Bush Takes Wary Steps in Middle East


Congress officially is lined up behind President Bush’s grand vision of Palestinian democracy — but it wants details along with that vision.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives’ powerful International Relations Committee met last week, right after two congressional resolutions overwhelmingly endorsing Bush’s call for a Palestinian state were passed.

The lofty language of those resolutions behind them, Republicans and Democrats on the committee made clear that they now want facts: Where should the $350 million that Bush is asking for — and which almost quintupled recent requests — go? How should it be monitored? And should strings be attached?

“We have few details at this point about the administration’s plans for assistance to the Palestinians,” Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) said Feb. 10, “but I’m inclined to give the administration the benefit of the doubt on assistance to the Palestinians in the forthcoming months. However, we expect that we will receive promptly any required authorization legislation, and the administration will respond fully and in a timely manner to any legitimate questions that may be raised about the package.”

So far, at least, the administration isn’t getting any clearer. In his formal requests to Congress to put $200 million of the requested $350 million in an $82 billion war-on-terror package, Bush did not expand on his goals beyond the broad outlines he put forward in his State of the Union speech Feb. 2.

“Following the recent historic election held by the Palestinians, this request includes $200 million to reinforce these positive political developments by supporting the development of economic opportunity and democratic institutions,” said a fact sheet attached to the White House request. “This money will be used to develop infrastructure and support critical sectors like education, home construction and basic services.”

One clue to where the money might go is State Department action in spending $40 million in pre-approved funds, separate from the $350 million Bush requested.

That money is going to water infrastructure, education, job creation and health care — all distributed through nongovernmental organizations and not directly to the Palestinian Authority. That’s certain to assuage concerns by some in Congress and in the pro-Israel community, who have noted that money directed to Palestinian aid in the past often ended up lining the pockets of corrupt Palestinian officials.

Until Bush comes up with more details about his request, however, the powerful members of Congress who approve the funds are looking elsewhere for answers.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the Foreign Operations Subcommittee — which has the final say on the request — rushed into the end of a Feb. 9 Capitol Hill lunch for Natan Sharansky, the Israeli Cabinet minister who has the president’s ear with his theory that stable peace can be made only with democratic regimes.

Lowey apologized for being late and asked Sharansky how he thought the request should be handled. Sharansky said the money should go to NGOs.

“That’s one of the most important things — to make sure it goes straight to people and not to bureaucracies,” Sharansky said.

The spectacle of one of the most powerful Democrats in Washington chasing a foreigner for advice underscored the degree to which members of Congress felt the need to fill in the gaps in Bush’s vision.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) put it most succinctly, toward the end of three hours of expert testimony from three top Jewish thinkers and one Palestinian: former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; Danielle Pletka, a former top Republican Senate staffer and American Enterprise Institute vice president; former top Middle East envoy Dennis Ross; and Ziad Asali, who heads the American Task Force on Palestine and who was an official U.S. observer in last month’s P.A. elections.

“What do you think our role should be, if you think we have a role at all in determining how the money is spent],” Jackson Lee asked.

Despite the broad range of views at the table, all four panelists agreed on Congress’ role: oversight, oversight, oversight.

“Congress has always been the feet-to-the-fire agency in the peace process,” Pletka said. “Congress has always been, in a very bipartisan way, the branch of government that has been most willing to do very, very serious oversight to ensure that aid is being used properly, that it is being directed correctly.”

A few minutes later, Asali, Pletka’s ideological opposite, echoed the thought and urged assurances of Palestinian accountability.

One powerful Democrat wanted accountability elsewhere as well — among Gulf Arab states that have not made good on hundreds of millions of dollars in aid pledges to the Palestinians.

“Many Americans join us in wanting to help the Palestinian people, but we can’t want to help them more than the Arabs themselves do,” said Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), the ranking Democrat on the International Relations Committee. “That is why I intend to pursue an initiative that will condition our aid on the demonstrated performance of oil-rich Arab states in providing assistance to the Palestinians.”


