Friday, March 27, 2009

A Sticky Place

New York is a sticky place.

It seems like every time I go, I end up having to rush to get out of there.

This week, three people I know (one was yours, truly) had trouble getting out of New York.

Why is it so hard to leave?

I was in New York at the invitation of a friend to visit a certain rabbi who was visiting from Jerusalem. Does that seem like a lot of time and effort to visit a famous rabbi?

Back in 1972, when Rabbi Grossman had initiated his special program for rehabilitating convicts, he held a Chanukah party with the prisoners. During the course of the celebration Rabbi Grossman approached one of participants and kissed him. A week later he received a post card from the man with the words: "I am the prisoner whom you kissed last week. I would like you to know that since I have been born, this is the first time I have ever felt that someone has really loved me". Rabbi Grossman was so touched by the note, realizing that there are people who have never received love. He came to the conclusion that if we took good care of these people and showed them love, embracing them in warmth and sentiment; they could grow to become people we could all be proud of.

This incident inspired him to establish one of the world's most successful programs for rehabilitating "youth at risk".

Rabbi Grossman's life story sounds like a constant string of "coincidences". As we were departing, he told us what happened to him the day before.

"I was in Miami, driving through slow traffic. There was a policeman who saw me and pulled me over. He asked me, Is it permissible to cremate someone? I told him that Jews don't do this, it is an ancient and sacred rule. He then told me that his brother had died two weeks earlier in New Jersey, but remained unburied because no one in the family had the money for the funeral, and they were going to cremate him the next day. I told him, Wait, don't do anything until I call you! It so happens that I know someone who runs a Jewish Burial Society in New Jersey and I was able to arrange for a proper funeral for his brother. You see, we're all connected and everything is arranged for us, but we must seize the moment!"

For those who are running a Passover Seder this year...

Everyone wants to leave Egypt. But some of us are so stuck there that we need help. The Seder is your opportunity to help us leave our personal Egypt.

For it to work, we need it to:

- start on time
- be well organized
- engage our minds.

For the latter goal, have a list of Passover questions that you are ready to ask at each turn (you could use my Art of Amazement Haggada - email me for a copy). And do whatever you can to get people, young and old, to ask questions. Like covering the seder plate, uncovering it, removing it from the table, bringing it back; offering nuts or toys for each sincere question asked.

The Seder is like a dramatic performance, and everyone at the table is an actor. To get into the role of "slavery to freedom", it helps to have fancy dishes, lots of wine or grape juice, pour those glasses to the brim, and so on.

One last tip: the food you serve at the meal part of the Seder is less important. It should be nice, but if you start the Seder on time (after sundown), it's pretty late for everyone to be eating a huge meal, especially after all that matzah and wine.

For those who are attending a Passover Seder this year...

If the Seder is starting on time, i.e., after sundown, you don't want to be hungry, so make sure to have a good snack around 6:00 to tide you over. Remember, you are attending a Seder, not a dinner. Once a year, minimize the focus on food and maximize the focus on message.

Come prepared - bring your own Haggada that has perspectives and questions that other people won't have. That will keep you busy and engaged even through the slow spots. (For recommendations on Haggadas for different personality types, send me an email.)

One of best ways to get yourself and other in the mood for Pesach is to get everyone involved in the preparations, the cleaning, the shopping and the planning. The clock is ticking! You can still order supplies, but by this time next week many stores will have run out.

Shabbat Shalom

PS – After 18 months away from his family in Iraq, our friend CAPTAIN SHULMAN is being sent back to Baghdad to run the seder there – he is need of supplies! If you can send anything today it might get there in time, email me and I’ll send you his wish-list. If you’d like to send greetings to the Jewish soldiers stationed there, I’m sure that would be appreciated too!
326th ASG
Garrison Chaplains Office
ATTN: MSG George Hopkins
Camp Victory
APO, AE 09342

(Please write "ATTN CH Shulman")

PS – can’t let you go without some Passover music and fun:

(my only gripe is he didn’t fill the cups to the brim)

Not sure how to characterize this one:

Sam Apple is still the one to beat:

Friday, March 20, 2009

Dirty Golden Bears

The news this week is making me think about bears and gold.

In LSJUMB, we used to sing a parody of the Cal (Berkeley) fight song, called “The Dirty Golden Bear”....

