The HNIC Report

Month: September, 2010

Bad Title, Great Book: A Review of Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer a Review

by Dax-Devlon Ross

Note: This is the first in a series of original reviews of  past National Book Award winners that no one reads anymore.

A couple of weeks back I went hunting for a new novel.  For a while now I’ve had a hard time finding contemporary novels that I want to read. I pick stuff up and just as easily put it back down. Everywhere I look these days people are reading one of the Stieg Larsson novels. His books may be perfectly fine and even “good” reads, but on principle I refuse to join the herd. Groupthink makes me nauseous. As happy as I am for the author, I get turned off by any book or series of books that the masses are reading. Call it literary snobbery. Call it intellectual stubbornness. Call it whatever you want. I don’t care. Whenever we allow our tastes to be shaped by the pop culture machine – and this includes Oprah – then we’re just being lazy. Part of the reading experience is finding the book. It’s not just following what everyone else is reading. It’s going to the goddamned store. It’s looking around. It’s listening to what’s happening inside at that moment and then deciding.

I was beginning to feel a little depressed by my prospects when I came across the modest selection of books by Bernard Malamud. I’d been meaning to read him for years but just hadn’t gotten around to it. I pulled The Fixer off the shelf and read the back cover:

Set in Tsarist Russia during a period of virulent anti-Semitism, the novel tells the story of Yakov Bok, a Jewish handyman blamed for the brutal murder of a young Russian boy. At the outset, Bok leaves his village to try his luck in Kiev, and after denying his Jewish identity, he finds himself working for a member of the anti-Semitic Black Hundreds Society. When the boy is found dead in a cave, drained of nearly all his blood, the Jews are accused of ritual murder. Arrested and imprisoned, Bok refuses to confess to a crime that he did not commit. Malamud said of the book: “Whatever else it had to be about, it had to be about how the idea of freedom grows in the mind of a man subjected to a grave injustice.”

Originally published in the midst of the Cold War – 1966 – Malamud was inspired to write The Fixer by the imprisonment and trial of  Menahem Mendel Beilis, a Ukranian Jew, who was accused of ritual murder in 1911. Beilis was ultimately acquitted and, after immigrating to America, later published his own account of his ordeal.

Since my latest book is about a young man who is executed for three murders he very well may not have committed and I write a blog that highlights, among other things, the imperfections of our justice system, my mind has been almost exclusively on justice, jails and the nasty web of state-sanctioned deceit that can rob an innocent human being of their freedom. The only thing that frightens me more than being imprisoned is being imprisoned for a crime I did not commit. That is my version of hell.

The Fixer begins with the discovery of the boy’s body. In his room above the brick factory he oversees, Yakov reads the fanciful explanation – the ritualized bloodletting by Jews – in abject horror. For the past five months he’s been living under an assumed identity in a district forbidden to Jews. Now his worst fears have come to light. It’s only a matter of time before he’s outed.

Who is Yakov Bok anyway? And why should we care about his fate?  After quickly reeling us into his protagonist’s impossible situation, Malamud  transports us back to the shtetl Yakov abandoned five months earlier. Here’s the skinny on poor, luckless Yakov:

  • Both of his parents died before he could walk
  • He grew up in an orphanage
  • He and his wife were unable to conceive
  • She  deserted him
  • He is asthmatic
  • He is a handyman – a fixer – in a community that can’t afford to pay him for his labor
  • He’s lost his faith in a just God (“What do I get from him but a bang on the head and a stream of piss in my face”… “He doesn’t see us and doesn’t care.”)
  • He is a young man ripe with bitterness

Unlike the whiny, pathetic, ineffectual, overprivileged misanthropes populating the pages of so many modern novels, Yakov’s life really has been one long calamity. Nothing has ever gone right for him, and from the moment he packs his meager belongings – some tools and a few books, one being the Selections from Spinoza – hops on his broken down carriage and gives his stubborn steed a thwack, we know nothing ever will. Yakov is the unfortunate misfit on whose sad, slumped shoulders all of life’s worst hardships are stacked. We hate to admit the Yakov Boks of the world exists because in a universe divinely ordered by a just God misfortune of this magnitude simply has no place.

