Sunday, February 24, 2013

Purim and Grandma's Kipfel


Today is Purim, probably the least-known Jewish holiday to non-Jews. It’s also the most frivolous and fun. The twitter version of the Purim story is that the Jews were saved from extermination in Ancient Persia by Esther (yay, a woman did it) who foiled the attempt of Haman (the king’s nasty advisor) to put all Jews to death. Dodging a genocide is truly cause for celebration among my tribe because it is something that rarely occurred in our entire history, which is fundamentally a string of exterminations that chased us around the globe as we ran from pillar to post trying to save our skins, since we had no homeland (until Israel). It’s a wonder any of us are left.

The Purim story is recounted in the Biblical Book of Esther, or Megillat Esther, and if you want to know the story you can literally read “the whole megillah” in the old testament. Purim is the big eat, drink, and be merry holiday. Celebrants are supposed to drink until we don’t know the difference between Haman and Esther, which is a rather dubious measure of drunkenness. Not your local cop’s breathalyzer test. We eat poppy seed pastries called hamentashen, shaped in triangles because Haman wore a three-cornered hat. On Purim we dress up in costumes; and cross-dressing is much encouraged. We read the Book of Esther out loud, and every time Haman’s name is said, we make a holy racket:  hollering, spinning noisemakers, stamping our feet. When I was a little girl, we wrote “Haman” on the bottom of our shoes with chalk so we could stamp his name out. Purim celebrants are instructed to turn everything on its head so that confusion reigns. Purim reminds us to take a break from reality and the value of getting a new perspective on things by stepping outside our routines, stepping outside the comfortable organization of our lives, taking a vacation from our usual selves, and basically shaking things up.

For many years I have been meaning to figure out a gluten-free version of my Grandma Wachspress’s terrific hamentashen recipe and yesterday I decided was the day to do it. Her hamentashen were so delectable because she used a traditional Hungarian kipfel dough. Kipfel is a heart attack on a cookie sheet. I have seen a number of recipes for kipfel and all of them have heavy fat content. Grandma W’s recipe uses a half a pound of butter and a half a pound of high-test full-strength cream cheese. In fact, this recipe lends itself well to gluten-free conversion since the flour is buried in mounds of fat and therefore unrecognizable as a significant ingredient. Yesterday I made Grandma W’s hamentashen recipe, converting the wheat flour to brown rice flour. The result was the most outrageous gluten-free pastries, like straight from the old country.

So I took my life-altering hamentashen to synagogue last night for the Purim Party. I slipped them inconspicuously on the food table in among the mountains of food and the plates and plates of hamentashen. I put a little sign on mine that said they were gluten-free and that I made them, to let people know they had no gluten and in case anyone wanted to come tell me that they had an epiphany when they bit into my hamentashen. I quietly waited for the festivities to grind to a halt as my hamentashen brought everyone to their knees. To understand the full extent of my fantasy, you have to picture the volume of hamentashen of every imaginable type at this event. I’m talking plates overflowing with prune-filled, chocolate, marmalade, strawberry, traditional poppy seed, and raisin/walnut hamentashen. I’m talking whole wheat, flaky white flour, other gluten-free styles, and vegan hamentashen. When our congregation does Purim, we be hamentashen.

Here is what actually happened. I received a few modest compliments and then an elderly member of the congregation, who is an outstanding cook and who has made the most marvelous Jewish cuisine for many synagogue events, this one elderly woman sought me out to tell me that my hamentashen were delicious and that it had been a long time since she had tasted such a fine Hungarian kipfel. She made my night!  There are probably few Jews still living who know what a real old-world Hungarian kipfel tastes like. I think that no one, except this elder, at last night’s Purim Party could even recognize an authentic kipfel. So much is lost to us when our elders pass on. But today I am still celebrating my inheritance from Grandma W:  hamentashen with real kipfel for breakfast (EKG and resuscitation at noon). Here is the link to the hamentashen recipe (which includes instructions for making kipfel). 

