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Life Arts    H2'ed 1/21/11

Kurt Stone on his "Memo to Sarah Palin"

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My guest today is Kurt Stone, self-described "rabbi, writer, lecturer, political activist, professor, actor, and medical ethicist." I'm not sure what to call you - Rabbi, Dr., Professor! In any case, welcome to OpEdNews! You recently wrote   "a Memo to Sarah Palin" which has been getting a lot of attention. Can you tell us about it,

photo credit: Art Galietti, One Take Productions by Kurt Stone

Yes, certainly.  When I was first made aware of Gov. Palin's YouTube response to her critics -- and to her use of the term "blood libel" -- I was floored.  First, that she would see herself as a "victim;" secondly, that she would even utter the words "blood libel."  My first thought was that she was sending a "dog whistle" message to her base -- as if to say, "Hey, we know who's behind all this (wink wink)."  I did not -- and still do not -- want to believe that she is an anti-Semite, merely ignorant and ill-informed about how highly charged that term is . . . of what sordid history lay beneath it.  And so, giving her the benefit of the doubt -- that she is ignorant and not a bigot -- I decided to address myself to her directly; to give her a brief history of the blood libel and to hopefully make her see why so many people have responded with such anger, dismay and vituperation. 
  Of course, I don't expect her to be aware of this memo; it was written mostly to get something off my chest and, as is the nature of a person who is both a professor and a rabbi, to do a bit of teaching.  Frankly, I have been somewhat taken aback by some of the comment this article has received.  Not so much that people are defending Sarah Palin (although a few have), but rather those who equate my op-ed piece as being snarky and condescending.  I asked both my wife and my assistant if they thought that either charge held any water, and was told by both that I haven't got a snarky bone in my body.  I don't hate Gov. Palin; I just wish she'd take her newfound millions and fade from the public scene.

The recent Arizona shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords precipitated your memo.  For those who have not read it yet, can you please give a little background so our conversation will make sense to them?

Three days before the Tucson shooting, my newest book, The Jews of Capitol Hill, was published by Scarecrow Press.  It is a sweeping history of America as seen through the eyes, lives and accomplishments of the 200 Jewish men and women who have served in the United States Congress from 1840 to the present.  The essays range from 600 to over 7,000 words.  Included in the 200 essays was one -- of course -- on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.  So here I am, somewhat eerily, having published what is likely the first in-depth biographic essay of a woman who three days later is caught in an assassin's cross-hairs.  I decided to publish the essay separately, just to put a human face on Gabby.

 In my years as a political writer/historian, I have interviewed hundreds of members of Congress, their families and friends.  Rep. Giffords is one of the most down-to-earth people on Capitol Hill.  In Yiddish, we'd say "there's no hochmas about her" -- meaning, essentially,  what you see is what you get.  She is neither a hand-shaker nor a back-slapper; she is a hugger.  She is also incredibly bright, passionate about doing good, and a true daughter of the West.  That she is pulling off this miraculous recovery is, perhaps, not 100% surprising; there's just something about her.

That is eerie timing! Besides being an author with a new book out, you have also been a consistent blogger over the past years. And you got quite a reaction to your Palin piece. Tell us about that, please.

Writing has long been one of the major aspects of my life.  It is both a joy and a discipline.   I started writing op-ed pieces for my blog 6 years ago.  It was originally called "Beating the Bushes," then changed to "The K.F. Stone Weekly" at the dawn of the Obama Administration. There was/is, of course, a purposiveness to calling it "The K.F. Stone Weekly."  Many readers will remember the late, great I.F. Stone, who was one of the greatest investigative, curmudgeonly journalists of all time.  We are in no way related; I.F. Stone was a Feinstein; I am a Schimberg.

 Anyway, I made myself a promise that come hell or high water, I would publish a minimum of one 1,000-word piece a week.  And, for the past 324 weeks I have kept that promise to myself; more than 350 articles in 324 weeks.  Until recently, my  average number of daily readers was around 3-4 dozen.  Since the 10th of January, 2011, that daily average has gone up by more than 800%.  Since the 15th of January, by more than 1,500%.  And now that I have begun posting to OpEdNews.Com, my readership has exploded!  Perhaps it will also result in increased book sales.

  A decade ago, I published The Congressional Minyan: The Jews of Capitol Hill, a much different sort of book than the recently published The Jews of Capitol Hill.  The former contained 179 essays, arranged in simple alphabetic order -- from "Abzug" to "Zorinsky."  This time around, I have divided American history into six political generations and have arranged 200 essays in chronological order: From "Levy-Yulee" to "Blumenthal."  Nonetheless, despite the rather simplistic format of the former (and not having a blog) it became a bestseller.

 Now, with the new book, having what I believe is a much more challenging, informative and, quite frankly entertaining, format AND the added advantage of Internet readers, followers and fans, perhaps this book will do even better.  And of course, better book sales translate into even more lecture possibilities.  At this point I do about 165 lectures a year on subjects ranging from "A Brief History of Paranoia," and "From Melting Pot to Salad Bowl: The American Experience With Immigration," to "How Hollywood Destroyed Orson Welles" and "1939: The Year Hollywood Could Do No Wrong." (Yeah, I do lots of Hollywood lectures . . . after all, I am a "Hollywood Brat."

I'm so glad that OpEdNews has boosted your readership.  Good to know. Don't leave us hanging. What do you mean when you say that you're a Hollywood brat? So far, we've heard about your writing and blogging, but there were a lot more labels you ascribed to yourself. Spill, please!

