A homily for Good Friday

March 29, 2013

Judas 2 The last time I served on a criminal jury, the defendant was a corrections officer, a sergeant, from the women’s prison in Clinton.

He was accused — and we found him guilty — of taking sexual advantage of two of the inmates — women whose everyday lives in that institution could be directly affected by decisions he made.

The defense attorney tried to establish that the behavior this officer was accused of would have been out of character. To help make that argument, the attorney called as witnesses two elderly Baptist ministers from a church in Trenton. And these men, who were very solemn and very dignified, testified that they had known the officer for many years, and that he was an active member of the congregation. Among other things, he led a Bible study class during the same period in which he was intimidating and degrading these two women.

I have served on criminal juries several times, and I have always had the same reaction: I don’t want this, this crime, this awful thing, to be all there is to this human being.

Not that I don’t want to find the defendant guilty — because a juror takes an oath to do impartial justice — but rather that I want someone — the attorney, the witnesses, someone — to show me that there is more to the person on trial than this.
I wanted that officer to take responsibility for what he had done, but I also wanted to have some hope for him.

The gospel readings this week — the parts about Judas — reminded me of my experiences as a juror. And this is why:

In 2009, National Geographic published a report about a Coptic manuscript, dating perhaps from the second century and probably translated from an even earlier Greek source. This document — which has been identified as a “Gospel of Judas” — was discovered in Egypt in the 1970s. It is one of many apocryphal or false gospels that have surfaced over the past 20 centuries. It changed hands until 2000, when a Swiss dealer turned it over to an art foundation to be restored.

The restored manuscript paints a very different picture of Judas than the one we are accustomed to. It describes him as the best friend of Jesus and says that Jesus asked Judas to turn him over to the authorities in order to begin the process by which Jesus would leave behind his human form and be raised to glory.

The publication of this “gospel” set off a wave of speculation among experts and amateurs about the reliability of the biblical characterization of Judas.

In a way, this speculation was nothing new. The Coptic text just added more impetus to an historic desire among many people, Christian and otherwise, to rehabilitate Judas, to somehow put his bad behavior in the context of a better man, to free him from a level of condemnation and revulsion that society has reserved for very few people, to deny that Judas is hopeless, to show him mercy.

In the absence of very much real knowledge about Judas, all of this discussion leads to no new conclusions. But it does raise the question of why there has been this compulsion to salvage this man.

For sure, some folks are motivated by the fact that the image of Judas in the canonical gospels, the ones included in our Bible, has been used as an excuse to persecute the Jewish people as though they had some historic responsibility for the suffering and death of Jesus. The Church has rejected that idea in no uncertain terms, teaching us that the Jewish people carry no burden because of what Judas or anyone else may have done in the first century.

A more common reason may be a sense of optimism about human nature, a desire to think the best about another human being before accepting the worst. Maybe we don’t want Judas to be hopeless — just as I didn’t want that corrections officer to be hopeless — because Judas and we share the same human nature, and we want to think of human nature as inclined to good, not to evil.

Unfortunately, the evangelists don’t help us with that, because they don’t try to psychoanalyze Judas, or rationalize his behavior, they simply tell us what he did at a certain point in his life — stealing from the apostles common money bag, betraying Jesus — and it isn’t pretty. But that doesn’t mean that we should despair over human nature in Judas or in anyone else.

Pope Francis emphasized this shortly after his election. In his first Angelus, the pope said the following:

“This is Jesus’ message: mercy. On my part, I say it with humility; this is the Lord’s strongest message: mercy.
“The Lord never tires of forgiving us, never! We are the ones who get tired of asking forgiveness.’’

So this pope, who celebrates Holy Thursday liturgy in a prison, seems to be telling us not to engage in wishful thinking about the past — our own past or someone else’s — which we can’t change anyway, but rather to trust that God is merciful no matter what happened in the past.

While we constantly try to be the human being that Jesus was, we are likely to journey toward that goal in fits and starts.
As we do, Pope Francis said, God will be merciful again and again and again so long as we are honest with God and with ourselves, again and again and again.

And, with God’s own mercy as our model, we are challenged to be merciful, to forgive each other, no matter what.

We have a certain reaction, don’t we, when we hear the name “Judas.” But we might profit by remembering that he wasn’t a villain in a fairy tale or a Bruce Willis movie but a real man with hopes and aspirations, a man with talents and skills, with shortcomings and failings – that if he was different from us in some ways, he was like us in at least as many ways.