Yakov Bok is peculiarly obsessed with the 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. If he has any faith at all, it is in Spinoza’s view of God as, to quote Einstein, one who “reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”

After bumbling around in abject poverty for several days Yakov’s luck finally – mercifully – takes a turn when he discovers a drunken old man lying in the snow one night. Yakov assists the man and is rewarded the next day with a painting gig. Once completed, the drunkard offers him a modestly lucrative position at his brick factory. In addition to a handsome salary and a fairly leisurely existence, the position comes with an apartment—a free apartment! There’s just one catch. The drunkard is a rapid anti-Semite and the factory resides in a district Jews are barred from entering.

Yakov has a choice. Walk away from this golden but risky opportunity or take a chance that could alter his financial future. The temptation to pass (as a Russian) is too strong.

On the surface one could easily read Yakov’s choice as a betrayal of his people tantamount to an act of treason. Accordingly, his arrest and imprisonment could then be interpreted as cosmic payback or divine justice. If we elect to follow this line of reasoning, then Yakov is hardly a sympathetic character. And without sympathy or at the very least concern, one may as well stop reading.

However, a more plausible interpretation follows Baruch Spinoza’s determinism, which states that all that happens or will happen could not have unfolded in any other way. As for free will, Spinoza contended that humans have none. “In the Mind there is no absolute, or free, will, but the Mind is determined to will this or that by a cause which is also determined by another, and this again by another, and so to infinity.” The best that we can hope for is 1) an understanding of why we think and act as we must and 2) the power (or freedom) to act in accordance with our nature. Moreover, actions are not “good” or “bad” in the absolute or abstract. They are good to the extent that they are useful to us and evil if they are not useful. In this light, Yakov’s choice was both “good” and predetermined, as was his imprisonment. (In fact, toward the end of his ordeal he experiences an imagined conversation with the Tsar in which he explains to Yakov that were it not him being persecuted, it would’ve been another Jew).

This Spinozistic worldview streams through the entire novel. After finding Spinoza’s writings among Yakov’s confiscated belongings, the Investigating Magistrate, B.A. Bibikov, takes a special interest in the accused. “What is its appeal to you?” Bibikov asks. “First let me ask you what brought you to Spinoza?” What follows is a broad ranging philosophical discourse about Spinoza’s view of freedom, God, Necessity (aka determinism), and the State.

Bibikov turns out to be Yakov’s one ally. While every other official insists on his guilt by virtue of his being a Jew, the magistrate believes in his innocence. One even senses that in as much as Yakov is reliant upon the magistrate to win his freedom, the magistrate is reliant upon the prisoner to affirm his humanity: “… If your life is without value, so is mine. If the law does not protect you, it will not, in the end, protect me. Therefore I dare not fail you, and that is what causes me anxiety—that I must not fail you.”

Not two days after the magistrate promises to do everything in his power to win his freedom, Yakov finds the magistrate outside of his cell swinging from a leather belt.

