Our Moment in Cuba?

Last month I had the privilege of joining a study tour to Cuba with former members of Congress — sponsored by the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress (FMC). We met with government and Communist Party officials, members of the National Assembly and Foreign Ministry, artists, scholars, academics, economists, entrepreneurs, even cigar workers. Cubans feel genuine optimism that the recent normalization of relations with the United States may usher in a new era of cooperation. Continue reading Our Moment in Cuba?

Whose 5776?

I realized how experience-poor I actually was as soon as I began to travel, which I’ve done as often as I can ever since. Anyone who has escaped a parochial bubble knows the advantage of losing your bearings, the fraught discovery that everything you’ve thought was normal turns out to be just your own tribal variant of an unimaginable profusion of ways to know, feel, and act in the world. There are, you come to learn, countless local versions of a normal breakfast, a normal parent, a normal song, a normal god. It’s disorienting to realize that when you get back home again and are going about the routine business of your life, the foreign lives you’ve glimpsed are still going on as strangely — and as ordinarily — as ever. And it’s discomfiting to realize that if they knew how much we privileged our own normalcy, they’d figure out what kind of hicks we’d have to be to believe that. Continue reading Whose 5776?

The ironic ma nishtana

passover If you’ve been to a seder, you know that the Four Questions are about things like why do we eat matzah instead of bread, and what’s up with this biting into a horseradish; they also prompt the telling of the Exodus story, which is the purpose of the holiday: to pass the once-we-were-slaves-in-Egypt legacy to the next generation. Continue reading The ironic ma nishtana

Lincoln’s Last Words

Lincoln Abraham Lincoln is generally regarded as this country’s greatest president. It follows, then, that his last words, if we but knew what they were, would be of compelling interest—not merely to historians, but to all Americans.

As it happens, we do know what Lincoln’s last words were. In an interview in 1882, Mary Lincoln, the president’s widow, confided that in the box at Ford’s Theatre, scant seconds before John Wilkes Booth fired the fatal Derringer ball into her husband’s brain, Lincoln had turned to her and whispered: “We will visit the Holy Land and see those places hallowed by the footsteps of the Savior.” And then: “There is no place I so much desire to see as Jerusalem.” Continue reading Lincoln’s Last Words

The Atheist at the Funeral

Robert Ingersoll Pollsters tell us that 20 percent of Americans today are secularists—that is, they are atheist, agnostic or unaffiliated with a religion. According to author and atheist Susan Jacoby, the reason why secularists don’t wield an influence commensurate with their numbers is their own reluctance to speak out, “particularly at moments of high drama and emotion,” such as the massacre of the schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut.

Ms. Jacoby expanded on this theme in an opinion piece published last month in the New York Times. “It is vital,” she said, “to show that there are indeed atheists in foxholes, and wherever else human beings suffer and die.” In particular, she suggested that today’s atheists should emulate Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899), the great 19th Century skeptic and freethinker, who frequently delivered secular eulogies at funerals. Continue reading The Atheist at the Funeral