The Left Side of History–the most entertaining book about Communism I ever read

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If you think that the study of Communism is boring, you are wrong. Kristen Ghodsee, Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College, has written an eyeopening and entertaining story of how Communism came to Bulgaria and how the average citizen suffered when socialism was replaced by the free market economy.

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Frank Thompson

The Left Side of History (Duke University Press) begins with the story of Major Frank Thompson, a British intelligence officer, who died in 1944 while fighting alongside the Communist partisans in Bulgaria.  Thompson was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain.  Ghodsee writes about his idealism, his hopes for a better world after World War II, and the dreams he shared with Iris Murdoch, whom he might have married had he survived the war.

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Kristen Ghodsee

The book continues with a portrait of Elena Lagadinova, the youngest Bulgarian partisan.  Known as the Amazon, she became a legend in her own time.  Elena’s family were Communists.  Her father founded the local branch of the Party.  One brother was killed by German collaborators.  Another brother rose to be a General in the post-war Bulgarian military, until he was forcibly retired in a political purge.  

Ghodsee tells how King Boris III joined the Axis in exchange for parts of Macedonia and Greece.  Boris was two-faced. Though he instituted racial laws and deported Bulgarian Jews to the countryside, he refused to hand them over to the Nazis.  Jews in Bulgarian-occupied Macedonia and Greece were sent to the Nazi gas chambers.  The Germans never occupied Bulgaria, and King Boris refused to send troops to fight against the Soviet Union.

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King Boris III

In September 1944, as Soviet troops drew near, the monarchy was overthrown and the Fatherland Front took power.  Bulgaria remained under Communist control until 1989.

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Elena Lagadinova as a partisan in World War II

Ghodsee interviews Lagadinova and other Bulgarian women’s leaders and examines the decline of the welfare state after the fall of Communism.  Under Communism, Bulgaria was a world leader in women’s rights.  Women had the right to three years maternity leave.  Equal employment and equal pay were guaranteed.  Everyone received free education and medical care.  Upon graduation, the government provided job placement, though not in the career or location a person wanted.  The people were not rich, but they were secure.

Ghodsee is fun to read.  She uses interesting terms–like having lunch in Bulgaria with her “ex-in-laws.”   She loves to write about food.

While a scholar at the the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, she wanted to meet the renowned physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson.   She nervously debated with herself on how to meet him.  One day, she spotted him in the cafeteria line.  We learned that he was considering between the blackened haddock and the baked acorn squash stuffed with quinoa, when she introduced herself.

In Bulgaria, she tracked down Elena Lagadinova, who was then past 80 years old.  During her long career, Elena had been head of the state-run Bulgarian women’s movement.  Although she had completed post-doctoral research in agriculture at a Soviet university, Elena was a traditionalist when it came to hospitality.  Ghodsee visited her flat.  

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Elena Lagadinova and Kristen Ghodsee in 2013

There was a price for an interview.  Elena insisted that she eat watermelon and salty cheese, round after round of them.  Elena knows how to tell a good story, Ghodsee related.  But she always wanted Ghodsee to be eating.  If Ghodsee were to stop eating, Elena would stop talking.  Ghodsee calls this indentured eating.

Later Ghodsee visited a non-Party member who worked in East Berlin for eight years as an editor with an international women’s group aligned with the world Communist movement.  After Communism fell, she supported herself as a freelance translator.  She also was a traditionalist in hospitality.  Her price for an interview was thin slices of kashkaval (Bulgarian yellow cheese), salami, batter-covered peanuts, almonds, two different types of crackers, some cookies and potato chips, Bulgarian vodka, Bulgarian tonic, and a glass bowl full of ice.  Smoking was mandatory for the interview.

Ghodsee recognizes the lack of political freedom, the corruption and privilege, and the stifling effects of one-party rule during the Communist era.  However, she gives a fresh look at life from the view of the average, nonpolitical citizen.

Even if you are not interested in politics and ideology, it is a great read for foodies.

Gotta go.  My Weight Watchers meeting is about to start.

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Yom Kippur: Sending evil to its place of origin and dispatching our sins to an inaccessible region.

“At Yom Kippur, God and the Jewish people stand face to face at an inward, not an outward mountain.  It is the mountain of our misdeeds and our sorrows,"   Writes Rabbi Arthur Waskow in The Seasons of Our Joy.

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Rabbi Arthur Waskow

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Today, we read about the two goats.   Aaron sacrifices the first goat as expiation for himself and his family.  The second goat is for Azazel.  As Leviticus 16:21-22 says:

"Aaron shall lay both hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man.  Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an INACESSIBLE REGION; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.” (NJPS)

Who or what is Azazel?

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Reverend Claude Mariottini

I recommend the blog of Claude Mariottini, professor at Northern Seminary in Illinois.  He blogs about Old Testament archaeology and history.  Generally, he avoids a Christian bias.  See http://claudemariottini.com/category/azazel/

Dr. Mariottini discusses two theories.  One group of scholars believe that Azazel was a far away place where the goat was sent so as to remove the sins of the people.’