The Dirty Golden Bear
Is losing all his hair....

Bear with me as I quote some news items, then your question of the week below.

Item 1: Obama collected a total of $130,000 from AIG in 2008. Chris Dodd (Banking Committee) also got a big check. - ABC News

Other Obama contributors:

Goldman Sachs: $955,473
Citigroup: $653,468
JP Morgan Chase & Co.: $646,058
Morgan Stanley: $485,823
Bank of America: $274,493
Wachovia: $214,151


I just learned that an elderly couple I've known a long time lost almost everything to Madoff. They both worked hard for many years, right up to retirement in their mid-sixties. They weren't rich, certainly not by the standards of Wall Street or Manhattan society. They said they had checked out Madoff with the SEC, which gave him a clean bill of health.

Item 3:
AIG Gave NY Dems $100K Before Historic Loan
March 19, 2009

New York campaign finance records show American International Group donated $100,000 to the state Democratic Committee just before Democratic Gov. David Paterson and his insurance superintendent launched marathon sessions to prop up the embattled insurer.

The contribution was made Aug. 29. Insurance Superintendent Eric Dinallo started negotiating with AIG and federal officials within about two weeks.

On Sept. 16, Paterson announced the “great news” that New York officials helped the giant insurer strike a historic loan deal with the Federal Reserve to keep AIG afloat.

Spokesmen for the state Democratic party, Paterson, Dinallo and AIG had no immediate comment Thursday.

The state’s effort is credited with giving AIG time to survive.

Now Washington lawmakers are blasting AIG for paying more than $160 million in bonuses to employees of a division primarily responsible for the meltdown that led to an $85 billion federal bailout of the company.

It was a big check even for AIG, which showered New York Democrats — and Republicans when they were in the Senate majority — with thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. But since January 2006, the largest single check had been for just $2,500, and most were about $350 or $500.

AIG and Paterson singled Dinallo out for keeping the effort under way, in part by putting together a $20 billion state plan that was supplanted by the federal bailout. The $85 billion federal loan saved thousands of jobs nationwide, protected insurance policy holders, and salved _ if temporarily _ the nation’s hemorrhaging financial markets while protecting New York City’s financial sector.

In Washington, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., acknowledged Wednesday that his staff agreed to dilute the executive pay provision that would have applied retroactively to recipients of federal aid. However, Dodd said he was not aware of any American International Group Inc. bonuses at the time the change was made.

Over the years, Dodd has been the top recipient of campaign contributions from AIG employees. During 2007-2008, when he ran for president, he received nearly $104,000 from AIG employees and their families, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that monitors money in politics.

(Source: Associated Press)

Item 4 -

Remember how Secretary Paulson (former CEO of Goldman Sachs and the Fed said that we “must” give billions to AIG otherwise we’ll all be sorry.

Now we learned a few days ago that AIG immediately paid these billions to its creditors. Study this list, then read on....

Goldman Sachs ($12.9 billion)
Merrill Lynch ($6.8 billion)
Bank of America ($5.2 billion)
Citigroup ($2.3 billion)
Wachovia ($1.5 billion).
Société Générale ($12 billion)
Deutsche Bank ($12 billion)
Barclays ($8.5 billion)
UBS ($5 billion).

As one blogger put it: “All these firms did business with AIG voluntarily. All these firms knew (or should have known) the risks of doing business with an unregulated firm in an unregulated part of the market. All these firms were willing to take the risk that AIG wouldn't be able to make good on its commitments.”

Congress gave the money. Congress failed to do due diligence. Congress is to blame here, not AIG or business.

Bob Rubin – Current Board member and one-time Chairman of the Board of Citigroup. Served as Secretary of the Treasury during both the first and second Clinton administrations. Before his government service, he spent 26 years at Goldman Sachs. His most prominent post-government role was as Director and Senior Counselor of Citigroup, where he performed ongoing advisory and representational roles for the firm[1]. From November to December 2007, he served temporarily as Chairman of Citigroup.[2][3] On January 9, 2009 Citigroup announced his resignation, after having been criticized for his performance. He received more than $126 million in cash and stock during his eight years at Citigroup. “In 1997, together with then-Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, Rubin strongly opposed the regulation of derivatives” (Wikipedia). Rubin is co-chair of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Carla Hills, the other co-chair of CFR, sits on the Board of AIG. (David Rockefeller is most famous former chair of the CFR.)