We don’t know anything about his interior life, but we do know that if there was in him any spark of goodness, he is not beyond the reach of God’s mercy.

We can’t reconstruct Judas Iscariot’s past, we can’t know what was going on in his mind, but we can pray for his redemption, just as we can pray for other people who have done outrageous things, and just as we can pray for ourselves and for each other when we fall short of being images of Christ in this world.

We know God’s mercy is inexhaustible. If we want it for ourselves, we can ask it for Judas, who is, after all, our brother.

Judas 1

Residents of South Amboy  leave the city on foot as fires and explosions rock the Gillespie shell-loading plant.

Residents of South Amboy leave the city on foot as fires and explosions rock the Gillespie shell-loading plant.

During the four decades I spent covering the news of Central New Jersey, there were sporadic stories about artillery shells being unearthed up and down the coast in Middlesex and Monmouth counties. These were the lingering legacy of a catastrophe that occurred in 1918, an event described in Explosion at Morgan: The World War I Middlesex Munitions Disaster by Randall Gabrielan. The title refers to a series of fires and explosions at the T.A. Gillespie Loading Co., a shell-loading operation, on October 4 and 5, 1918 — just a few weeks before the end of World War I.

The plant, which was located in the Morgan section of Sayreville, was one of four identical facilities hastily built in New Jersey to supply the firepower needed by the allied armies in Europe. Operations at the plant were overseen by U.S. government inspectors

The loading of shells required the handling and processing of huge amounts of TNT and ammonium nitrate, which were combined and heated to produce amatol, a highly explosive material. There is no certainty as to what sparked the calamity, but Gabrielan writes that the first explosion probably occurred in a kettle in which 2,600 pounds of amatol was being brewed.

People displaced by the explosions congregate in Perth Amboy.

People displaced by the explosions congregate in Perth Amboy.

Once the trouble started, it spread into chaos, with fires raging and shells flying in all directions. The concussions caused property damage over a wide area surrounding the plant, but particularly in the City of South Amboy, where virtually every window was broken. People started fleeing the city simply out of fright, but eventually authorities ordered an evacuation. There were at least 100 people killed in the plant, although the actual total is not known because some of the victims were vaporized in the explosions. Gabrielan also reports that there were about 150 injuries.

This  book is carefully researched and precisely written, and  its value is not only in its reconstruction of the Gillespie disaster, but in putting both the Gillespie plant itself and the explosions in the wider context of the history of that time.  Gabrielan points out that, despite the occasional recovery of a shell, the dramatic and destructive incident has largely faded from the collective memory of the community that was affected by it.

One of  the large craters created by the explosions at the Gillespie plant. If you look carefully you can see a man standing in the chasm.

One of the large craters created by the explosions at the Gillespie plant. If you look carefully you can see a man standing in the chasm.

Books: “Love Song”

March 26, 2013

September Song I have always associated “September Song” with Jimmy Durante, who recorded it for an album in 1963. I like Durante’s version because it has a touch of melancholy that doesn’t come through with quite the same effect when the singer is Bing Crosby or Sammy Davis Jr.

Come to find out in Ethan Mordden’s book Love Song that the song was written by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson specifically for another entertainer who had no singing voice — namely, Walter Huston. Huston played Peter Stuyvesant in the 1938 Broadway musical Knickerbocker Holiday and he more or less insisted that he should have a solo in the show. Weill and Anderson accommodated him, devoting only a couple of hours to writing the song. The show was designed to criticize the New Deal by portraying Stuyvesant as corrupt and dictatorial in his rule over the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in the mid 17th century. The musical closed after about six months, although it was the basis for a later movie. The song didn’t attract too much attention until Walter Huston’s version of it was used in the 1950 movie September Affair. After that, it was recorded by many male and female vocalists, ranging in type from Ezio Pinza to Tex Ritter. Among the females who recorded it was Lotte Lenya, who was twice Kurt Weill’s wife and the love of his life — after his music.



The composer and the singer are the subjects of Mordden’s book, which is subtitled The Lives of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, although Mordden devotes at least as much attention to Weill’s sometime collaborator Bertolt Brecht as he does to Lenya. 

Pretty much everything in this book has been reported before, but Mordden brings to the story a knowledge of music and 20th century culture, and a sharp wit, that makes this a worthwhile profile of three fascinating figures — the trio who, among other things, brought the world The Threepenny Opera.