Make Resolutions That Will Stick

"We have spoken slander; we have acted presumptuously; we have practiced deceit."

Each year we beat our chest and resolve to change. And each year, we make promises to ourselves: I’m going to lose weight. I’m going to stop gossiping. I’m going to learn to play the piano.

Yet long before Chanukah rolls around, the resolve has dissipated. With all our good intentions, we never quite manage to change.

"Unless you hit a crisis … most people don’t change their lives," psychotherapist Yona Kollin said. Her husband, Gilbert Kollin, rabbi emeritus of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, said that while the High Holidays provide a helpful mechanism for making positive changes in our lives, most congregants who attend services "aren’t necessarily there for resolutions."

For those truly committed to making changes, he said, the High Holidays can facilitate that process as they are designed to take us through a process of self-assessment.

"You ask yourself, ‘What am I going to do in the year ahead better than in the year prior?’ It’s like a business plan," Gilbert Kollin said. "Imagine you’re in bankruptcy court. You’re filing a moral Chapter 11 and saying to God, ‘This business is bust. But give me a year.’ And God says, ‘Show me a plan.’"

Spiritual preparation for the High Holidays actually begins a month prior to Rosh Hashanah, during the month of Elul. During that time, we are encouraged to take stock of the past year, pinpointing our strengths and weaknesses, examining the impact of our deeds and clarifying our goals. Teshuva (returning to the desirable path) involves three steps: Regretting our misdeeds, confessing them and committing not to repeat them.

It’s not necessarily an easy process, but as Yona Kollin notes, real change requires effort. "In cognitive therapy, you think about what you want to do and practice it over and over until it becomes automatic," she said. "It won’t happen without practice."

"It’s what Heschel called ‘a leap of action.’ You become what you do," her husband added. The High Holidays "hopefully give an opportunity to focus on whether your actions represent your thoughts," he said. "If you find dissonance, you have to determine what you want to do and what actions you need to take in order to get there." Having the thoughts without taking the actions, he said, will only lead to feelings of frustration and inadequacy.

Both Jewish practice and psychological theory prescribe similar formulas for making change: Identify the goal, identify the steps needed to reach the goal and put your intentions into action. Repeat as necessary. Make goals specific, and focus on just a few.

But why even bother trying to change the very habits that we already know we’ll be seeking forgiveness for next year? After all, the Machzor (High Holiday prayer book) lists a whole host of sins we’re destined to commit.

"God doesn’t expect us to be perfect," Gilbert Kollin said. "God has the role of judge, but also the role of parent … who might not demand an ‘A’ so much as an honest effort," he said. "We know we’re not going to be perfect, but the question is: Can we do better?"

Your Letters

Quite a Show

That was quite a show the Jewish Republican Coalition put on at the Republican Convention with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the New York Jewish Federation and other Jewish organizations participating and singing the praises of our president as a great friend of Israel (“The Hardliner,” Aug. 6). They conveniently overlook the fact that before his campaign got into high gear he was critical of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, opposed to the Barrier Wall and mealy mouthed about Israel’s right (and obligation to its citizens) to retaliate with full force, among other criticisms. They also forget that he opposes a woman’s right to choose, stem cell research and proclaims his connection to a Christian God and increasingly chips away at the constitutionally guaranteed separation of church and state.

Overlooked, too, is the fact that the Bush dynasty has been embedded with the Saudis (who are viciously anti-Semitic and have funded terrorists) for many years.

Dell Scott, Encino

Kerry Clarity

In his recent column, “Kerry Needs Clarity,” Bill Boyarsky asserts that Sen. John Kerry’s difficulties appealing to voters for whom national security is their fundamental concern simply stems from his lack of clarity answering questions on this issue (Sept. 10).

On the contrary, even putting aside Kerry’s waffling and contradictory statements on Iraq, his 20-year Senate career is actually a model of clarity on issues of national security. His otherwise undistinguished tenure has been punctuated by a consistent record opposing the use of our military to defend our basic security interests. Why else would Kerry have to fall back on his four months in Vietnam some 35 years ago as his central qualification to be commander-in- chief? Kerry’s problem is not that his campaign statements lack clarity; it is that his Senate record is so clearly weak on matters of national security.

