Sunday, March 29, 2020

Hunkering Up!

Stay home. Self quarantine. Hunker down.

I have been hunkering down so long, it looks like hunkering up to me.

A scene from perhaps 20 years ago plays out in my mind. I was at a meeting crowded with social workers and case managers. From the back of the room a voice called out, “Can anyone tell me the five stages of grief?” It seemed an out-of-place question for a meeting convened to discuss the new laptop computer-based case management system. For the past 40 minutes these social workers had resisted and questioned the system. It intruded on their relationships with clients; it slowed them down; it wasn’t necessary. “We don’t have to do this!” “It won’t work because …” “It won’t work unless …” “It will never work!”

And then, this bizarre question from the back of the room. Of course, in a room full of social workers, everyone knew Kübler Ross’s five stage model of grief. One person after another answered the question, calling it out one stage at a time. “Denial.” “Anger.” “Bargaining.” “Depression.” “Acceptance.”

The voice from the back of the room spoke again. “What stage are you in now?”

The pertinence of the question became apparent. There was a long pause as the social workers recognized they were grieving their old ways of working. They were in denial. They were angry. They were bargaining. They were depressed.

The pause continued awkwardly until one of them said, “OK, how can we make this work.”



From my work with computer viruses, I knew something about how they spread so, for this pandemic, I fast-forwarded right past denial, anger, and bargaining and went straight to depression. As I stay at home day after day, distance myself from others when I do go out, monitor every doorknob, steering wheel, and can of beans I touch and wipe them down afterwards and wash my hands, I hold depression at bay and lean to acceptance. I accept this new normal. This is it.


An old Jewish story comes to mind. My retelling draws on a version by Doug Lipman.

Two students are studying the psalms and they come to the line, “This is the day God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24.) They are troubled by it, so they ask their rabbi, “On a day when everything is good, it is easy to say this line with a full heart. But, how can we say it with genuine intent on a bad day?”

“A good question,” says their rabbi. “For this question, “you should visit Reb Zushya.”

To find Reb Zushya the students must travel, by foot, to a distant village. On the third day of their journey they arrive in the heart of the village. They ask, “Can you tell us where we can find Reb Zushya?”

“Sorry, we don’t know anyone by that name.”

They knock on many doors, receiving the same response. They continue to inquire further and further from the center of the village; they begin to despair. Finally, someone responds, “I recall a man who used to be known by that name. He lives some distance from here.”

The students follow the villager’s directions and proceed down a narrow street, which turns into a dirt road, which turns into an overgrown footpath. They see a small building ahead – a shack, a hut. As they approach, they notice a window covered with cardboard, the roof missing some shingles, the outer door hanging askew from its upper hinge. They knock at the door. A voice from within whispers, “I’ll be with you soon.”

In time, a man opens the door from within and asks, “What can I do for you, my sons?”

“Our rabbi sent us here to ask a question. Are you Reb Zushya?”

“Yes, I am. Welcome, come in, but please be quiet. My wife is very ill, and she has just gone to sleep.” He pointed to a blanket drawn across the opposite corner of the small room. He waved in the students and pulled up two wooden boxes so they could sit at his wobbly table, filled three wooden cups with water, and broke his remaining bread in three pieces. When they each had something to drink and eat, he asked, “So, what is this question you have come here to ask?”

One of the students explained, “We were studying the psalms and came to the line, ‘This is the day God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.’ We were troubled by it, so we asked our rabbi. ‘It is easy to say this line with a full heart on a good day, but how can we really mean it on a bad day?’ Our rabbi told us, ‘This is a question you should ask Reb Zushya.’ So, here we are.”

Puzzled, Reb Zushya looked at one student and then the other and then leaned back a bit. Shaking his head slowly, he replied, “I don’t know why your rabbi sent you to ask me this question, I have never had a bad day!”


This virus – like ones before it and ones that will follow – is no laughing matter. But, in the spirit of hunkering up:
  • Two buddies walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What’ll you have?” The first one says, “I’ll have a Corona.” The second says, “I’ll have what he’s having.”
  • Scientists have observed a number of similarities among the various virus outbreaks and have demonstrated that the viruses are copying from each other. It’s a clear‑cut case of plague‑arism.* 
  • Did you hear the joke about the virus? Never mind, you probably won’t get it.*
  • Jewish irony: Passover curtailed because of a plague.*
  • Many of my fellow storytellers and musicians have announced cancellations of their performances. Without minimizing their difficulties, I would like to announce I will not be performing at Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall, or Madison Square Garden.
* Shamelessly adapted from the Internet.