Weill was Jewish and totally absorbed in music; Lenya, who was born Karoline Blamauer, was flirty and unfettered. They separated and divorced once, but remarried and never really lost their mutual devotion. They became enamored of each other in Berlin during the hiatus between the two world wars, or during the pause in the one great war, depending on how you look at it.

This was the period of the ill-fated Weimar Republic, a part of German history perhaps not well known to Americans — certainly not to me. Mordden shares his own understanding of the uproarious time with its inept government, dead-on-arrival economy, and non-conformist arts scene, an odd recitative to the rise of Adolf Hitler.



It was in the Weimar incubator that Weill and Brecht hatched The Threepenny Opera, Brecht’s book lampooning the milieu in Berlin at that time.  The show appeared in 1928 and is regarded as a classic, but the nascent Nazi crowd thought it smelled of socialism. Eventually, Nazism drove Weill, Lenya, and Brecht out of Germany. Weill and Lenya went first to Paris and then to New York where the artistic and personal freedom they experienced for the first time had a trans-formative effect on their lives.



The couple hadn’t planned to stay in the United States, but they did stay, and both became American citizens. It may have been inevitable, at least for Weill, because he had long had an interest in using American themes in his compositions.

Weill was prolific and versatile; his work included  cantatas, orchestral pieces, chamber works, and film scores, but he is best remembered for what he wrote for the stage, including the musical plays Johnny Johnson; Street Scene – ostensibly an American opera; One Touch of Venus, which introduced the song “Speak Low”; and, of course,  Knickerbocker Holiday and The Threepenny Opera.



Lenya’s career as an actress and singer had its ups and downs. After Weill died in 1950, she became the central figure in a revival of his work. She recorded many of his songs. In 1952, she sang in Leonard Bernstein’s concert version of The Threepenny Opera at Brandeis University; that led to a New York production that ran for 2,706 performances. Lenya won a Tony Award for her performance, even though the show ran off Broadway.

In 1966, she created the role of Fraulein Schneider in the original Broadway production of Cabaret, believed to have been inspired by Weill’s work, and she had highly visible movie roles in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and From Russia with Love.

Brecht, with whom Weill worked on several projects, settled in East Berlin where, Mordden writes, he was a “stooge” for the Communist regime. “Oathed to the extermination of oppression,” Mordden writes, “Brecht allied himself with the most oppressive regime of the century, and he lived by recognizing no one’s rights but his own.’’

Brecht comes across as a character who many found magnetic but who was offensive in many respects, including his abusive treatment of actors and his substandard personal hygiene.



When we were watching episodes of Downton Abbey on a DVD, we turned on the English subtitles, because we had trouble understanding a couple of the actors — particularly Rob James-Collier as Thomas Barrow and Sophie McShera as Daisy Mason.
It turned out that while some of our difficulty with the dialogue had to do with the one actor’s mumbling and the other one’s accent, some of it also had to do with the vocabulary itself — British terms that we did not know.

  Most of us are familiar with terms like “lorry,” “loo,” and “lift,” but we saw others in the captions that we had never heard before.
It was to be expected that the English used in Britain and the English used in the United States would evolve differently, but I learned recently that that didn’t happen only over time but was done deliberately, on our side of the ocean, soon after the American Revolution.
That’s what Paul Dickson reports in his book Words from the White House, which is a compilation of words and phrases that either were either coined or made popular by presidents and other prominent Americans.

  According to Dickson, an 18th century sentiment shared by Thomas Jefferson and Noah Webster, was that Americans had to craft for themselves a language that was distinct from the “king’s English.”
Webster was so confident that this goal could be achieved that he wrote in 1806 that “In fifty years from this time, the American-English will be spoken by more people than all the other dialects of the language.”



Part of the process by which language evolves is “neologizing” — that is, inventing words or phrases from whole cloth.
Dickson writes that the word “neologize” was itself neologized by Jefferson in 1813 in a letter to John Adams.
So Theodore Roosevelt, who — for my money — is disproportionately represented in this book, was neologizing when he invented the term “pussyfooter,” and his distant cousin FDR was doing the same when he created the useful word “iffy.”
Some presidents have been accused of using non-standard terms, not because they were being inventive but because they didn’t know any better.
In this regard, for instance, Dickson mentions Warren G. Harding and George W. Bush.
Harding has often been ridiculed for his 1920 campaign promise of a “return to normalcy,” but Dickson points out that the word “normalcy” had been already in use in several fields, including mathematics.
Harding’s innovation was to give the term a political meaning — and, the author reminds us, it worked.



