of two shuls in front of the door was of no consequence to me.  My mother-in-law took ill late in 2003 and died in January 2004.  Mayris, whose adult life included active participation in Jewish education, services and community activities, sought a place to regularly say the mourner’s prayers.  In an interesting twist, she turned to Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, then at CBST, then unmarried, whom she had known from Rabbi Ayelet’s youth, for guidance in picking a shul that reflected the progressive Jewish values that Mayris was committed to.  
Easy, go to West End Synagogue, listen to Rabbi Yael Ridberg, said Rabbi Ayelet.  Indeed, I started hearing about interesting programs and discussions held on Saturdaymornings while I stayed home with the newspaper.  Mayris even suggested that I might appreciate some of the ideas being tossed around, but I stayed true to my faith.  Of course, I knew that I had to spend a little time at High Holy Day services and I agreed to go to West End Synagogue, before I learned that those services were held in some church over by the park, not in the cute little building downstairs.       
Besides the gothic surroundings, not entirely cleansed of Christian imagery, where the congregation gathered, the West End Synagogue services differed from what I remembered being disdainful of in other venues.  There was music and poetry and commentary that was not entirely offensive to my rational sensibilities.  Then, in a few moments that sealed my future, and brought me here today, Isaac Zieman, a little old man got up and sang, in a wonderful reedy voice, Partisaner Lid, a Yiddish song of resistance to the Nazis.  
Zog nit keyn mol, az du geyst dem letstn veg,
khotsh himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg.
Kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho,
s’vet a poyk ton undzer trot: mir zaynen do!
Never say this is the final road for you,
Though leadened skies may cover over days of blue.
As the hour that we longed for is so near,
Our step beats out the message: we are here! 

Love It Or List It

Monday, October 26, 2015
The New York Times published their ten most popular recipes.

Most, except the curries, seem easy to prepare. Beef could be substituted for pork shoulder, but the bacon accent in the spinach spaetzle would be sorely missed, for those of you who continue to walk the dietary straight and narrow. I’m ready to be served any and all of these dishes, at your convenience, to determine if their popularity is warranted.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015
Many law schools are lowering standards for admission (primarily scores on admissions tests) in order to deal with a decline in applicants.

This should produce a commensurate decline in the passing rate for state bar exams, because of an established correlation between the exams going in and the exams going out. Based on my own observations, law schools are insufficiently demanding once students are admitted. The power of hefty tuition income seems to dull the administrations’ instincts to trim the ranks of non- or under-performing students. While the better students are recognized and rewarded within and without the halls of legal academe, the dross only seem to held accountable, if at all, by their parents, paying fat bills for tuition and living expenses.

Then, we have had pressure to ease the bar exam, allowing more ill-prepared students to (attempt to) join the professional ranks. New York is about to introduce the Uniform Bar Exam, a multi-state test considered less rigorous than the current New York-centric version. Here is a jaded view of New York’s move.

Finally, we hear laments about the absence of jobs for lawyers.

But wait, it gets worse. Here is a headline in today’s New York Law Journal: "More Firm Leaders Say They Expect Computers to Replace Young Lawyers."

So, Mammas let your babies grow up to be cowboys.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015
What, another list? This week’s issue of Time Out New York lists "100 Best Dishes in the City."

I must admit that I’ve only had one of them (the ice cream at 10 Below, 10 Mott Street, which I found to have more curiosity value than taste), demonstrating that either I am lazy or it’s a big world out there or both. The list begins with the ten best overall, and then goes by category, vegetables, seafood, desserts and such. A conscientious effort to have the best is challenging. Four of the top ten are part of tasting menus/fixed dinners, ranging from $85 to $200 (before you sit down).

Today, tasting menus are all the thing. Most lists of the best restaurants/meals seem to focus on such endeavors. However, this is old news where I came from. Mother Ruth Gotthelf’s dinners always had a set menu, changing nightly. There were no substitutions, but, admittedly, unlike some of the fancy schmantzy joints, truffles could not be shaved onto the salmon croquettes at any cost. With some exceptions, night-in, night-out we had more satisfying meals (ambience aside) than your typical foodie can muster.

The Boyz Club met for lunch at New Yeah Shanghai Deluxe, 50 Mott Street. Eight of us put together our own meal – cold sesame noodles, scallion pancakes, soup dumplings, orange flavored beef, sauteed fish fillet in sweet and sour sauce, shredded beef with spicy sauce, eggplant with garlic sauce, sesame chicken, diced chicken with black bean sauce, and choice of egg drop or hot and sour soup – all for $16 each, demonstrating the economies of scale.