The Fixer is unrelenting in its portrayal of an absurdly chaotic and indifferent universe. Each flash of hope that Yakov dares to entertain is stomped out by cruelty and deception. Every minor act of human decency done on Yakov’s behalf is met with crushing punishment by autocratic state officials. Seasons change. Years pass. The prison officials isolate him, poison him, beat him, shackle him, lie to him, and humiliate him in every possible way. In fact, the vast majority of the novel is set inside Yakov’s tiny, bereft jail cell wherein the innocent prisoner struggles to understand his plight. Why him? What has he done to deserve this? He is nothing more than a half-ignorant fool, a disavowed Jew, a non-political man. The whole ordeal can feel tedious at times, claustrophobic at others. Admittedly, I wanted to put the book down. But that’s the point. No one wants an acquaintance with this degree of anguish. One wants to believe that each hopeful moment will at last bring an end to the injustice. One longs for order to be restored. When Yakov is offered his “freedom” in exchange for a confession, one wishes he would take the deal. But by then one knows there is no easy escape, order cannot be achieved overnight, and freedom cannot be granted by the stroke of a pen. Yakov’s only solution is patience, endurance and acceptance. He must forgive the universe for not dealing him a better hand. He must forgive himself for his shortcomings as a man. He must forgive his wife for leaving him. Similarly, he must accept that he is not a free acting man in the world but a human being – a Jew in particular — connected an entire history and that any freedom he finds is through the understanding of his history and the courage to act in its accordance. He cannot opt out of history. Religious or not, believer or not, he is a Jew and therefore unfree and therefore, by necessity, political. Even his longed for trial and long-shot acquittal are not solutions. Which explains why Malamud ends the novel on the way to the courthouse. Whatever happens at trial is insignificant.

I can see why Bernard Malamud, as my friend Chessa put it, has fallen out of favor. He broadcasts a worldview that most of us would rather not wrestle with. We like to believe that we are free to do what we like and become who we want to become. We want to believe justice is always served and that decency is always rewarded. We like to believe reason triumphs over ignorance. And most of all we like to believe God has made all of this so.


Is the Age of Post-Racial Politics Already Over?

by Dax-Devlon Ross

Mayor-elect Gray and Fenty share a rare soul shake

In booting incumbent Adrian Fenty from his mayoral perch this past week, Washington, D.C. Democrats made a loud, clear statement about the kind of leadership they will not tolerate. Aloof? Arrogant? Determined to make change? Results-at-all-costs oriented? If so, then don’t bother applying for the mayor’s job. That role is still strictly reserved for applicants who can, first and foremost, make folks feel good. In actuality it’s a job requirement befitting a city that is ostensibly owned and operated by the federal government anyway. Let’s be honest here. If at any given moment Congress can terminate the city’s home rule charter which would in turn nullify the authority of the mayor and city council, what power does the  mayor have other than that which is ceremonial anyway?

Okay, fine, I’m exaggerating the situation. And I’m sure the new Mayor-elect,  Vincent Gray, will do a fine job. He’s certainly proven his commitment to D.C. through his long public service career. Still, it seems appropriate to step back a moment and actually look at what Adrian Fenty accomplished in the last four years:

  • Streets are cleaner and safer
  • Crime rates are lower
  • Schools have improved, in some cases dramatically.
  • The business community is thriving
  • D.C. night life is vibrant Read the rest of this entry »

The Kohl’s Cares Coup

by Dax-Devlon Ross

How Did a Small Jewish Sect Nearly Sweep a Nationwide Contest?

And What  Can the Rest of Us Learn from Them?

Nearly two months ago Kohl’s Cares launched a $10,ooo,ooo “What would your school do with a half-million dollars?” contest. The company officially called it a celebration of 10 years of community giving and volunteer programs. Sounded good. But the lawyer in me has a thing for  small print. The smaller the better.

» The contest was open to any public school, grades K thru 12, in the United States,  and any not- for- profit private or charter school grades K thru 12.

» To win, a school had to finish among the top twenty vote getters on the Kohl”s Cares Facebook page.

» You or I or anybody we know 13 or older with an e-mail address and a Facebook account could’ve voted. Pre-teens aren’t allowed on Facebook.

» Eligible voters were alloted 20 votes and the freedom to use them however they pleased. Only one catch: up to five of those votes could be used on any one school. This raised an eyebrow. Seemed odd. I slowed down. There was more.

The top 20 eligible vote getting schools will be declared the potential contest winners.

What does “potential” mean?

Kohl’s Department Stores will provide funding up to $ 500,000 for each winning school.