About being a "Hollywood Brat": I was actually born in Hollywood at Temple Hospital (seemingly appropriate for a future rabbi, although it got its name for being on Temple St.) and was raised in Sherman Oaks where virtually everyone was in the industry.  Our neighbors, friends parents, classmates, members of our shul -- everyone was an actor, writer, producer, choreographer, you name it.  We had no idea that anyone was famous . . . that's just what people did for a living.  My parents had come out to Hollywood a long time ago to get into film.  My mother (who is still going strong at 87) was mainly a stage/radio actress with a larger-than-life persona ala Auntie Mame.  My father, although "fatally handsome," as they used to say, didn't have all that much talent.  What he did have was brains, so he gave up on being a movie star and became a stock broker -- introducing loads of industry folks to a new product called "Mutual Funds." 

 I myself did my share of stage acting as a kid, had a bit part in a Clint Eastwood movie ("Coogan's Bluff") and have performed as Sholem Aleichem, the "Father of Yiddish Literature" a couple of hundred times over the past 30+ years.  As a rabbi, of course, I'm the only one in the family guaranteed an audience 52 weeks a year! Hope that satisfies your curiosity.

That's what I call a captive audience! So, you have rabbinic ordination and a synagogue? Tell us a little about that and  your university teaching gig, please.

I was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1980, so have been a rabbi now for slightly over 30 years. (This was 5 years of graduate-level rabbinic study after undergraduate and graduate school. As a result, I've got enough degrees to paper a couple of walls . . .)  

  I did spend the better part of 20 years as a pulpit rabbi, mostly in Florida, but finally figured out that although I was a pretty competent rabbi, and loved being one, I'm a crummy employee!  And so, for the past 11 or 12 years I've had what's called a havurah, sort of a "synagogue without walls," which suits me just fine; I can now consider being a rabbi my "art form" rather than  my profession.  

I still do the normal rabbinic functions -- weddings, funerals, baby namings, counseling, etc., and, along with my wife, have a small Hebrew school in which we educate boys and girls from age 8 through becoming bar/bat mitzvah.  ("Bar/bat Mitzvah," is a noun, not a verb as most people believe). I do weekly services at an upscale senior living facility, and invite the community to come to a hotel for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  I consider myself to be "post demoninational" -- that is, a fairly traditional kosher Jew with a wry sense of humor...

So far as my university teaching gigs: I am an adjunct professor at two campuses of Florida Atlantic University (Boca Raton and Jupiter) and Florida International University in Aventura.  I teach courses in politics and current events, history, International Relations (the "Great Decisions" courses as sponsored by the Foreign Policy Association) and tons of classes in cinema.  Right now, I'm teaching one course entitled "All Politics All the Time," one called "Images of Male and Female in Film," one called "These Are a Few of My Favorite Films" (two from the 'teens, two from the 'twenties, two from the 'thirties and two from the 'forties) and Great Decisions.  It adds up to five lectures a week. All of these courses are taught in the Lifelong Learning Division, so my students are all (or mostly) retirees. They are a most engaging portion of the South Florida populace, each with a lifetime of experience, many imbued with wisdom, all still seeking knowledge and academic challenges even in their sixties, seventies, eighties and a few in the nineties!

Sounds great! That's so funny; Earlier this week, I interviewed a woman who teaches drama classes at BOLLI, the adult education program at Brandeis. So far, we've talked about most of the hats you wear, except - let me see - political activist and medical ethicist.  I'm sure you don't want to leave our readers in suspense about those two!

For the past 15 or 16 years, I have had a position on the Cleveland Clinic Florida's "Institutional Review Board" (IRB).  By federal law, all medical research that involves live human subjects must first pass muster by an IRB.  And, also by federal law, anyone who is going to be a participant in a research project must sign what is called an "Informed Consent."  In order to give consent, they first have to understand what is going to be happening; what possible adverse events might occur; how long they will be participating, etc.

  By law, IRBs are made up of MDs, scientists, pharmacologists and at least one "public person."  For Cleveland Clinic Florida, I have long been that "public person."  My job is to go through the various research protocols and make sure that what is being proposed is both ethical and -- equally important -- understandable for the subjects who will be participating.  Doctors and scientists do have a tendency to communicate in pretty indecipherable language.  It's my job to take what they write and then translate it into lay language, thereby making it possible for consent to be informed . . .

 So far as "political activist," I have long worked for candidates and campaigns in an advisory capacity -- strategy, issue development, speech writing, etc.  Back in the early '70s, I actually co-managed a congressional campaign in what was then California's 12th Congressional District.  Although our candidate -- Julian Camacho -- did not defeat the 10-term Republican incumbent, he did make the district marginal (losing by less than two points), thus making that incumbent vulnerable for the next election. Sure enough, the next time around, the Republican (Burt Talcott) lost his seat to a fellow named Leon Panetta, and the rest is history.

And lest you think that all I do is work, work, work, I'm also a fanatic Dodger and Laker fan, and have been told that I'm a "walking encyclopedia of baseball statistics."

What an interesting life you lead!  Anything else you'd like to talk about before we finish up? 

the happy couple, San Diego by Kurt Stone

Only to say that I am married to Anna Zamosc-Stone, who is a much beloved teacher of English as a Second Language at Broward College. To her students, she's more than a teacher; she's a mentor, an advisor, and above all, a friend.  She is also one of the nicest human beings G-d ever created. We have two cats, Malka and Shlomo, and a mostly greyhound named Fred Astaire; regrettably, we had to put Fred's companion, a Chocolate Lab named -- what else? -- Ginger Rogers to sleep several weeks ago.  Our daughter Nurit, who has a degree in Art History, works for the Welcome Wagon; our son Ilan is an attorney specializing in real estate law.  Both are dating wonderful people; hope springs eternal!

You and your wife sound like a perfect match. It's been such a pleasure talking with you, Kurt. Thanks so much!

Kurt's website
Thanks to Amanda Lang for sending "A Memo to Sarah Palin" to me in the first place.
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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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