Judith Rodin
– Director of Citicorp and President of Rockefeller Foundation.

Richard Parsons – Chairman of Citicorp – prominent Rockefeller connection: “From the early 1980s through much of the 1990s, Parsons owned a house at Rockefeller family estate in Pocantico Hills, (see Kykuit), where his grandfather was once a groundskeeper. For a brief time he had worked for Nelson at the family office, Room 5600, at Rockefeller Center (he currently has a Time Warner office in Rockefeller Plaza at the Center).” (Wikipedia)

Secretary of Treasury Tim Geithner, a confessed tax-cheat, is a Rubin protégé and also a member of the CFR.

Let’s look at AIG’s board:

Edward M. Liddy
– partner at Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, former board member, Goldman Sachs
Suzanne Nora Johnson - Former Vice Chairman of Goldman Sachs
James Orr - Chairman of the Board, Rockefeller Foundation

And finally, the Federal Reserve Board:

Elizabeth Duke – currently member of the Federal Reserve Board, is a former Executive Vice President at Wachovia Bank. Former Chair of American Bankers Association.

Oh, wait, Blackstone – founded by former CFR Chair Peter Peterson. Blackstone recently sold a large part of their company to the Bank of China, part of their $350 billion ownership of US securities (a third of which are mortgage-backed securities). Blackstone Chairman Steve Schwarzman was George W. Bush’s dorm mate at Yale and has raised millions for the Republican Party.

(source: public records)

OK, here’s your question finally: Since there is evidently nowhere to run and hide from these guys, should one bother being bothered?

This Seinfeld episode is a metaphor for our times...

Friday, March 13, 2009

False Profit (and Real Idols)

The other day our 3-year old Devorah asked her older sister, “Will you please give me some ice cream?”

Her 4-year-old brother Yoseph interjected: “It’s not ice cream! It’s sorbet!”

Older sister: “Same thing!”

“No, it’s not the same thing! Ice cream is like chocolate and vanilla! Sorbet is like strawberry and lemon!”

What’s your reaction - pedantic literalism, or refreshing truthfulness?

If Reuven bought a home in 1973 for $40,000 and sold it to Shimon in 2003 for $400,000, and then in 2009 the value of that home went down to $300,000, was Shimon the victim of a Ponzi scheme?

Well, no, there was no fraud, that’s just the way the proverbial cookie crumbles, right?

But Reuven, by getting in and out of the system early, played the system well, Shimon was just a victim of bad luck. Right?

That’s the myth.

The truth is that there we haven’t figured out a way to create a system that cannot be artificially inflated, manipulated by people with more money or better connections than you and me. Most people break the law every day by speeding....unless they fear getting a ticket.

Unless we can find a way to change human nature. I vote for make ethics a required subject in every grade of school K-college. What do you vote for?

Shabbat Shalom

PS – it’s about time we had an uplifting music video – this week, I’m reaching back 42 years to the first ever live global television broadcast, called “Our World.” The BBC commissioned this song for their contribution, and it has become one of the most famous songs of the past 100 years (but not the greatest, evidently):

PPS – if you figured out what the three parts of this Table Talk have to do with each other, congratulations.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Random Talk

Once again, the calendar comes back to Purim, next Monday night.

You know what that means, right....? (It means Passover is only a month away....)

Question for your table: What’s the difference between Purim and Halloween?


- On Halloween, people put costumes on their kids and take them to people’s homes to ask for candy.
- On Purim we put costumes on our kids and take them to people’s home to give them tasty food baskets.

Think about it.

Last year, many Table Talk readers responded to my call for Purim baskets to Jewish soldiers in Iraq and elsewhere.

This year, I don’t have an updated list.

But I do have an easy way to create a lot of simcha: Yad Eliezer.

Maimonides opines that one should spend more on gifts to the poor than on one’s own Purim celebration, because giving gifts to the poor creates the most happiness.

The second best way to create happiness: go to a local Purim party. Don’t know where to go? Send me an email.

The third best way to create happiness: watch the videos that I painstakingly gather for your enjoyment.

If you didn’t take the 3 minutes to watch one of last week’s vids, they are perma-linked here.

If you want some happy new stuff for you and the kids, watch these:

Shabbat Shalom

Happy Purim

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