Still another list; today’s New York Law Journal prints the results of the July New York State bar exam. About 500 fewer candidates took the exam than last year, with a pass rate of 79% for those New York state law schools graduates taking the test for the first time, continuing a decline in recent years. Inevitably, my eyes fell on the names of the successful candidates. I was surprised and delighted to see that Jasmine Gothelf passed, as did Yi He, Bo Li, Xi Lu and Zi Ye, tied for the shortest name. I could not distinguish the longest name, because a string of middle names, usually used only on formal occasions, distorted the picture. Instead, I sought the most euphonious, music to my ears. I am trying to decide between Pious Pavitar Ahuja and Tolulope Fyinfoluwa Odunsi, but good luck to them in any case and I hope they get a job without the threat of being replaced by a computer.

Thursday, October 29, 2015
Tuesday night’s World Series game, between Kansas City and New York, lasting 14 innings, running well over 5 hours, set a recent high mark for television viewing, an average of 14.9 million people. By contrast, the final game of the 1980 World Series, between Kansas City and Philadelphia, drew 52.1 million viewers. Whaa? The US population in 1980 was 226.5 million people, while the current population is estimated at 322.05 million. Where is everybody?

What is a Chinese restaurant? That seems like an odd question from me after I have spent almost 6 years eating lunch in hundreds of Chinese restaurants, as reported herein. However, it is the right question to ask after lunch at Potato Corner, 234 Canal Street, a decidedly Chinatown location. It is the only New York City branch of a worldwide chain that originated in the Philippines; almost all the other US locations are in malls. The owners of this franchise store are Chinese, the young Vietnamese counterman told me. His coworker is from Venezuela.

The menu is basically fried potatoes in various shapes and forms with added flavors. There are six styles of potato, original French fries, loopy fries (curls), sweet potato (waffle cut), tater tots, Jo Jo chips (thick, ridged potato chips), and chili cheese fries. Six flavors are dusted on after frying, BBQ, cheddar, sour cream & onion, chili BBQ, cinnamon & sugar, and garlic & parmesan. Finally, four sauces for dipping are available, BBQ, ranch, honey mustard, and Thousand Island. Real food is available only in the form of chicken, tenders, wings or poppers. You can see that it takes a while to place an order. I had a chicken combo, three chicken tenders (slabs of white meat, about 1/4 inch thick, 4 inches long, deep-fried in a bread crumb crust), with loopy fries ($8.89 including a 16 oz. Diet Coke). I chose sour cream & onion flavoring for the potatoes, feh, meh, and honey mustard sauce to dip the chicken in.

So, in the absence of noodles and rice, is it reasonable to call Potato Corner a Chinese restaurant? Note that Thanh, the Vietnamese counterman, objected to labeling this hole in the wall with only two stools at a short ledge as a restaurant. We agreed on joint, however. And, therefore, I declare this and only this US branch of Potato Corner to be a Chinese joint (as I understand the term to encompass all the cuisines of East Asia). I reserve opinion on the operation at the Seattle Southcenter and the Rosedale (Minnesota) Center among others until I know more about their ownership and personnel.

Friday, October 30, 2015
We plan to fill our appetite for culture as well as our appetite for food over this weekend.  Tonight, we are seeing "King Charles III," a play just arrived from London, imagining the reign of the next King of England.  Tomorrow night, we are seeing Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge," a very American play in a revival also brought over from London.  Both of the evenings were arranged long before anyone had reason to believe that the Mets would be playing games 3 and 4 of the World Series at exactly the same time.  I will behave.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

Monday, October 19, 2015
Usually, I am satisfied thinking that 2 or 3 people not in my will are reading these ruminations.  However, I might be spoiled by a message from Trip Advisor, the web site that aggregates travelers' opinions, which I have made frequent use of in my own travels.  For the first time,  after my trip to Barcelona, I sent in some reviews because I was collecting my thoughts to take up some space here anyway.  Well, Trip Advisor told me that, as of yesterday, 596 people read my restaurant review.  That’s pretty good, a bit intoxicating even.  I might want to do this more often.

72nd Street Downtown Subway Platform *** - This example of early New York City underground architecture is frequently busy during the day, attracting both locals and visitors to the neighborhood.  It is noisy and sometimes smelly, but those are reasons to start conversations with good-looking strangers.  Foreign languages may be in use, it is open 24 hours a days and the price of admission is low.

Thanks to Herb Dooskin for finding this nugget in James Patterson's novel Alert, probably  written by his collaborator, Michael Ledwidge.  In any case, the book deals with the efforts of NYPD detective Michael Bennett and the FBI’s Emily Parker to fight a high tech assault on the city that never sleeps.  Here is the end of chapter 55:
“So close and yet so far,” [Bennett] said, looking at the federal building two blocks away, above the courthouses.  “Hey, after our respective ass-covering sections, how about Chinese for lunch?  Wo Hop.  My treat.”  “Wo Hop?” Emily said.  “How could I turn that down?”

