The Ideas of March

Today is Easter. Today is also Passover. That’s not an unusual circumstance.

Easter currently falls on the first Sunday after the paschal full moon.

Paschal is the adjective for something having to do with Passover. It’s a strange form but no stranger than gubernatorial for something having to do with a governor. Gubernatorial is from the Latin gubernator, governor; paschal is from the Hebrew pasach, passed over.

Today, the paschal full moon is defined as the first one after the northern-hemisphere vernal equinox. That equinox occurred in New York at about 17 minutes past midnight on March 21. The temperature promptly fell below freezing. We went from a warm winter to a cold spring — a cold and WET spring, which has been good for our drought. Our reservoirs are up to 55% of capacity (although normal for this time of year is 92%).

Yesterday, spring finally sprang in New York. The Central Park trees, like most New Yorkers, must have kept up with the weather news, because they don’t seem to have been damaged by the cold. There’s already a broad range of blossoms, and more trees are just starting to bud.

Today is colder and wetter. Many New Yorkers undoubtedly experienced the weather on their way to religious services today. Others might have debated participating in the Easter parade.

Offhand, I can think of only one popular song about Easter, Irving Berlin’s “Easter Parade.” He also wrote America’s most popular Christmas song, “White Christmas.” He was Jewish, born Israel Baline.

He was also an immigrant from Russia and was responsible for the patriotic “God Bless America.” That’s not the only part of American culture created by a Jew. There was, for example, Max Meyers.

We were in Washington, last weekend, where some cherry trees had blossomed before the freeze and were looking bedraggled as a result.

There have been many stories about how much tourism in Washington has suffered since September 11. They are probably true. But, when we got off the Metro train at the Smithsonian stop, it was impossible to advance to the escalators. The station was packed, and a transit worker with a bullhorn was doing his best to keep the crowd from pushing people onto the tracks.

In 1995, on a much less crowded day, I went to a strange little exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History. It was called “The Jews of Wyoming.” One of them was the aforementioned Meyers, a Cheyenne haberdasher credited with getting Stetson to make the first “10-gallon hat.” If I recall correctly, the exhibit also suggested that a Jewish footwear merchant got cowboys started on wearing boots when he ran out of other shoes.

Earlier this week, National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” had a piece on South Carolina’s Jews. One of them, Judah P. Benjamin, served as Attorney General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State in the cabinet of President Jefferson Davis and was considered “The Brains of the Confederacy.” Another, Franklin Moses, became South Carolina’s governor (or gubernator). On his page on the state web site, under “Other Accomplishments, Honors, Distinctions, etc.,” two items are listed: “Moses was convicted of fraud and theft on numerous occasions after leaving office,” and “Moses was disowned by his family as a result of his infamy.” He apparently would have been convicted earlier, but the court ruled that he couldn’t be prosecuted while in office.

South Carolina’s tolerant 1669 constitution specifically invited Jews, so they came. In 1800, there were more Jews there than in any other state. That later changed.

One politician’s alleged characterization of our city as Jew York caused a scandal recently, but there was a time when it had a strong basis in fact. When I was growing up, there were more Jews in New York City than in all of Israel. Most were fine, upstanding citizens who contributed to their city and their country. A few were not.

Buggsy Goldstein, Abe Reles, Jacob Shapiro, Harry Strauss, Allie Tannenbaum, Charlie Workman, and Mendy Weiss were said to be hit men working for the notorious mob organization, Murder, Inc. They didn’t consider themselves dangerous to the general public. Their motto was, “We only hit our own.”

Some Jews lost their lives trying to bring civil rights to all Americans; some Jews were slave owners. I imagine a similar proportion is true of most religious groups. Most of their members are good; a few are not.

Zacarias Moussaoui is accused of being involved in the September 11 attacks. It is said that he would have been the 20th hijacker. This week, the government announced that it would seek the death penalty; in response, France (of which Moussaoui is a citizen) said it would not cooperate with the United States in providing evidence.

Those opposed to the death penalty sometimes argue that it is cruel and unusual punishment. In this case, it seems a very different argument might be made.

If Moussaoui turns out not to be guilty after he is executed, there is no way to cancel the sentence. But, if he IS guilty of being willing to go to his death as a suicidal (and murderous) hijacker, someone intending to be a martyr to his cause, then is the death “penalty” really punishment?



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