Zachary Klein

zachFor decades, Sue, our kids, and I have spent Thanksgiving with the same group of friends at Bill and Bonnie’s home. Over the course of those decades, our numbers have grown as kids matured into adults and started their own families. And this year is special because our older son, Matt, Alyssa, and their one-year-old twins (Mari and Vivian) will be joining us for the first time since the kids were born.

It’s always been passing strange that the single holiday I actually enjoy began, according to some historians, as a commemoration of the Pequot Massacre between 1634 and 1638. After colonists found a murdered White man in his boat, armed settlers burned a Pequot village and their crops, then demanded that the Natives turn in the murderers. The Natives refused and a massacre followed.

Shortly afterwards, William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth, declared, “A day of Thanksgiving, thanking God they had eliminated over 700 men, women, and children.” It was signed into law that “This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.” (In support of a proposed national holiday, Sarah Josepha Hale, novelist and author of Mary Had A Little Lamb, wrote letters to five Presidents of the United States: Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan, but the letter she wrote to Lincoln convinced him to support legislation establishing a national holiday of Thanksgiving in 1863.)

In a proclamation Lincoln implored that all Americans ask god to “commend to his tender care all those who had become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife,” and to “heal the wounds of a nation.” And while Lincoln connected the holiday to the Civil War, “festivities” actually dated back to the Puritan massacre.

So yeah, although the holiday’s origin is in direct contradiction to everything I’ve believed in throughout my adult life, it’s still the one I’ve enjoy the most. Go figger.

But this year, despite the joy of being with my entire family and a large number of friends and their families, my face is planted hard into that contradiction. As I write this, there really is no escape from the national debate about shelter for Syrian refugees that’s erupted since the Paris tragedy. It’s as if the majority of my fellow citizens are projecting our genocidal history with Native Americans onto people who are seeking safety from the inhumanity and mass destruction which hangs over their heads. An obscene inhumanity brought about in no small measure because of our intransigent wars in the Mideast. Go figger.

Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve slammed our door in the face of specific peoples. We did it to the Chinese with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, we turned away Jews trying to escape Nazism, and we rounded up Japanese people and sent them to internment camps during the Second World War. (And these are just quick-fire examples.) So there’s really nothing new in our rabid response to Syrian refugees. Fear, rational or not, does that.

I understand the anxiety caused by the Paris tragedy. I vividly remember my frantic calls to New York on 9/11, looking for my son and my cousin who worked downtown. I live in Boston so the Marathon Bombing still rings fresh. Look, every society wants to self-protect. I get it. But to imagine that Syrian refugees will just waltz through the door and into Mosques to plot terror attacks is, at best, ignorance, and, more likely, as usual, sheer racism. As it was against the Chinese, Jews, Japanese, and other nationalities who’ve been given the back of our hand.

While politicians play politics with our fears, every once in a while it’s useful to look at some facts. Here’s a very abbreviated list of refugee security screening:

Refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States, including the involvement of the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense.

All refugees, including Syrians, are admitted only after successful completion of this stringent security screening regime, which includes all available biographic and biometric information vetted against a broad array of law enforcement and intelligence community databases to confirm identity and ensure safety.

This screening process has been enhanced over the last few years to ensure we are effectively utilizing the full scope of our intelligence community to review each applicant.

Mindful of the particular conditions of the Syria crisis, Syrian refugees go through additional forms of security screening. We continue to examine options for further enhancements for screening Syrian refugees, the details of which are classified

Clearly, it’s not impossible for a potential terrorist from any country to sneak through and blow something up. But the vast majority of what has occurred in this country that’s been termed “terrorism” has come from home-growns. Born and bred White Americans. To use Syrian refugees to pander to our people’s basic fears is almost as cold and callous as the bombs we’ve dropped on their region. But given the history of Western Civilization, the history of our species, it comes as no surprise

The opening scene in Werner Herzog’s, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, starts with a distant aerial shot of clouds atop a mountain. As we slowly travel through we begin to see movement on the mountain. Drawing closer it’s possible to make out caterpillar lines of motion. As we get even nearer, those caterpillars become people. Really close, we see Conquistadors marching while whipping slaves to pull their carriages and equipment. What was at first beautiful becomes horrifying.