(Not mine, just a stock photo. I'm no photographer, 
but wanted those who don't know to see what hamentashen look like. 
Mine look a lot like these.)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

War Tax Resistance


This past week I provided my 2012 tax information to my accountant (whom I refer to as my financial therapist—he’s the best). Entering into this year’s tax season has made me think back to the years when I was a war tax resister. The first year that I paid taxes was 1979. I was no longer in college and I worked a regular job (not work-study or a fellowship) so I had to file income taxes for the first time. The more I learned about federal spending allocations, the worse I felt about paying taxes. I don’t mind paying taxes, but I would like to have the right to select what programs my taxes should go toward. I resent paying for weapons development and for war.

I don’t remember how I found out about the War Tax Resisters League (WTRL) in the days before the internet. They were an organization based in Seattle that had set up a way to help people conscientiously resist paying taxes for military use. I used their services. This is how it worked. They created a pie chart that showed how the federal budget (each year) was allocated. It was painfully clear from the pie chart that the lion’s share of the federal budget went to the military. I (as did many others) used the annual WTRL pie chart to determine what percentage of my taxes would go to the military. Then I subtracted that percentage from the total taxes I owed. Next I opened a war tax resistance interest-earning savings account through the WTRL and I mailed a check for the portion of my taxes that I would refuse to pay to the IRS to Seattle instead, where the WTRL deposited the funds into my account.

When I filed my taxes, I wrote a letter to the IRS explaining that I had put the percentage of my taxes that would have gone to violence (military, defense, weapons, war) into a bank account and I would save it there for the feds until the government quit waging war on other nations (both covert and outright). I then wrote a check made out to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for the difference (the percentage that went to non-military purposes) and mailed that in with my tax forms to the IRS. There were consequences, of course. As you can imagine, I received increasingly threatening letters from the IRS telling me I owed them tax money.

Having taken the plunge and become a war tax resister, I persevered for several years afterward. I learned that if I declared a lot of dependents on my W4 when I was hired for a job, then I would have hardly any money withheld and I would owe a lot of taxes in April. That method made it possible for me to refuse to pay very nearly all of my income taxes that would have gone to the military when I filed my taxes each year. I used the annual WTRL pie chart to get the percentage and then I subtracted that portion from my taxes. I always made a point of paying for the percentage that goes to veterans benefits. But I sent the portion that would have gone to fighting wars and making weapons and all that defense/military stuff to the WTRL to put in my savings account. I also sent additional money to the WTRL account to cover the cost of fines and interest that would be charged when the IRS eventually collected, as I knew they would. They are a bully with enormous muscle.

If you can believe it, I successfully resisted paying war taxes from 1979 to 1984. Over the years, the letters from the IRS became more frightening. They said they would impound my car, turn me out of my apartment, garnish my wages, arrest me. I diligently responded to their threats, told them the account number of the savings account at the WTRL where I had put the money for them. Patiently and politely explained that I was a pacifist and I did not approve of the government’s use of my money. I told them they could have it if the government stopped waging war.

Finally the IRS got fed up with me. Or I should say with us, because by then I was married and Ron and I resisted war taxes together. One day the IRS swooped in and cleaned out our bank accounts. Poof, like that. Not the one in Seattle at the WTRL, but our regular, daily-use bank accounts. I was outraged that the IRS had the power to just pluck my money straight out of my bank account. We literally had no money to buy food. We had no credit cards in those days (I applied for my first one after this fiasco with the IRS happened). Our money disappeared to the IRS during the year that I was staying home with my first baby. I called the WTRL in a panic and they were terrific. They wired us some money to help get us by until they could mail us a check for the large sum of money we had stashed in our account with them over the years. The IRS held us accountable not just for all our back taxes, but also the interest the money would have earned for the IRS over the years according to their calculations, plus they levied a fine. Even after they wiped out our bank accounts, we still owed more to them, and I decided to finally pay it. I had a child to think about and I could not handle the stress and uncertainty of resisting paying war taxes. So we settled up with the IRS.