Arthur Willner, Tarzana

Iranian Activists

In the recent article, “Political Activism Inspires Iranians,” Karmel Melamed writes, “Political activism is a unique phenomenon for Iranian Jews, who, for 2,500 years in Iran, had been barred from taking part in political activities and had been denied certain civil rights” (Sept. 10). While the article is very well written and informative, I must disagree with this sweeping statement because it is simply not correct.

The Iranian Jewish community is one of the most ancient in the world, and from the time of Cyrus the Great until the late Sassanian period just before the Islamic invasion of Iran, the country’s Jewish citizens played an important role in the Persian Empire and, indeed, occupied a position of privilege for much of Iran’s pre-Islamic history (two of Iran’s empresses were Jews, including Queen Esther).

The author’s statement gives the impression that Iran is like most European countries where anti-Semitism goes to their cultural and historic cores. The fact is that the marginalization of Iran’s Jews occurred mostly after the Islamification of Iran and did not have an Iranian cultural basis.

Dr. Adrian Norbash, Calgary, Canada

Synaplex STARs

Temple Aliyah and Temple Judea are delighted to be the two L.A.-area synagogues referred to in The Jewish Journal who have received a joint grant from the STAR for development and implementation of the Synaplex Initiative (“Synaplex Revives Synagogues,” Sept. 3). This grant represents a unique partnering of a Reform and Conservative congregation, the first time such a collaboration has taken place with the Synaplex program.

On the second Shabbat of each month, innovative, exciting and inspirational programs for all ages will enrich our synagogue community. We invite you to join us beginning Oct. 8 and 9. For more information, call (818) 758-3809.

Rabbi Don Goor, Temple Judea

Rabbi Karen Bender, Temple Judea

Rabbi Dan Moskovitz, Temple Judea

Sheila Linderman and Alan Schiff, Synaplex Co-chairs Temple Judea

Rabbi Stewart Vogel, Temple Aliyah

Rabbi Rachel Bovitz, Temple Aliyah

Marcy Howard,

Synaplex Chair Temple Aliyah


Stanley Sheinbaum

Stanley Sheinbaum may have some very fine qualities (“Father of the Leftist Guard,” Sept. 10). One unforgivable moral blind spot, however, has been his enduring friendship with Yasser Arafat, whose professed goal has always been the destruction of the State of Israel. Worse yet, Sheinbaum has continued to dispense advice and encouragement to the Palestinian Authority, even while 1,000 innocent Israeli men, women and children have been systematically murdered by Palestinian Arab terrorists.

Joseph Strapp, Los Angeles

Christian Nation

Cathy Young (“Texas GOP Pushes ‘Christian Nation,'” July 23), objects to the symbolic reference to America as a Christian nation. But the European religious landscape raises the question of whether such symbolic slights are Jews’ biggest problem.

The Texas platform contrasts with the new European Union Constitution, which, at France’s behest, omits any reference to God.

In this secular environment, French Jews are denied the right to wear kippot in school, denied the right to vote absentee if an election falls on a Jewish holiday and denied accommodations when exams fall on Shabbat. Several European nations have outlawed the production or even importation of kosher meat, and others are threatening to outlaw circumcision, as well.

These restrictions are supposedly pro-animals and children, rather than anti-Jewish, in motivation. But Jews cannot thrive where religion does not.

In places like Texas, religion is deemed a constructive activity that deserves respect (even when it’s a minority denomination).

In places like France, it’s considered by many to be a nonconstructive, divisive activity that must yield before other goods, like “social unity” or the rights of animals.

Jews have less to fear from positive support for religion than from negative restrictions on it. The Christian resolution might make some Jews uncomfortable, but it does not make their religious practice illegal.