Tuesday, October 20, 2015
Last night, I went to my first Rangers hockey game of the season and it was all good news.  The Rangers beat a strong opponent 4-0 by performing well in all phases of the game.  However, there wasn’t good news outside Madison Square Garden.  When I arrive early in the neighborhood of MSG, I usually go into Jack’s 99 Cent store, 110 West 32nd Street, between Broadway and Seventh Avenue to see what bargains are around.  I left Jack’s last night empty handed and disappointed for three reasons.  First, very little merchandise was being sold for 99 cents, that magic number that has almost become a brand name.  Second, actual prices were no bargain.  Items that I am familiar with were no cheaper than at supermarkets and more expensive than at cut-rate competitors.  Finally, the source of my greatest disappointment was the absence of familiar items of rare quality, notably Barton’s real dark chocolate-covered graham crackers and pretzels, two to a package for 99 cents.  This amounted to about $6 a pound for the excellent graham crackers; the closest competitor is Asher’s, available at Zabar’s, Fairway, selling for $6.95 for 7.15 ounces or more, about $15 a pound.  The same disproportion applied to chocolate-covered pretzels.  No wonder that my typical purchase of Barton’s was 6 or 8 packages of each.  Please note that many other versions of graham crackers and pretzels are not covered in real chocolate, but some brown-colored vegetable fat cutely labeled “chocolatey” or “ fudgy.”  Read your labels.

I had lunch with Seth G., a director of the camp where West End Synagogue has held its retreat for the last three years.  We took a very little time to fine tune our contract for 2016, and then dug into the food at Wok Wok Southeast Asian Cuisine, 11 Mott Street.  Because I was introducing him to the restaurant, we ordered some things that I have already tried successfully.  So, I will only call deserved attention to the curry beef  rice bowl ($6.95), brisket that has bathed in delicious spices for several years, or so it seemed from the tenderness of the meat.  Unfortunately, I had no demands to make of Seth, because the quality of the food had also softened him up.  Instead, we enjoyed the food and each other’s company as we planned for another weekend in the country next June.
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
We have no small children and our young grandchildren are hours away.  Yet, I feel strongly, though inconclusively, about the controversy over PS 199, the elementary school right below our window at home.  A couple of years ago, the very bad idea was floated of tearing down the school, building a high-end, high-rise above it, then reinstalling the school on lower floors.  That plan was abandoned, at least for the present.  

By the standard measure of test scores and the anecdotal evidence of our neighbors with children in the school, PS 199 seems to be doing a good job, so good, in fact, that it was recently reported that it “ has the longest waiting list in the city for Kindergarten spots.”  Those children who could not get into PS 199 were first directed to PS 191, nine blocks south.  In New York City, nine blocks might separate two cultures, two nations, two civilizations.  But, you need not even travel that far to step into a different world.  PS 191 sits on the same block as Fordham University’s Law School and its Graduate School of Social Service, one block from Lincoln Center, and half a block from the highly competitive Abraham Joshua Heschel School, a private Jewish school, with annual tuition ranging from $37,700 to $42,000, K to 12.  This year, the New York State Department of Education designated PS 191 as “persistently dangerous,” one of two schools in Manhattan and 27 schools city-wide thus identified.  This resulted from reported incidents of violence with and without weapons, sex offenses, arson and menacing.  Needless to say, prospective and actual PS 199 parents are strongly opposing any connection with PS 191.  Yes, PS 199 has a predominantly white population, and PS 191 has a predominantly minority population.

PS 159 Brooklyn was no more than half a block away for me when I attended first through sixth grade.  Its schoolyard, informally called Delaney Stadium for the dour principal who ruled the school forever, was our destination outside of school hours except when forced away by Hebrew school attendance, dinner or darkness.  It was the quintessential neighborhood elementary school, containing Italian Catholics (some of whom grew up to be the actual Goodfellas immortalized by Martin Scorsese) and Eastern European Jews (some of whom grew up to eat in a lot of Chinese restaurants).  While I attended PS 159, there were only two African American kids, brothers, a couple of years apart.  I recall no other people of color, any color but white.  The school was pacific, thanks in part to Miss Delaney and Mother Ruth Gotthelf, PTA president for a time.

I wish for all New York City schoolchildren the opportunities apparently presented by PS 199 Manhattan, or even the unimaginative but caring atmosphere of PS 159 Brooklyn.  What will it take?  

Thursday, October 22, 2015
Today's New York Law Journal provides an ironic counterpoint to the (probably futile) concerns that I expressed yesterday about public education in New York.  Using public records, the paper listed the ten top spending lobbying clients in New York State, that is groups trying to influence legislation at some level within the state.  Five of the ten, including the top two, are focused on public education.  Four of the five have sappy names, such as, Coalition for Opportunity in Education and Families for Excellent Schools, which tell us nothing of their real agenda.  Only New York State United Teachers makes it clear which side they are on.  