Schools will receive funding needed to complete only the projects they have outlined in their project summary and budget overview paperwork.

The way I read it, “up to $500,000” can mean something totally different than “$500,000”. Meaning a lot less.

Over the two months of voting an interesting trend emerged: nearly all of the top vote getting schools were private and well-resourced. But they weren’t just private; they were religious. Of the final top twenty list — that is, as of this posting at 3 AM on September 3rd —  eighteen were either Jewish (12) or Christian (6). In coinage terms, that’s  up to $6,o00,000 of the $10,000,000 pot going to one religious group.  Out of the twenty-one to twenty-five group, four were Jewish. Three of those were Chabad schools. That’s thirteen Chabad schools in the top twenty-five finishers in a nationwide contest.

Northridge, California’s Darby Elementary and Millbury, Ohio’s Lake High were the only public schools to finish in the top twenty. Why Northridge? I don’t know. What I do know is that Lake lost its building in a tornado early this summer. I saw pictures of the destruction. How could I not vote for them? What kind of person would I be if didn’t vote for the school that was  destroyed by a tornado?  I gave them the full five. And afterward, I felt beneficent; like I’d just done a good deed. Knowing I wouldn’t get any tangible reward made it even better. It felt an act of pure generosity. It occurred to me  then that this must be how philanthropists feel.  They give out money to whoever they feel like giving it out to. I think that was part of the  contest’s allure was the sense of power it bestowed upon voters. We are a nation, if not a world, obsessed with voting. We love to share our opinions, the more so when we have the power to do some good. The stakes were real. People’s lives were going to be affected. Do you choose the school that wants a new swimming pool? The school that needs a sewer system upgrade? The  school that was destroyed in a fire? Every school in America had a compelling case.  Then they  all started to run together and I became a snob about. I  found myself sifting through gut wrenching vote pleas like the junk mail in my inbox until I found the one that moved me. Something didn’t feel right about that.

But that’s a different story.

The story that caught my attention is that five of the top ten and ten of the top twenty finishers are affiliated with  an Hasidic branch of the Jewish faith called Chabad-Lubavitch. On its headquarters’ website, Chabad is described  as  “a philosophy, a movement, and an organization,” and “the most dynamic force in Jewish life today.” Based in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn,New York today, “Lubavitchers”, or “Chabadniks” originated in Russia 25o years ago.  After the movement swept through Russia, it spread through surrounding countries,  providing “scholars with answers that eluded them and simple farmers with a love that had been denied them.” The movement’s original aim was to break down social barriers between Jews of different classes by revealing the “oneness unique to Jewish people.” Today, the Chabad global network of institutions extends all over the developed world. However, there are only (thought to be) around 200,000 total adherents.

Which makes the nearly 1,500,000 votes the top ten finishers garnered in just two months even more impressive. Exactly how did the Chabad network manage to pull this off?

I have some theories.

Theory #1: They wanted it more. The votes speak for themselves. The top vote getter, Los Angeles’ Cheder Menacham, has all of 22o students but gathered more than a 130,000 votes. Long Island’s Silverstein Hebrew Academy, the seventh overall vote getter, has a whopping 110 students but brought 127,000 votes. How do you explain this if not by desire and hunger?

Theory #2: They were organized.  Although the contest rules prohibit winners from using the funds or religious purposes, there is no rule against using the religion-based network to vote for winners. Moreover, the voting process lent itself to real-time viewing. People in the network could see which Chabad schools showed promise early on and allocate their votes to the most effective end. In effect, each school had a tryout before either being cut or making the squad.

Theory #3: They were committed. It’s one thing to jump out to an early lead or to rally down the stretch; it’s something else to sustain momentum  for two months. You would think that just given the modest number of Lubavitchers around the globe, other more populous groups would catch up and even surpass them. I watched the voting closely. It didn’t happen. Those in the network used their  votes to support one another.

Theory #4: They were tech savvy.