My title plays on Richard Fariña‘s 1966 book, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. In closing, I refer to Jack Kerouac‘s 1962 novel, Big Sur. It’s a fictionalized autobiography in which the main character deteriorates, physically and mentally, in what seem to be irretrievable downhill slides. Then, as the book concludes, comes an artful turnaround. Redemption is not out of reach. Kerouac writes what we hope for.

“Something good will come out of all things yet.”  

Saturday, March 28, 2020

U.S. Will Mint "New York - Erie Canal" American Innovation Dollar 2021

The Erie Canal appears on the 2001 New York State Quarter – as an afterthought. If you look carefully, you’ll notice the line extending north from New York Harbor to Albany where it makes a sharp turn to the west and continues (passing behind the Statue of Liberty) to Buffalo. Yes, that line represents the Erie Canal, the “gateway to the west.” Indeed, the “Gateway to Freedom” design that won the competition for the 2001 coin beat the “Erie Canal” design that was submitted. (I have been trying to obtain an image of that design but, so far, no luck.)

It looks like the Erie Canal will yet have its day on a United States coin. As shown below, a design depicting a mule-drawn barge on the Erie Canal was recommended by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts for the U.S. Mint's American Innovation™ $1 Coin Program.

It’s not yet a sure thing. The design recommendation is subject to adoption by Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, who has final say. It’s possible he might select one of the competing Erie Canal designs, shown below, or one of the baseball designs or Apollo lunar module designs that were submitted.

In any case, the final version won’t be known until the engraving is compete, translating the chosen design into a mintable coin.

As for those who prefer an image of the Statue of Liberty, fear not. She will appear on the obverse of each and every coin in the American Innovation Dollar Coin series.

Alternative Erie Canal designs submitted:

Friday, March 13, 2020

The Race Question in the 2020 Census: How Should a Jewish Person Respond?

I just completed the United States Census 2020 form online. For the first time in the history of the census, the question about race requires a secondary response. I didn’t have any difficulty selecting “White,” but didn’t know what to enter for the secondary response. So, I skipped it.

Oops. I was unable to proceed with the census survey. I had to fill in that box.
The question reads:

What is (your) race? Select one or more boxes AND enter origins.

Apparently, the check boxes are to indicate your race (whatever that means) and the fill-in-the-blank boxes are to indicate your origins. What they mean by “origins” is illustrated by example:

Enter, for example, German, Irish, English, Italian, Lebanese, Ethiopian, etc.

All those examples correspond to a country, a geographic are where your people came from, a name that identifies “your people.” 

My people spoke Yiddish, which is, as Maurice Samuel put it in In Praise of Yiddish, “the language of a people in exile.”

My father’s family lived in what is now Ukraine. It could be they left to escape the pograms of the late 19th century or, as my sister put it, “to achieve a higher level of poverty.” They lived for a short time in England, where my father was born, prior to arriving in the United States. My mother’s family lived in what is now Russia and Poland. But, we are not “from” England, Ukraine, Russia, or Poland. Those places do not identify my “origins,” my “people.” I know little about Ukraine, Russia, and Poland and most of what I do know is how badly they treated my people. So, I did not want to fill that response with any of those countries.

I considered “Jewish” as a response, but “Jewish” is not a country of origin or a geographic place; it can be interpreted as only a religion rather than also an origin, cultural identity, ethnicity, or people. (Indeed, some people would consider it risky to identify themselves in an official government document as “Jewish,” a move that has had disastrous consequences in the past.) 

I considered “American,” which, although apt, does not recognize my Jewish origins. I read up on the differences between “Jewish American” or “American Jew” (for examples, see “Are you an American Jew or a Jewish American?” or “Educating Future Jews: Jewish-Americans or American Jews?”) but still was not satisfied. 

Apparently, I am not alone. An NPR article, “2020 Census May Ask White People To Get Specific About Their Ethnicity,” discussed the issues in 2017, while the census questions were still under development. But, the issue is much older, evidenced by the article entitled “The Race Question in American Immigration Statistics,” published in 1949.

Wondering how I should respond, a line from the NPR article returned to my mind. It referred to a hypothetical respondent who, confronted with a list of fixed-choice checkboxes, might think, “I'm Sephardic ... and there's no place for me here.”

Given the flexibility of a fill-in-the-blank response, and my desire to give a response that had a geographic basis and also identified “my people,” I typed “Ashkenazi.”

It’s an imperfect response to an imperfect question.