Mitchell Keiter, Los Angeles

Presbyterian Dialogues

Mark Pelavin’s essay on the need to renew dialogue with Presbyterian leaders makes me wonder if he has actually read the resolutions passed by this church (“We Must Renew Presbyterian Dialogues,” Aug. 13).

I have.

Certainly, most Presbyterians are as shocked as I am by what their leaders are doing. As they should be, because the behavior of these men is shocking.

The Presbyterian resolutions call for turning Israel into a Muslim/Palestinian state by demanding “the right of [Palestinian] refugees to return to their homeland.”

And while the formal resolutions did not brand democratic Israel as an apartheid state, the church’s official press release did. Moreover, the leaders of this church, notably Stated Clerk Clinton Kirkpatrick, have libeled Israel by accusing it of apartheid in numerous formal statements, the earliest at least four years old.

The leadership of the Presbyterian Church is quite deliberately working to destroy the Jewish state by demanding a right of return, by promoting divestment, by regularly publishing outright untruths about events in Israel and by demonizing Israel in programming and official statements going back over a decade.

I believe that the Jewish community will be best served not by talking with the Israel-hating Presbyterian leadership at the national level but by going directly to the millions of Presbyterian pastors, elders and individual Christians who understand that the Jewish state has a right both to exist and to defend itself.

Diana Appelbaum, Boston Israel Action Committee Newton, Mass.

Over Mourning

Bravo to Managing Editor Amy Klein for her courageous piece on mourning (“Over Mourning,” July 16). I agree with her on our need to move from a perspective of victimization to one of dignity and empowerment. Here’s to continuing the conversation and moving forward.

Helen Jupiter, Los Angeles

Nathan’s Voice

[Regarding] the banquet honoring Doug Dowie and Fleishman-Hillard (“Nathan’s Voice,” Aug. 20), I would ask the local activist you quoted if the Jewish power brokers are heading to the hills because they presume Dowie guilty. What kind of loyalty does that demonstrate? Jewish business and community leaders (like any other group) need to exercise discernment in all their public associations. That discernment is cultivated over time and is a product of experience. When you have it, you will be able to quickly identify the scoundrel (or the fool) in your midst — as well as stand by the honorable man who is falsely accused.

Asking the people with whom you affiliate and whom you occasionally honor if they are straight dealers is of dubious value. The duplicitous will always tell you what you want to hear and the honest folk will be offended. That’s a bad approach.

If we as Jews want to do the right thing while walking the corridors of power in this country, if we believe we must do this because we claim to answer to a higher power, then we should proceed cautiously and with wisdom, seeking to find the truth in ourselves before we demand it of someone else.

Kenneth Yas, North Hollywood


The photo that ran in the First Person, “Cancer and Secrets,”August 27 was of the mother of Homa Shadpour-Michaelson, Mohtaram Shadpour.

We apologize for the mistake.

Texas GOP Pushes ‘Christian Nation’

After a short respite from the fight over the Pledge of Allegiance, the Republican Party has once again thrown itself into the fray over issues of church and state. This time it’s the Republican Party of Texas, President Bush’s home state, which has approved a plank in its platform affirming that “the United States of America is a Christian nation.”

The plank, which also pooh-poohs “the myth of the separation of church and state,” has elicited protests from Jewish groups. So far, however, it has not been rejected by the national Republican Party.

This is in contrast to a similar flap in 1992: A statement by then-Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice at a Republican governors’ convention that “the United States is a Christian nation” was met with rebukes from leading Republicans, and Fordice eventually had to apologize.

True, the Texas Republican Party’s plank also includes the “Judeo-Christian” formula that the national Republican leadership defended in 1992 (“our nation was founded on fundamental Judeo-Christian principles based on the Holy Bible”). But the affirmation of Christianity as the core of the American spirit rings far louder than the small nod to the Jewish heritage.