In any case, I wonder whether the spending of $5,006,146 by the Coalition for Opportunity in Education during the first six months of 2015, for example, will improve the lot of the children at PS 191.  A look at their web site seems to indicate otherwise, with its emphasis on an Education Investment Tax Credit plan to aid private and parochial schools.

Friday, October 23, 2015
Just before West End Synagogue honors me at services tomorrow, I learned that another honor has been denied me.  But, first some context.  Recently, Joan Weill, the wife of the Wall Street billionaire Sanford I. Weill, proposed a $20 million gift that would lift the struggling  fortunes of Paul Smith's College in upstate New York, on the condition that it be renamed Joan Weill-Paul Smith's College.  Ms. Weill, a graduate of Brooklyn College, has had her name (with or without her husband's) appended to Paul Smith's College's library, as well as the Alvin Ailey troupe's Center for Dance, the Cornell Medical College, the Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology at Cornell, the recital hall at Carnegie Hall, the building at the University of Michigan housing the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, and the concert hall at Sonoma State University, among other edifices.  A judge, however, ruled that the terms of Paul Smith's will (possibly one of the Smith Brothers) precluded modifying the college's name.  So, the Weills withdrew the offer of $20 million yesterday.

I never attempted to keep up with the Weills and, in light of my limited means, I kept my focus on one institution, my alma mater. Therefore, I am disappointed to announce that the proposal to rename the City College of New York to AG-CCNY has been rejected.  In spite of extensive negotiations, no satisfactory arrangement could be achieved, including our last proposal to install a fittingly-named Chinese restaurant in the student union.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Away and Home

Monday, October 12, 2015
While it is not Columbus Day here in Spain, Columbus's point of departure, it is a national holiday, a celebration of Spanish history meant to deflect attention, I am told, from a rising tide of Catalonian independence.

This picture exemplifies Spain's Jewish history.  

It is a piece of a Jewish headstone from a long lost cemetery embedded in the wall of an old building in Barcelona's Gothic quarter.  Little else commemorates in any manner the Jewish presence in Spain for up to a thousand years and the sadistic treatment of the Jews in the 15th century -- conversion, expulsion or death -- preceded by discrete acts of terror over hundreds of years.  
Yesterday, Steve and I took a walking tour on the Spanish Civil War, a fascinating and difficult subject that is still approached hesitantly here.  It was led by Catherine Howley, a young Irish woman thoroughly immersed and devoted to her subject.

The military rebellion, eventually dominated by Francisco Franco, began in Barcelona, but working class opposition prevailed, at first.  However, greater popular support was found in the south of Spain, and Hitler and Mussolini contributed their air forces and legions on the ground, leading to the eventual victory for fascism. 

Catherine was particularly effective sorting out the alphabet soup of left wing forces -- anarcho-syndicalists, Trotskyites, Stalinists, democratic socialists -- who were more effective at times fighting each other than fighting the fascists.  

The main thing wrong with Al Jazeera is its name.  Our very nice hotel has about 60 television stations available.  The majority are in the Romance languages, followed by German, Russian, Japanese and some in English.  Of the handful of English language news stations -- CNBC, Bloomberg News, BBC World, and Al Jazeera -- Al Jazeera stands out in the breadth of its coverage and the quality of its reporting.  CNBC and Bloomberg talk markets and indexes to a point that might even exhaust a greed merchant.  BBC World recycles too many soft news stories throughout the day.  Al Jazeera (maybe we should call it AJ) explains events carefully and generally without favor, including the always troubling news from the Mideast.  As-salamu alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakaatuhu.
Sort of working backwards, we took a walking tour today focusing on Antoni Gaudi, the brilliant architect.  Last week, we toured the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, his unfinished masterpiece, still under construction almost 90 years after his death. Today, we visited the outside of several of his most prominent buildings, including the Basilica, and learned something about his life.
Gaudi was part of the broad movement of Art Noveau, called modernisme in Spain, yet his work stood and stands alone.  While my aesthetic sense remains undiscovered, I am fascinated by his personality.  He came from a poor rural family, but was able to study architecture in Barcelona where his genius was recognized early.  
Gaudi never married, went to Mass twice a day, was rarely photographed, and in later years was mistaken for a beggar because of his dress and appearance.  In spite of his revolutionary art, he remained firmly conservative in his religion and his politics.  He displayed none of the profligacy often associated with artistic genius, although he eschewed convention in many of his personal habits.  
After designing a pair of lamp posts for a public square at the beginning of his career, all of Gaudi's subsequent work was for rich merchants or the Roman Catholic Church.  As a result, during the Spanish Civil War, some of his works were threatened with destruction by left-wing, working class forces.  Does it increase our appreciation of his art by trying to understand his personality, his psychology, his mishegas?