I have paid my taxes ever since that time. For many years, I made my income tax check out to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or the U.S. Department of Education, just to make a point. When the canceled check came back (because in those days you could still get one), it always had “IRS” stamped on the back. Oh well. I always wrote a letter stating that I did not wish to have my money go to the military. I wondered if the IRS agent would read it and if it would cause any thought on that subject.

When I googled War Tax Resisters League, I couldn’t actually find the organization in Seattle that helped me back in the early 80s. I did find the War Resisters League (WRL) and they do create a pie chart every year to show the federal budget allocations. Here is the link to the WRL.  And here is the link to their pie chart.  Here, below, is a pie chart I downloaded that shows government budget allocations for 2013.



I continue to find it difficult to pay my taxes, knowing what the money goes toward. By paying taxes I am complicit in murder and torture. My taxes pay for the waterboarding of political prisoners and the bombing of children, they pay for construction of nuclear weapons and sophisticated heat-seeking missiles. They pay for the grief, anguish, pain, and loss of others in countries less prosperous or privileged than my own. This is a fact of my life that I must live with and frankly it makes me feel ashamed.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Blizzard


As the Northeast is blanketed in snow, and I check in with friends and family who live there, I am reminded of the upside of big weather – the great fun of living outside the daily norm that big weather often gifts to us. When I was growing up in Schenectady, NY, we often had snow storms and ice storms that shut everything down and knocked out the power. I remember sitting by the radio and listening to the school closings. What a thrill when they read the name of my school! An unexpected day of freedom.

The house that I lived in until I was 11 years old had many white birch trees in the yard. During ice storms, the birches would become coated and would bend over so that the top branches often touched the ground, like women stepping out of the shower with long wet hair and bending over to wring it out. Robert Frost wrote a famous poem about those bent over birches. (Here is the link to it if you like poetry.) If I recall, we lost a number of our birches to ice storms when they snapped from the weight. But I will always remember the graceful beauty of those bent birches, glittering, cased in ice.

Once we had a huge blizzard when my cousins were visiting us and their family couldn’t return to their home on Long Island because of the weather. It was the best thing we cousins could have hoped for. We spent days playing in the snow until we were soaked and freezing and then we’d go inside and drink hot cocoa and play board games until we warmed up and then we’d go back out again to build igloos and ride our sleds. We must have made our mothers crazy because they couldn’t use the dryer and we were soaking through every stitch of clothing we had from our expeditions into the winter wonderland outside. We slept rolled up in sleeping bags in the living room in front of the fireplace where our fathers had stoked up the fire for the night because the power had gone out. At one point my uncle and aunt packed up and piled my cousins into the car and attempted to go home, but the NY State Thruway was closed so they had to turn back. Imagine how delighted me and my brothers were to have our cousins returned to us for more fun and games. That storm gave me one of my very favorite childhood memories.

We often lost our power in winter rain or wind storms up at the Ranch during our years living out on the land. It snowed there very occasionally, which made our dirt road impassable. Also one of my favorite memories is one night during our first winter at the Ranch when it was pouring rain and the power had gone out. Ron was working that night and I was at home alone with the children. Sudi was an infant, Akili 4, and Yael 7. Yael, Akili, and I were in the midst of reading James and the Giant Peach. So I lit a candles and we wrapped up in blankets and piled onto my bed with baby Sudi kicking and gurgling happily beside us and I read chapter after chapter. That was the night that Akili made his famous comment about the caterpillar’s singing. I have never been known for being able to carry a tune. The caterpillar in that book sings a lot. So I would make up some sort of tune and attempt to sing the caterpillar’s words. After one such attempt that night, Akili commented, “That poor caterpillar can’t sing very well, can he Mom?”

Big weather gave us some of our most fun family moments at the Ranch. Once Ron cooked a pizza in the woodstove because the oven didn’t work when the power was out. It was an amazingly delicious smoky pizza. I remember many a night playing cards or board games with the children by lantern light. Housebound as a result of flash flooding along Highway 101 on one New Year’s Eve, Ron, Sudi, and I played Clue until 3AM. In the early years we had no backup generator so we had no water (we had a well that pumped using electricity) when the power went out. But after we got the generator, we would fire it up once a day for everyone to take a shower and check email whenever we lost our power.