Some conservatives in the media have not merely refused to criticize the “Christian nation” plank but rallied to its defense. Interviewing Tina Berkiser, Texas Republican Party chairwoman, the Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly described the plank as a “largely symbolic” response to secularist activists and judges who would throw God out of the public square. On another Fox News show, “Hannity & Colmes,” guest host Mike Gallagher suggested that objections to the plank stemmed from anti-Christian “bigotry.”

Secularist bigotry does exist. It can be found in policies that forbid any mention of faith in student graduation speeches in public schools, in campaigns to get Christmas decorations off public property or in the recent successful push by the American Civil Liberties Union to remove a tiny cross from the Los Angeles County seal. But it is hardly bigoted to see the “Christian nation” plank as an affirmation of Christian supremacy, relegating non-Christians (if only in a “symbolic” way) to second-class status.

On “Hannity & Colmes,” Gallagher asserted that the plank was a simple statement of a numerical fact.

“If a neighborhood had 82 percent of the population that was Italian or a town had 82 percent of the population that was Polish, we’d call those communities Italian or Polish towns. So why do liberals have such a knee-jerk reaction when anybody dares to suggest that with 82 percent of the population being Christian, we are, in fact, a Christian nation?”

Well, for one, if a town council passed a resolution affirming that it was an Italian or Polish town, there’d be a strong reaction, too. Such a resolution would be perceived as a clear statement that members of other ethnic groups are not welcome.

If we’re going by the numbers, why not have a party platform asserting that the United States is “a white nation?” After all, 77 percent of Americans are white.

As for the plank’s historical aspects, few would dispute that Christianity has played a central role in American history and culture. But the foundation of the American political system rests at least in equal measure on the secular philosophy of the enlightenment.

On “Hannity & Colmes,” the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the prominent evangelical leader, asserted that it is precisely because America is a Christian nation that Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or atheist Americans enjoy the freedom they do.

That statement, however, reeks of ignorance: Plenty of Christian nations have had a sad record of religious intolerance and persecution. America’s religious freedom is the product of a unique blend of Judeo-Christian and enlightenment values; as Susan Jacoby documents in her book, “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism” (Metropolitan Books, 2004), tension between these two strands of our culture has persisted throughout our history.

Numerically, the United States is a predominantly Christian nation. That’s a factual statement, just like the statement that historically, Christianity has been a major force in our public life. But to call the United States a “Christian nation” is an assertion of ideology, not fact, particularly coming from the same corner that produces efforts to legislate religious beliefs about homosexuality or abortion.

The Republican Party’s apparent embrace of such attitudes is troubling. It lends credence to the notion that our war against radical Islamic terrorism is a religious war. And it alienates many Americans who support the Republican values of limited government and strong defense but also regard the separation of church and state as a bedrock American principle, not a “myth.”

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at The Boston Globe.

U.N. Failing in Conflict-Resolution Role

In Indiana in the 1960s, billboards proclaimed a central message of the John Birch Society: “U.S. Out of the U.N.”

The United Nations, the right-wing crusaders believed, was part of a communist plot to undermine our sovereignty. Soon, Americans would be slaves to the puppet masters in Moscow.

Decades later, that fear looks almost comic. The United Nations is too inept to undermine anything expect itself and, perhaps, any movement toward peace in the Middle East.

The plain fact is, the world needs an international body for conflict resolution more than ever, but the United Nations is a pitifully inadequate vehicle for it.

All of this comes to mind in the face of this week’s effort by the Palestinians to generate anti-Israel resolutions in the General Assembly in response to the recent ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) — the judicial but injudicious arm of the United Nations — that Israel’s controversial new security barrier is illegal and must be torn down.

There are many reasons to object to the fence as planned by the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In fact, Israel’s high court has done just that, forcing changes in its path.

But the ICJ proved itself a kangaroo court — and that may be an insult to marsupials. The United Nations’ preoccupation this week with using the ruling to strike more blows against Israel is deeply revealing of why this is a failed institution.

In an international organization that is supposed to transcend mere politics, everything at the United Nations is political, even the black-robed justices of its court.