Trip Advisor, which I find generally useful when traveling, has just issued a list of "12 Truly Mesmerizing Places."
The only place on their list that I've been to is the Chateau de Versailles, and, possibly as a byproduct of my upbringing on the streets of Brooklyn which included visits to the Loew's Pitkin movie palace, I was not mesmerized.  I've seen structures, including the Basilica here in Barcelona, and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao that left my jaw more distant from my upper lip.  As to the other 11 places, eight are natural wonders and seem quite stunning from the accompanying photographs.  Judge for yourself.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

I'm happy to note that Deborah Dash Moore, distinguished historian quoted in the article, is a member of West End Synagogue.  Remember that the ill-advised program at West End Synagogue, 190 Amsterdam Avenue, that will attempt to shame me into respectability is set for Saturday, October 24th, prayers at 10 AM, Torah service at 11 AM, Kiddush at 12:30 PM and ceremony at 1:30 PM.  Of course, all of this is Jewish time, which means plus or minus 15 minutes or so, although, if you are late, you won't be forgiven.  Donations in the amount of $18 (for Chai) are welcome.

I finally found a little Heaven on Earth in Barcelona. After a visit to the Joan Miro museum atop Mont Juic (you guess), we walked down to La Rambla to find a place to eat and came across Wok to Walk, La Rambla 65. It's a tiny place on the edge of the Mercat de San Josep de la Boqueria, a food court to end all food courts. At WtW, you select the combination of ingredients and two young men immediately cook them up in a wok in front of you. There is a choice of a base, different noodles or rice at 4.95 euros, then add-ins, such as chicken (1.95 euros), tofu (1 euro), spinach (.50 euros), and finish with one of seven sauces at no extra charge. My concoction was rice noodles, chicken, shrimp, and mushrooms in a yellow curry & coconut sauce, totaling 10.05 euros. It was a large portion, freshly cooked, with a generous helping of add-ins. Seating was crude, one center counter with 4 stools on either side, facing each other. It may not have been the gustatory highlight of this trip, but it met a certain visceral need of mine.

Thursday, October 15, 2015
The flight home to New York was even more uneventful than the flight to Barcelona, mainly because it took about 2 hours longer.  In fact, the taxicab ride back into Manhattan at rush hour seemed even more interminable than the flight across the Atlantic Ocean. 

One interesting thing emerged from the taxicab ride home. We saw at the northwest corner of 46th Street and Third Avenue a newly-opened Wok to Walk, the same joint that I had my only Asian meal in Barcelona.  I admit that I was surprised this morning when a quick look on line turned up two others in Manhattan and dozens of others around the world, from Ecuador to Saudi Arabia.  So, you cannot only Wok to Walk, but Walk to Wok in far away places with strange sounding names. 

Naturally, my first lunch back, therefore, was at Wok Wok Southeast Asian Kitchen, 11 Mott Street, which is proving to be a very reliable source of Southeast Asian food, of all things.  Since roti canai is one of my favorite dishes, I ordered its components to make a large scale version.  Wok Wok's scallion pancake ($3.50) adds scallions to the "Indian" pancake (roti), but differs substantially from the traditional beloved scallion pancake à la Shanghai Gourmet.  The chicken potato curry rice bowl ($6.50) is the "canai."  Together with a large mound of white rice, I had about triple the size of the appetizer version, with commensurate pleasure.  The place was 2/3 full, but service was prompt and I got my cast iron pot of tea without delay.

Friday, October 16, 2015
Of course, I watched the Mets last night.

In other sporting news, the High Court of Justice of England ruled that competitive bridge is not a sport, although it framed the decision as "whether or not the defendant [Sport England] lawfully adopted a definition of sport which effectively excludes ‘mind sports.’"  In doing so, it ignored the insight of the late Yogi Berra: "Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical."

Another decision that bothers me was reported in the New York Law Journal yesterday.  A New York appellate court overturned a decision in the case of a medical student who claimed that his medical school violated the Americans With Disabilities Act when it gave him only ten weeks (instead of the customary six to eight weeks) to prepare for the United States Medical Licensing Exam, which he had already failed twice.  The student claimed that he was struggling with depression, which warranted an extra accommodation under the ADA.  The lower court dismissed his law suit, but was reversed on appeal. 