Other scholars believe that Azazel was the name of a being—-a counterpoint to HASHEM.  The first goat was dedicated to HASHEM, the second goat was dedicated to Azazel. 

According to Professor Mariottini, the Bible says that demons lived in the wilderness.   Leviticus 17:7 states that the Israelites “may offer their sacrifices no more to the goat demons after whom they stray."  (NJPS)

Professor Mariottini concludes, if Azazel was a desert demon, then the ritual of the second goat symbolizes the sending of evil back to its place of origin.

Thus our challenge on Yom Kippur is to send the evil in our lives back to its place of origin, to dispatch our sins to an INACCESSIBLE REGION.

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Rabbi Alan Lew

The late Rabbi Alan Lew—"the Zen rabbi”— likens Yom Kippur to an encounter with death.  In 2003, about six years before he died, he wrote This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared.

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Rabbi Lew says in Judaism, certain times have special spiritual properties. Yom Kippur, like death, has the power to heal and to atone.

Rabbi Lew writes that Death, is the only other time in our life when we recite the Vidui.  

            We are insolent.

                        You are gracious and compassionate.

            We are obstinate;

                        You are patient.

            We are sinful;

                        You are merciful.

            Our days are a passing shadow, but You are the One who truly is for time and without end. (Mahzor Lev Shalem, 234)

Rabbi Lew writes, Death, the destination of our journey through life, also heals.

Teshuvah is the small death that connects us to the big one.  Or as the Rambam says:  The repentant should change his name, as if to say, I am another.  I am not the same person who did these deeds.  It is as if that person has died.  That is why this day resembles a dress rehearsal for our death, Rabbi Lew writes.

The process of Teshuvah is not limited to only those persons who subscribe to the traditional image that God literally writes names into the Book of Life. 

Los Angeles psychiatrist and Torah scholar Stephen Marmer was interviewed in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles in September 2013.  See http://www.jewishjournal.com/yom_kippur/article/the_psychology_of_repentance

Dr. Marmer says that on Yom Kippur we take a compassionate but searching inventory of who we are and how we have acted.  If we make a sincere effort to improve, we will be written in the Book of Life. 

The Book of Life does not necessarily mean more years, but more richness in our lives. It is an opportunity, through honest reflection, to reduce shame and guilt and to add to growth.

Dr. Marmer says, When we examine our past actions, we see our strengths and weaknesses.  We see the people we care about and whether we have lived up to our ideals in the way we treat them.  We don’t have forever to improve. Hillel’s third saying, “If not now, when?” rings true on Yom Kippur.

Forgiveness and repentance are two sides of the same coin. If you repent, you will earn forgiveness. If you forgive, you will reinforce others’ repentance.  We must forgive those who make true repentance.  Forgiveness frees you of corrosive grudges. If you repent, you free yourself from destructive shame and guilt. 

Dr. Marmer says there are three levels of forgiveness.

First is exoneration.  You wipe the slate clean and restore a person to a full standard of trust.

Second is forbearance.  You can’t wipe the slate clean because the other person has not fully repented. However, you want to maintain the relationship. You don’t want it to be destroyed by grudges.  Forgive but don’t forget.  Trust but verify.

Third is letting go.  The other person is dead or does not intend to make reparation.  The wrong committed against you is eating away at you.  You need a release.  For your own sake, you have to let it go.

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Rabbi Reuven Hammer

Rabbi Reuven Hammer, one of the founders of the Masorti movement in Israel, sees the High Holidays as a trial, a period of questioning and self-judgment, so that at the end we can emerge saying “yes” to life. 

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In Entering the High Holidays, Rabbi Hammer poses seven challenges:

            What are our lives, what is our worth? 

            What is the nature of sin, and how do we deal with guilt? 

            Are return, repentance, and change possible, and if so, how do achieve them? 

            What are the wrongs we do to one another? 

            How can we sensitize ourselves to others and what we do to them? 

            How can we reconcile old differences and create peace in place of friction and strife? 

            What is the good society, and how can we achieve it? 

The challenge of Teshuvah is open to everyone, regardless of age or station in life.

I represent a juvenile, not yet 13 years old.  She and three of her age peers were breaking into and burglarizing homes in in her community.  When she was caught, with the counsel of a wise and stern grandmother, she made a full confession to the police.

Comparing her first and second appearances in court, I could see her grow.  At the first court listing she appeared troubled within.  She was shocked by confinement and confounded the legal process.  At the second court appearance she was respectfully dressed, confident in herself and wishing to repent.  She wanted to apologize to the victims.   The Judge told her that “it will get worse, before it gets better.” We return to court later this month.  I am optimistic about her future.

May we send the evil in our lives back to its place of origin, and dispatch our sins to an INACCESSIBLE REGION.