From eJewish Philanthropy

While Chabad-Lubavitch’s main Facebook page has more than 13,000 fans and an additional 3,000 onTwitter, the combined social media network (or as Facebook refers to it, social graph) of local Chabad emissaries [people who spread the philosophy and grow the movement] carries much more.

This isn’t the first time the Chabad network has leveraged its base to win an online contest with a substantial payoff. Earlier this summer 17 Chabad organizations won $20,000 a piece in a Chase sponsored contest operated through also operated through Facebook.

Theory #5: They were creative. One school raffled off free iPads on a weekly basis starting in early August. Several schools made Youtube videos:

Others loaded banner ads on online Jewish web sites:

Blogger Jacob Berkman wrote about one school’s really creative tactics on his Fundamentalist blog:

In a In Charlotte, N.C., Chabad’s 220-student Charlotte Jewish Day School used an inside-out approach to garner 45,000 votes by Tuesday, earning it 14th place in the Kohl’s challenge, according to spokesman Rabbi Bentzion Groner, director of the Friendship Circle of North Carolina.

The elementary school has a relatively small base, but it tapped into alumni now in their teens to hold a vote-a-thon. The school, which was started in a basement in 1984 with just a couple of students, enlisted 50 teenagers to bring their laptops to the school, where they spent an afternoon reaching out online to as many of their friends as they could, soliciting votes one by one. And of course the school invited three television stations and the local newspaper in to check out the event.

My hat goes off to all of them.

Now, I know a few of you reading this may think I’m being naive here by not mentioning other obvious factors, so I will:

» The better access and resources argument. Certainly, we can make the argument that low income people don’t have access to computers and that often community members aren’t connected to their neighborhood schools or that the smaller, more concentrated Chabad communities had an advantage because of their cohesion. The thing is, access and resources didn’t stop people from hitting up Obama rallies back in 2007 and 2008. People wanted Obama to win and went out to support him. This was even easier. You didn’t even have to go out. All you had to do was press a button a few times. It was that simple

» The school equity and social justice argument. Simply stated, not one single school that primarily serves students of color and low-income students made the top 20. Mark Federman, the principal at East Side Community High School in downtown Manhattan and a dear friend of mine made this argument in an appeal he sent out to school supporters several days ago:

We are the only school in the top 40  that primarily serves students of color. (Our school is 55% Latino, 35% African-American, 5% Asian and 5% White)  and we are the only Title I school (a school where vast majority of students live below the poverty line) in the top 40. We are the only NYC neighborhood public school in the running and one of only a few public schools nationwide.   We are at an extreme disadvantage in this competition because almost all of the top schools are private and/or wealthy parochial schools that are getting votes using tremendous sums of money and resources we do not have.

This is not just a contest. It is an issue of equity and social justice.

To draw interest to East Side Mark slept  in a tent outside of the school for several days, wrote letters to supporters, granted interviews and appeared on radio. His efforts paid off. East Side finished just outside of the top thirty. Mark did everything in his power to raise awareness and generate support. I admire him for this. As a teacher at East Side I witnessed his  commitment to students, families, staff and the community up close.  He’s one of the most committed leaders I’ve ever been around. East Side  could’ve done transformative things with the money. East Side will continue to do transformative things without it. As for the point Mark raised, it’s a valid one. The Jewish School of the Arts, one of the top vote getters and a Chabad institution, is located in affluent Palm Beach, Florida. Rabbi Shlomo Ezagui describes the school as one that offers  “high-tech, high quality education” in a “beautiful, 11,000-square-foot building, newly renovated with a brand new playground and gymnasium.”  One would hope that a school that already boasts such abundance would want to spread the prosperity around a bit.

Or is that just me being an idealist again?