First of all, anybody who fails the required licensing exam is bound to be depressed, just like Don Mattingly, the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose team lost to the Mets in spite of having a payroll about twice as large.  Second, do you want your doctor to take a few extra weeks to get back to you with a diagnosis?  I realize that everybody may have problems, but should that be the patient's problem? 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Spanish Fly

Monday, October 5, 2015
This is the start of an interesting week for me.  Since the week begins on Sunday, my interesting started yesterday when Michael Ratner and I went to the last regular season Mets game.  With a start time of 3:10 PM, we were able to go to lunch at Ben’s Best Kosher Delicatessen, 96-40 Queens Boulevard, Rego Park (not to be confused with the half dozen Ben’s Kosher Delicatessens in New York and Florida).  Ben’s Best is the best, as I have insisted before.  Michael, who has eaten deli in at least half the countries that belong to the United Nations, agrees, although his name has been removed from one of their sandwiches after he relocated his business to Manhattan from a nearby Queens location.  

The baseball game was more interesting than expected, as the Mets, headed for the playoffs, brought players in and out to audition for the upcoming championship rounds.  The opponents, the Washington Nationals, might have been playing for pride, if they had any left after ending the season without moving into the playoffs when many picked them to go to the World Series.  Instead, the Nationals got 2 hits against 7 different Mets pitchers, lost 1-0, and fired their manager today, less than 24 hours later.  That’s the same manager voted the 2014 Manager of the Year.  

I probably won’t be seeing any more baseball live in person until next spring, but my anticipated absence from Chinese food should last far less.  We are going to Spain later this week, so I went to Wo Hop, 17 Mott Street, for lunch to help ease the transition.  Most remarkably, they are continuing their lunch soup special, won ton, egg drop, egg drop with won ton, hot and sour, or chicken corn chowder, $1 small, $2 large.  This special was originally a summer mid-week deal, but now appears more often although not predictably.  Add Wo Hop’s crispy noodles, the very best known to humankind, and you have a great and filling treat.  Because I planned to order food as well, I had only a small bowl of won ton soup, no noodles.  The five won ton crowded the broth in the small bowl, making it such a deal.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015
Last night, through no fault of my own, I had a central role in West End Synagogue’s Simchat Torah holiday celebration.  I got to read the last three sentences of Deuteronomy, ending the Bible (that’s the real Bible, the Hebrew Bible).  Unlike most Jewish holidays, Simchat Torah is free of murderous historic references or apocalyptic visions; it is a celebration of the Book – learning, knowledge, law by extension.  It is generally not celebrated by Republicans.

West End Synagogue takes an interesting twist to the occasion.  All in attendance, young and old, array themselves around the perimeter of the room, holding an unwound Torah scroll.  Recent Bar and Bat Mitzvahs chant a section of the Torah that was part of their service.  Then, the Groom and Bride of the Torah read the end of Deuteronomy and beginning of Genesis to continue the cycle of Torah study and observance for another year.  Besides the problem of reading the Hebrew out loud, I (the Groom) faced the challenge of reading the bottom lines of a scroll about one foot off the ground.  I had the unsightly and undignified choice of lying on the floor or, with the permission of our clergy, standing on my two hind legs and reading from a sheet of paper reproducing the Torah section.  It might have been wiser for me to lie on the floor to better justify my muffled, stumbling delivery in Hebrew of “And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”  What I chanted actually sounded closer to the menu of a Tel Aviv falafel joint than holy writ.

I wish that the following was not the last thing that I read before packing my bag and heading overseas.  “In America, more preschoolers are shot dead each year (82 in 2013) than police officers are in the line of duty (27 in 2013), according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FBI.”  Nicholas Kristof, October 4, 2105.  

Wednesday, October 7, 2015
Intrepid traveling companions Jill and Steve are accompanying the Upper West Side’s Power Couple on our trip to Barcelona, Spain.  Our somewhat uneventful flight (details withheld for the time being) led to an uneventful taxi ride to our well-located hotel, where we took uneventful naps, followed by, in my case, an uneventful shave and an uneventful shower.  We ventured out through the Gothic quarter, past the main cathedral and over to La Rambla, where many more people were out for a stroll than I would have imagined on a Wednesday afternoon in early October.
Unfashionably early, we headed into dinner at Llamber, Taberna Gastronomica, Carrer Fusina 5, right around the corner from our hotel.  What luck.  Llamber specializes in tapas, and provided an assortment of highly imaginative dishes, accompanied by about 20 different wines by the glass, 3 to 4 euros each.  The memorable items that we consumed included eggplant cooked with honey and lemon juice (so much better than can be described), lighter-than-air cod fish fritters, very lightly cooked slices of tuna, fingerling potatoes topped with whipped local Asturian cheese (a combination of cow, sheep and goat cheese), and tomato bread (the local bruschetta, far better than any that I've ever had).  Did I say that I liked the meal?  Conscience made us walk a few blocks away before getting some gelato.