The second Bush — who could be hard on English — was kidded mercilessly for his used of the term “decider” which he applied to himself when the press asked him about calls for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (“I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best.”) Dickson gives Bush credit for coining this word, but apparently the author didn’t check a dictionary: that word was around before George Bush was president, meaning exactly what he used it to mean.



Sometimes a mesmerizing movie is one that leaves you uncertain as to what you just saw. Jellyfish (Meduzot in Hebrew) — a 2007 Israeli film, fits that category.

This dramatic comedy, or is it comic drama — see what I mean? — is based on a story by Shira Geffen. The subject matter is the frustrating lives of three women living in Tel Aviv. On the one hand, they are all lonely and downbeat — “resigned” might be the best term — but at the same time there is a spark of humor and warmth in the connections among them.

Batya, played by Sarah Adler, works somewhat ineptly in a dead-end job at a banquet hall. She is fired by her boorish boss, thrown over by her boyfriend, and neglected by her high-profile mother. Not unexpectedly, Batya isn’t in a good mood most of time, but her life is charmed when she encounters a mysterious mute little girl (Nikol Leidman) who wades out of the sea with a flotation tube around her waist and no other visible means of support, notably parents.



Things don’t go much better for  Keren, played by Noa Knoller, a newly married bride whose Caribbean honeymoon is derailed before it starts when she breaks her leg while trying to climb out of a locked bathroom stall. And Joy (Ma-nenita De LaTorre), an immigrant who cares for a disagreeable old woman, is lonely for the son she left behind in the Philippines.

Clearly, a strain of melancholy runs through this film, but in the end it is not a downer. While it portrays the weightiness of everyday urban life, it also explores the undramatic but positive things that can touch people when their lives intersect.

A Lincoln 3 The recent movie Lincoln is serving an important function if it adds some balance to the public perception of the 16th president. No film that I have seen has presented Abraham Lincoln in such realistic terms, and the decision to focus on his campaign to get the 13th Amendment enacted was inspired, because that aspect of Lincoln’s presidency is not well known.

In a way, Lincoln is a victim of his own success. Under his watch, the Union was preserved and human slavery was outlawed in the United States. As a result, Lincoln is enshrined in the national memory as a miracle worker, a savior, almost super human. The apotheosis began almost the moment the public learned of his death.

Among the titles applied to Lincoln is “great emancipator,” but the sobriquet doesn’t reflect Lincoln’s internal struggle and his political struggle over the notion that the federal government should free the millions of people who were being held in bondage in the South when the Civil War erupted.

A Lincoln 4In Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty, Tonya Bolden spells out the hazardous route Lincoln traveled to his decision to issue the document that fixed his image in history.

The book is marketed by the publisher, Abrams, as being for young readers but the clear and concise treatment would be serviceable for any adult who wants to catch up on this topic.

Lincoln was progressive for his time. He  hated human slavery and would have abolished it if he thought he could. But the relationship between the states and the federal government was still evolving in the mid 19th century, and Lincoln didn’t think Constitution gave the federal government the power to interfere with slavery where it already existed.

A Lincoln 2 Inasmuch as the Civil War erupted shortly after and largely because of Lincoln’s first inauguration,he was preoccupied with one thing, and that was saving the Union. He said in so many words that whatever he did about slavery — abolish it, modify it, leave it alone — he would do only because it would save the Union. In the end, he was true to his word, because the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared free only those people  who were being held as slaves in states or parts of states in rebellion against the federal government, was a war measure. Lincoln reasoned that he could take that action as commander in chief even if he couldn’t have taken it as a peacetime president. Even then, he hesitated.

A Lincoln 5

While Lincoln was considering the advisability of freeing slaves as a way of weakening the southern economy, he had to take into account the potential reaction of the border states — slave states that hadn’t left the Union — as well as the reactions of  white Union soldiers who were willing to fight to save the Union but not to free black slaves. Meanwhile, he was under pressure from the swelling abolitionist movement to simply put an end to slavery in one sweeping gesture.

Lincoln also gave a lot of thought to what would become of the slaves once they were emancipated, and his thoughts were shaped by the fact that he didn’t believe in the equality of the black and white races and didn’t think black and white people could live together in peace. Accordingly, his solution was to colonize the freed slaves, preferably in South America or West Africa, even though most slaves at that time had been born in the United States. But by February 1865, Lincoln was publicly endorsing voting rights for at last some educated black men.