Some U.N. abuses border on the obscene. Its Human Rights Commission has proudly counted some of the world’s most notorious human rights abusers among its members, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Libya is a former chair. This year, Sudan joined the commission — even as other U.N. agencies were hand-wringing (a U.N. specialty when faced with catastrophe) over that country’s continuing genocide in the Darfur region.

But the commission can always agree on one thing: That Israel is just about the worst human rights abuser in the world. Who cares about genocide, when you have a security fence to worry about?

The United Nations set back the worldwide fight against racism by allowing its conference on the subject in 2001 to be hijacked by anti-Israel racists who turned it into a festival of outright anti-Semitism. Its refugee agency in the Middle East has perpetuated the misery of displaced Palestinians to suit the political needs of local despots — and in the process helped breed generations of terrorists.

The ICJ decision, in which some justices announced their views even before the case was even heard, was just another chapter in the same old story.

Instead of addressing both Palestinian concerns about the disruptions the fence is causing and Israel’s concerns about terrorism and the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to quell it, the court just took another political swipe at Israel that will inevitably make it harder to bring the two sides back to serious negotiations. It was an act of judicial vandalism, not an effort to give a fair and balanced ruling.

The United Nations has sowed suspicion and bitterness among Israel’s friends. Even many who agree Israel must give up all or most of the land captured in 1967 and who abhor its treatment of the Palestinians are frequently appalled by its actions.

Its Israel obsession is the flip side of the United Nations’ persistent unwillingness to act against genuine horrors in the world.

During the 1994 crisis in Rwanda, the United Nations, apparently unwilling to judge a Third World member the way it routinely judges Israel, was mostly mute. It’s reaction was “willful ignorance and indifference,” according to one member of the U.S. mission to the United Nations at the time.

In the case of Sudan, it had to be dragged kicking and screaming by the United States into even acknowledging there is a problem. Having acknowledged it, the General Assembly will no doubt quickly forget about it as it addresses Israel’s security barrier — a case of misplaced priorities that would be farcical, if it wasn’t so tragic.

The smugly timid U.N. leadership (“Kofi Annan” may someday become a synonym for high-toned cowardice) and a General Assembly that gives the worst despots and rights abusers the same rights as the most representative democracies are forever part of the Mideast problem, not part of the solution.

The results have made Israelis of all political persuasions rightly suspicious of international involvement in their country’s troubles.

And the biased, unhelpful United Nations is a perpetual boost to the Israeli extremists who make political hay from their claim that the whole world is against Israel — a claim that the United Nations, sadly, does its best to reinforce.

The Birch Society was wrong. We need a strong international body to promote peace in a time of escalating danger. Unfortunately, the biased, weak-willed United Nations doesn’t fit the bill.

The Headache of Resolutions

Blame it on the Mesopotamians. About 4,000 or 5,000 years
ago, they came up with the meshuggeneh idea of New Year’s resolutions.

And what was their most common pledge? To return borrowed
farm equipment. “That would be a pickax or a sickle,” says Danny, 12, who
studied the Mesopotamians last year in his ancient civilization class.

But today we can’t simply return some borrowed tool, toy or
casserole dish. No, we North Americans feel compelled to annually reinvent
ourselves as perfect physical, intellectual and emotional beings. We feel
compelled to promise to shape up, to learn Aramaic or read the 100 top
English-language novels, to be more patient.

And so, as soon as the ball drops in Times Square, we plunk
hundreds of dollars down at Weight Watchers and 24 Hour Fitness. We enroll in
university extension classes and buy “Ulysses” and “The Great Gatsby.”

But less than a week later, up to 90 percent of us have
reverted to our formerly overindulgent, ignorant and short-fused ways. Why do
we even bother making resolutions?

“Relentless optimism,” Jeremy, 14, suggests.

“Self-deception,” Gabe, 16, says.

“Social pressure,” Zack, 19, adds.

“Why do we diet?” my husband, Larry, asks rhetorically,
knowing that it’s human nature to want to improve oneself.

And it’s human nature to want to divide time into manageable
and meaningful segments, marked with appropriate rituals.