Thursday, October 8, 2015
We had a relatively active day today.  In the morning, we took a walking tour of Jewish sights/sites in Barcelona.  Or, rather where there were once or suspected Jewish sights/sites, since essentially nothing remains of a pre-Inquisition population of thousands of people.  There is a street name here, a notch on a doorpost where a mezuzah was once fixed, a small two room space which contained part of a synagogue -- the largest synagogue could not be larger than the smallest church. 

In the afternoon, we visited the Picasso museum, an impressive and popular destination.  Picasso lived in Barcelona for a few years at the turn of the 20th century, but not anywhere in the space now devoted to his work.  What surprised me was the enormous talent that he displayed as a young boy/man, remarkable, large, representational oil paintings created when he was 14 and 15 years old.  The collection on display was only a sample of his work, skipping the decades from before WWI to after WWII.  Yet, seeing his earlier art was revelatory to me, and elevated my view of what had evolved into the caricature of a dirty old man.

Friday, October 9, 2015
This is not meant to be a travel log, but we visited the most compelling attraction in Barcelona today,  Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, the immense cathedral designed by the brilliant Antoni Gaudi, an architect without peer.   If you have not seen it in person, please take a few minutes on the web site.
It's as if Gaudi was anticipating the pleasure of future generations of recreational drug users with this work.

At home, I almost never attend Friday synagogue services, but this is vacation and all the rules are suspended.  Also, we were curious as to what a local congregation would be like.  We chose a "liberal" synagogue, as opposed to one of the two Orthodox synagogues operating in Barcelona.  Because of security, our names were phones in by a trusted congregant and ID was checked at the door.  The building was unmarked, but the presence of police cars and armed cops at each nearby corner helped to point the way.

It was an interesting group of about 15 people at the service, one couple older than us, visiting from Puerto Rico, one 40ish woman from Paris, a couple of local men with gray in their beards, and about 10 kids -- college age, from Argentina, recently or originally.  Services were led by a 30ish woman, neither a rabbi not a canter, but very talented in directing the service, almost entirely sung in Hebrew.

Shortly after we arrived, another couple walked in, near our age.  Not only near our age, but Americans; not only Americans, but having lived on the Upper West Side for years; not only having lived on the Upper West Side for years, but members of West End Synagogue.  In fact, Jackie and Len Goldner had both served as president of our rag tag bunch of anarchic Jews.  You can run, but . . .

Friday, October 2, 2015


Monday, September 28, 2015
I don’t know where you were Friday night, but I wasn’t at the White House for the state dinner for Chinese President Xi Jinping.  While important matters of geopolitics were no doubt discussed before, during and after the meal, my concern, of course, was with the menu.  Although Anita Lo, a distinguished Chinese-American chef, assisted the regular White House chef, the menu was overwhelmingly domestic: wild mushroom soup with black truffle, grilled Colorado lamb, and Maine lobster.  Some concessions to the guest of honor came with the lychee sorbet served with poppyseed bread and butter pudding for dessert, and Shaoxing wine, a traditional Chinese rice wine, served with the soup.  If you are going to emphasize home court advantage, where were the chocolate chip cookies, for instance?
Ms. Lo owns and operates Annisa, 13 Barrow Street, in Greenwich Village, a small space that had to be entirely rebuilt after an electrical fire.  Annisa offers a five course tasting menu at $88 and a seven course tasting menu at $118, as well as à la carte items, such as, Duck and Summer Vegetable Garbure with Foie Gras and Pickled Verjus Grape Toast ($38, translation extra).  By the way, the bread and butter pudding on the White House menu was lifted right from Annisa.  Given that the dinner was Friday night, was it possible that the poppyseed bread used for dessert was actually challah, a constant component of the tribe’s Friday night meal since before rock ’n’ roll?     

The holiday caused me to miss Wok Wok Southest Asian Kitchen, 11 Mott Street, last week, so I began the week there.  I ordered egg gravy over rice with chicken ($7.50), a pleasant, but undistinguished dish.  The egg gravy was closer in flavor and texture to egg drop soup than the egg-based lobster sauce that was the first food that I ever ate in a Chinese restaurant.  Lobster sauce usually has a garlic kick which this sauce lacked.  The portion was generously sized, with lots of pieces of white meat chicken, a mound of rice and plenty of sauce taking up a big soup bowl.  I threw in hot sauce to make it more interesting and it was satisfying as comfort food.  The restaurant was nearly empty, a change from recent weeks, and a temporary one, I hope.  I got my cast iron pot of tea without even asking.  
Tuesday, September 29, 2015
As I have indicated in the past, I am addicted to lists.  If someone has taken the trouble to bring order to a collection of things, I will pay attention.  So, naturally, I examined’s Top Rated Hotels 2015 with some care.  On the whole, I was not impressed.  The list covers only the US and Canada, locales where I find it easier to understand my options and read between the lines.  I want the experiences and insights of predecessors when I have to deal with Sofia or Phnom Penh.    