This is an attractive book — an art book, really — richly illustrated with images from the period and embellished with break-out  quotes from prominent men and women with an interest in the subject of emancipation.



Bonnie Franklin In the summer of 2011, I drove myself and four companions from Rome to the Le Marche region of Italy. That trip involves some serious mountain hills with the obligatory switchbacks and the occasional tunnel. As I rolled into the first tunnel, I was startled to hear from the back seat: “Whenever I feel afraid / I hold my head erect /  and whistle a happy tune /so no one will suspect / I’m afraid.” It was Bonnie Franklin, singing in a quick-step tempo with her eyes shut tight. “I’m afraid of tunnels,” she told us afterward, “so I sing that to take my mind off of  it.” And she did. Every time.

I met Bonnie in 1970 when I stopped by a New Jersey theater where she was appearing in A Thousand Clowns. She had already made a splash on Broadway singing and dancing the title song to Applause. I was there during the break between a matinee and an evening performance to talk to Hugh O’Brian, but he had taken ill and gone to a doctor. Bonnie, who was sitting outside with her Yorkie , Jobie, thought I looked confused. “Are you looking for Hugh O’Brian?” she said. And she told me what had happened.

Bonnie 2I thanked her and was about to leave, but she patted the concrete wall she was sitting on and said, “Sit down here and talk to me!” It was irresistible. Bonnie was irresistible. I sat, we talked. I came back a few days later and we sat and talked some more. We were close friends for 42 years after that.

My family and I became great fans of hers, because she was an outstanding actress, singer, and dancer. I used to kid her that latching on to her was my way to see the country, and we did travel to Manhattan, Nyack, West Hampton, New Hope, Mount Pocono, Pittsburgh, Ventura, Washington, D.C., Overland, Kansas, and some town in New Hampshire to see her perform. I’d pay plenty right now to hear her sing “How Long Has This Been Going On?” or see her in Shirley Valentine. My wife, Pat, says, and I agree, that once you’ve seen Bonnie as Shirley Valentine, you don’t need to see anyone else.

The relationship that evolved between Bonnie and my family was characterized by two qualities of hers: unconditional love and enormous generosity. She was passionate about what she believed. I learned this the second time we met: she was very agitated about the U.S. military campaign in Cambodia. She and I were largely simpatico, but inasmuch as I am a Roman Catholic deacon and she was a progressive Jew, we could disagree about some significant issues. This had no impact on our relationship, and that was because she had such an expansive heart.

Bonnie was very generous to me and to my family, not in a showy way but in a genuine expression of love. It became a running gag between us to see which of us could be first to tell the host at a restaurant not to bring the bill to the table. I told that to a host as soon as I arrived at a restaurant in Maine, and he said, “You’re too late. She beat you to it.” But I think I won the last round — at Joe Allen’s in New York.

Bonnie 5 More important was Bonnie’s generosity for those in need. I happily supported the organizations that were important to her, and she returned the favor to a fare-thee-well. I once told her in a casual conversation that a local nonprofit group I was associated with — to provide an annual festival for people with mental handicaps — was in financial trouble. A few days later, I received a personal check from her with a very large donation. On another occasion she traveled from her California home to New York for the sole purpose of giving a gratis benefit performance for another organization I was connected to, an association that builds and operates group homes for people who are both blind and mentally challenged.

A friend of mine who was a professional fundraiser for non-profits once showed me an article in a journal reporting that a survey of people in that field had found that Bonnie Franklin was perceived by the public as among the most trustworthy spokespersons for charitable causes. I wasn’t surprised. I doubt that a false word ever crossed her lips.

And she was funny. Just naturally funny. Every year on my birthday, I anticipated the phone call — I’m sure I wasn’t the only one — in which Bonnie would sing “Happy Birthday” to me. I wasn’t to speak until she was done, and there was always a second verse (“Get plastered, you bastard.”) Once when she was doing her incomparable cabaret act at the Algonquin Hotel, she wandered among the tables during one of her songs and gave me a hug. When I asked her afterward how she had found me in the darkened room, she said, “Easy. I just followed the smell of Old Spice.” She always took a pass on dessert when we ate out with her and her wonderful husband, Marvin Minoff. That is, she didn’t order dessert. She instructed me to order something chocolate, and then she ate half of it.

She was talented, she was witty, she was sweet, she was warm, she was profane, she was passionate, she was genuine. Now she’s gone. I’m a better person for having known and loved her, and I know I’m not alone. I hope heaven is ready.