I love the photos of the winter wonderland caused by the big Blizzard of 2013 (they call it Nemo); photos of children playing in the snow, patios covered up to the tip-top of the lawn chairs, snow piled up against the window, people snowshoeing and skiing. I love the stories about community fun during the big weather. I’m sure there will be lots of stories in the news about death and disaster, but I prefer to take a moment to celebrate the delights brought to us when Mother Nature forces us to pause and step outside the daily usual.

Silver birches along the road.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Elephants


Sometimes the behavior of animals makes me ashamed of the behavior of humans. Sure nature is savage. Absolutely. And sure, animals behave with shocking brutality in their instinctive efforts to survive (and often to dominate). But we humans can be equally brutal and grossly dominating; and we have much to learn from animal communities. We need to set aside our condescension toward other species and open our receptors.

Elephants have always struck me as one of the wisest and most spiritual of animals. They have such a complex and highly developed social structure. Perhaps the most important thing that we can learn from them is the value of basing communities on raising our young. Elephant communities are built around nurturing young elephants, raising them to be healthy, strong, and capable. So really, what more is there to say? In my work with communities all over the country, what I have found is that the healthiest communities, those that are safest and that are ranked as the “best places to live,” are the ones that have placed the raising of their children at the heart of community life. These are the communities that have as their mission to raise healthy, happy, safe, intellectually inquisitive children; children supported and capable of fulfilling their potential for being their best selves. In the process, the adult members of the community become their own best selves. Elephants already know this truth that humans seem largely unable to comprehend. (Witness how little money is put into education compared to defense spending.)

Elephant communities are matriarchal. Older female elephants teach younger female elephants how to care for elephant calves and the calves are raised communally by all the mothers. Elephants have the largest brain of any land animal and the cortex of the elephant brain has as many neurons as a human brain. As smart as humans? Probably smarter. Elephants grieve over their dead, exhibit a sense of humor, and, of course, play. They can be taught and they show interest in learning. They create art, use tools, demonstrate altruism and compassion, and they have good memories. They speak to one another in a language that includes vocalizations beyond the range of human audibility and that can carry over great distances.

I was prompted to write today about elephants after reading an amazing elephant story. Conservationist Lawrence Anthony is the author of the book The Elephant Whisperer, which relates his experiences rescuing troubled and troublesome elephants at his Thula Thula Conservation Reserve in South Africa. I confess that I have not yet read his book, but I will be reading it very soon now that I have heard this astounding story of how the elephants, whose lives Anthony saved, came to say goodbye to him when he died in March 2012. There are two herds of wild South African elephants at the vast Thula Thula Reserve, and both of these herds traveled for at least 12 hours to pay their respects to Anthony after he passed away. How did these elephants know that their friend and advocate had died? No one can answer that question. The two herds of elephants (who had been rescued by Anthony years earlier) walked across the Zululand bush until they reached Anthony’s house. These are not tame elephants either. These are wild elephants.  These elephants had been dangerous, violent, rogue creatures, who were hunted by the locals only a few years before (and they would have been shot if not for Anthony’s efforts). Anthony “rehabilitated” them so that they could live safely and without causing harm at the reserve. Once the elephants arrived at the Anthony family compound, they remained in the yard for two days to “pay their respects.” They had not “visited” Anthony’s house in nearly two years. It has long been known that elephants mourn their dead (not just other elephants who have died, but people who have died as well). What mystifies and astonishes me is that they knew Anthony had died and that they immediately set out and traveled such a great distance to honor him and offer comfort to his family.

I look forward to reading Anthony’s whole story about his relationship with the elephants in his book when I get my hands on a copy (I’m in line at the library). In the meantime, I am reminded to pay closer attention to the other species with whom I share this earth; and I am reminded that people are not the smartest ones here.



Here is one of the elephant herds arriving at the Anthony family's rural compound to pay respects.