Only one spot was familiar to me and it brought back memories – the Oceana Beach Club Hotel, 849 Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica, California.  I stayed there in 1971 for several weeks, shortly after Stan Laurel (Oliver Hardy’s companion) died while living there in retirement.  A single guy, I had just accepted a transfer to the Los Angeles office of the computer company that employed me.  I had been in California for only two days a year earlier, had no friends or relatives there, but welcomed the distance from a romantic entanglement here in New York.  I arrived on Sunday, June 20th, rented a car, checked into the Oceana, and went to work the next morning managing a group of too typical Angelenos, not particularly in a hurry to get their work done.  I recall that, by Tuesday, I met the woman whom I would marry 18 months later, but that had nothing to do with the Oceana.

In those first days, I kept to myself, returning to the Oceana after work and looking for an apartment on the weekends.  One weekend night, I was either watching television or reading when I heard a series of blasts and booms, sounding not far away.  The Oceana is right across the road from the Santa Monica beach and the Pacific Ocean, and it is the middle of 1971 when Richard Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War, promised three years earlier, had still not emerged.  By then, the US and its impotent South Vietnamese ally were on the ropes.  While the North Vietnamese/Viet Cong forces were notably effective on the ground, and often under ground, there was no evidence that they possessed long distance striking ability.  Yet, for a few moments I thought, was an invasion or bombardment under way?  Had the Communists crossed the Pacific and were now attacking Santa Monica, hardly more improbable than the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  I timidly peeked out the window, facing the ocean.  What I saw instantly reassured me as I realized that it was July 4th, and the Oceana was squarely in line with an extravagant holiday fireworks display.  

Eva Posman, distinguished attorney, joined me for lunch, summoned to the courthouse not in her professional capacity, but having been called for jury duty.  We went to New Yeah Shanghai Deluxe, 50 Mott Street, because Eva expressed an interest in Peking duck.  At $45 for a whole duck, it has jumped in price.  As recently as March 18, 2015, it was $38 for a whole duck and $22 for a half duck.  But it was excellent, as fat-free as I have seen any duck in Chinatown, the skin crispy, the meat tasty.  It came with 8 pancakes, hoisin sauce, slivers of scallion and cucumber.  We also shared cold sesame noodles ($5.25) as a vorshpeis, a concession to my summer obsession.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015
They got it right this time.  The free marketeers have opposed government regulation as an enemy to job creation.  Left alone, our job creators expand economic opportunity and generate wealth.  That’s exactly what Volkswagen did for years until the heavy hand of the government came down on them.  Because of its ingenious approach to regulating pollutants in automobile emissions, VW created countless jobs around the world for pulmonologists, respiratory therapists, oncologists, radiologists and those who operate in their wake.  Let’s give credit where credit is due.  

The network television industry is another place where people labor hard to produce defective goods.  This article documents the dreck that has been peddled over the last five years on the national networks.

It is another reminder why I confine my television watching mainly to the Mets (April-October) and the Rangers (October-June).

Thursday, October 1, 2015
Normally, my interest in food awakens at or about noon, hours after much of the rest of me has risen.  This morning, as I walked to the courthouse, I stopped in Woops, 93 Worth Street, a new bakery and coffee shop.  I went in to buy chocolate chip cookies for a colleague, who holds them in as high regard as I do.  I’ve been buying her samples from local bakeries every so often, and was immediately impressed by the thickness and darkness of the Woops triple chocolate cookie ($3.65).  As I was paying, I saw this disturbing sight on the counter.
[Click on photo to enlarge]
While I am a multiculturist generally, I sometimes balk at crosscultural endeavors that defy logic.  Woops is offering what purports to be pizza rugelach, jalpeño rugelach, feta and olive rugelach, and blue cheese rugelach.  While I have no doubt that these are carefully prepared with high quality ingredients, they ain’t rugelach.  I am certain that pizza, jalpeños, feta cheese and blue cheese never crossed the Carpathian Mountains into Poland and the Ukraine where the very name rugelach was born.  Cf. Wikipedia: “The name is Yiddish, the Jewish language of eastern Europe.”  

The appearance of these items belies description as rugelach.  The flaky, crescent shape screams croissant, or the Argentine medialunas, a smaller, sweeter version.  The French and the Argentinians can put whatever they want into their baked goods, but leave our rugelach alone.
Friday, October 2, 2015
Yummy Tummy Alert: Pumpkin ice cream is back at Trader Joe's. 
Save the date -- October 24th