More earth






So it’s tough to give thanks these days. But come Thursday, surrounded by love and joy from friends and family, I’ll no doubt kick back, eat, drink, and set aside the pain and suffering that surrounds damn near most of our world. After all, despite vicious politician fear-mongering, I know, comfortable in my White privilege, that no bombs will turn me and mine into homeless refugees. Luck of birth, eh?

 later that night

I held an atlas in my lap

ran my fingers across the whole


and whispered

where does it hurt?

 It answered




~ Warsan Shire



Zachary Klein





About thirteen years ago my cousin Frank’s son, Scott, called to ask if I would mind if he and his wife, Christine named their son “Zachary.” (According to Jewish custom, parents do not name their children after living relatives. Which is why you don’t see many Jew Juniors.) As soon as he assured me that I wasn’t dead I quickly assured him that I not only didn’t mind, I was flattered. A pause on the line, then, “Uhh, not really after you. We just like the name.” Scott is nothing if not honest.

And I love that. But I still liked the idea and like it even better since I’ve had a chance to spend time, over the years, with the family: Scott, Christine, Rachael, and Zack.

Good people,  sweet kids.


Thirteen years after Zack’s birth, and it’s bar mitzvah time.

ZackNow, I hadn’t been in a synagogue (marriage and funeral chapels don’t count!) since Frank’s youngest son, Ben, had his bar mitzvah twenty-some years ago. Having spent most of my childhood attending yeshivas—the last of which was Hasidic—I feel I’ve done my time. Hard time. So it wasn’t surprising that I walked up to the Brooklyn brownstone temple with a belly clench…

Which continued inside its small sanctuary that reminded me of my old Hasidic “learning room,” a somewhat dark medieval kind of place. Trying to keep a tiny new-age neoprene yarmulke on my big head while listening to the cantor strumming on his guitar, did nothing to ease my gut. I’d just landed in what seemed like a cross between the ancient yeshiva world and the Catholic guitar masses I’d occasionally and uncomfortably attended when married to my first wife, Peggy.

For about fifteen minutes I was the standing embodiment of cognitive dissonance. Which finally subsided when the senior Rabbi, Rachel Timoner, urged the congregation to join in with the cantor’s If I Were a Rich Man. (Not really. Just a singing chorus that sounded like yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum.) Somehow his voice, which was tenor wonderful, and the familiar happy/sad sounds chilled me out and I finally relaxed…

Only to be jolted to attention when a baby naming ceremony was announced and two men walked up front with a newborn. This was not my father’s shul. My experience, either. The entire congregation went silent as one father talked emotionally about his and his husband’s happiness and their love for the child. I saw tears streaming down my cousin Marcy’s face which, at that moment, perfectly reflected the collective heart of the congregation. It was a moving and amazing few minutes—despite my continuous struggle to keep that damn yarmulke on my head.

Turns out Beth Elohim was founded in 1861 and, remarkably, has kept pace with the rational world. I know there are other reform synagogues that have women rabbis, but my experience with them in past left me pretty cold. Those places were pretty cold. But this was different. The service combined Hasidic joyousness through song (though the Hasids never used guitars or pianos) with a modern day message and commitment to social justice. The Temple’s progressiveness and humanity was reflected in Rabbi Timoner’s interpretation of the Torah portion Zack read along with the cantor—and left a smile on my face.

Zack1Rabbi TimonerNow that I know something about her, Timoner’s interjections and sermon were not surprising. As an Associate Rabbi in LA, the rabbi sought social justice in public transportation, affordable housing, and health care. She also raised funds to rebuild a community center for low-income women, and founded two leadership programs and a peer hotline for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered youth. (After the bar mitzvah we visited with my son Matt and his family who live in Brooklyn. We talked about the day and I mentioned Timoner. Matt told me that he knew her from college and described her student activism back then and the reputation she had in the borough. Small world, eh?)

Let me be clear; I have no inclination to begin believing in god. No desire to belong to a temple—no matter what type. No interest in High Holy Days, Passover, or anything to do with religion of any sort. Especially when I have to fight with a yarmulke. Still, if I need to spend a couple hours on a Saturday morning in prayer and Talmudic elocution, Beth Elohim would be the place to go. Yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum.

Happy Bar Mitzvah, Zack, you did great. And mazel tov to my cousin’s entire mishpocha.

Every act of perception is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination. ~ Oliver Sac