Nevertheless, I don’t want to see social justice being used as a crutch or an excuse. Making this as a social justice issue begs more difficult to answer questions. Which children are more deserving? Who decides? What are the standards? Ultimately, this was a contest and to win people had to vote. Not enough people voted for schools serving students of color and low-income students. That may or may not be a social justice and equity issue. It may just be a geographical issue–it’s easier to rally around the only school in town; East Side isn’t even the only school in its building.  It is definitely  an issue of organization; an issue of commitment, an issue of creativity, an issue of savvy, and sheer desire.  Five-hundred grand was on the line. The Lubavitchers found a way to get more than half of it.

So what lessons have we learned from this contest?

1. Strategize and mobilize early. Get your story out there. Build your brand. Be creative. Be proactive. Be vigilant.

2. When it comes to getting things done, the number of Facebook friends you have doesn’t matter … unless they are active and aware.

3. Glenn Beck might have a point, after all. Two days before his controversial “Restoring Honor” event, Beck told his radio audience:

People will gather and see this. And hopefully, we will mutually pledge to each other, our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor. At least we will begin to look at those things, start to maybe challenge that we haven’t valued those things high enough — honesty, integrity, merit, personal responsibility, family and God.

If nothing else, the Lubavitchers’ commitment to ensuring the success of their young people should show the rest of us how  sacred our young people are.

4. Al Sharpton dropped the ball. As the final week of the voting began, Al Sharpton was gearing up for a “Restoring the Dream” rally to combat Beck’ by launching an online petition denouncing Beck’s appropriation of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech that garnered 30,000 votes in two days. Sharpton later led a rally and march that allegedly drew 30,000 supporters. At the rally, one speaker after another got on stage and made crowd-stirring but ultimately redundant tirades against Beck. NAACP President Ben Jealous said “we have to revitalize jobs and schools”; Jaime Contreras, president of SEIU-32BJ, said those gathered at the Mall with Beck “represent angry white people and hate-mongering” ; Avis Jones DeWeever, executive director of the National Council of Negro Women, told onlookers not to “let anyone tell you that they have the right to take their country back.” She said, “It’s our country, too. We will reclaim the dream. It was ours from the beginning.” A steady stream of speakers also bemoaned the persistent societal inequities facing black people. It took Education Secretary, Arnie Duncan, to address the salient issue: “We have to stop making excuses … We’ve been too satisfied with second-class schools.” When the speaking was all done, the attendees did what they always do–marched.

When I checked  Sharpton’s National Action Network web site the day after the rally, all I saw was one picture of Sharpton after another.  I wasn’t surprised. But I was disappointed. If he could get 30,000 people to sign a petition, he could’ve chosen a handful of schools across the nation and encouraged the same supporters to vote for them. It would have been that simple.

5. Too many of us missed the boat this go round. The other day I was speaking with a public school administrator here in New York about the contest. She didn’t know anything about it. She’d never even heard of it. But she suggested something that gave me pause. Money isn’t always the problem or the solution at public schools. Often, it’s money management. Schools, she said to me, are incredible perpetrators of waste.

6. Kohl’s got way more than $10,000,000 worth of publicity and good will.  As someone who can say with confidence he’s never stepped foot in one of their 1000+ stores nationwide (and didn’t even know what they sold), I now know.  This year the company added nine stores in six states – Colorado, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, Oregon and Pennsylvania – and plans to open a total of approximately 30 new stores before the year ends. It also announced remodeling plan for 85 stores this year, a 66 percent increase from 2009. For a company that is aggressively expanding its business and upgrading its image, this kind of positive publicity is priceless. The Kohl’s millions will now know will be associated with positive values.

That being said, I will suggest this to Kohl’s brass: If you plan on giving this much money away in the future, come up with a better strategy for doing so. At a certain point, basing the distribution of this much money on what is ostensibly a glorified popularity contest is plain irresponsible.

That is, unless, by awarding participants 20 votes you were aiming for a particularly lopsided outcome in the first place. I won’t go there, though

7. Facebook users beware. Our information is officially for sale.

8. A lot of us care.

9. More of us need to.