And that’s what New Year’s Eve is — a symbolic milepost, a
fresh start, another chance that this year, magically and mysteriously, our
resolutions will stick. But there’s nothing magical about Jan. 1. In fact, the
Mesopotamians, like the ancient Jews, celebrated the New Year in the spring, to
coincide with the rebirth of the land. That’s why they almost unanimously
resolved to return borrowed farm equipment, which was needed for planting the
new crops.

And there’s nothing magical about change. As Judaism teaches
us, we’re all continuously engaged in a bitter, millennia-old battle between
yetzer hatov, the good inclination, and yetzer harah, the bad inclination.

Spiritually, we know that change doesn’t happen without
prolonged and painful soul-searching. For us Jews, that happens during the High
Holidays, with the process beginning a month earlier, on the first of Elul.
During this time, we are commanded to confront the people we have harmed or
injured during the previous year.

We must formally and sincerely apologize, make concrete
amends and refrain from repeating the behavior. We must also contend with the
promises we have broken between God and ourselves. We are held accountable for
our actions, or inactions, which determine nothing less than “who shall live
and who shall die.”

Psychologically and experientially, we know that change
doesn’t happen until we hit the proverbial rock bottom –  until life slams us
up against a brick wall or brings us abruptly and humbly to our knees, forcing
us to confront our demons and wrongful deeds, our addictions and afflictions.

New Year’s Eve is the only secular holiday, save our
birthdays, that specifically marks the passage of time.

Perhaps it’s that intimation of mortality, combined with the
knowledge that once again we’ve made no one’s year-end Top 10 list, that
triggers our desire to revamp ourselves.

And in our fast-track society, where everything is open 24/7
or only one click away, we want that transformation to be instantaneous and
painless, like those diet advertisements that promise permanent and immediate
weight loss with no exercise.

But the Federal Trade Commission, much to my husband’s
delight, is clamping down on those bogus advertisements. And it’s our turn to
clamp down on this bogus ritual. Let’s institute truth in advertising and call
New Year’s resolutions by their real name: New Year’s wishes. An opportunity to
dream, to fantasize, to visualize a “before” and after” us. A shot at the
self-improvement lottery, with, like the California SuperLotto Plus, a one in
more than 41 million chance of winning.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have many more habits
I’m willing to break. Over the years, I’ve quit smoking, worked myself down to
my pre-pregnancy weight, given up caffeine and Diet Coke and changed my
sedentary ways. (Of course, nobody’s asking if I want to give up carpool
driving, grocery shopping, bill paying and serving as the family’s human PalmPilot.)

I don’t know about you, but I’m saving my serious repenting
for the High Holidays, where substance and sublimity trump slapdash

Still, given the expectation of a New Year, however
arbitrary and inauthentic, and given the grim state of the world, I think some
frivolous resolutions, or wishes, are not out of order.

Personally, for 2004, I’d like to eat more vanilla ice
cream, occasionally oversleep, read some trashy novels and spend more time
needlepointing and, as my kids constantly urge, “chilling.”

But not, I assure you, before returning the pickax that’s
been sitting in the garage.  

Freelance writer Jane Ulman lives in Encino and has four sons.

New Year’s Resolutions

Four thousand years ago, the Babylonians originated the ritual of making New Year’s resolutions. Most of them made the identical promise — to return borrowed farm equipment.

Forty years ago, in possession of no overdue tractors or hay balers, despite the fact that I was living in Iowa, I made my first and only successful New Year’s resolution — to give up chocolate for the next 12 months.

Of course, this was more an exercise in preadolescent perversity than a desire to make any meaningful or healthful changes.

“Sounds like something you would do,” my husband Larry says, knowing I don’t much like chocolate.

“Sounds like something millions of Americans do every year,” I answer.

And come this Dec. 31, millions of us will once again resolve — perfunctorily, if not perversely — to lose weight, get organized and be more patient. We will collectively plunk down thousands of dollars at Weight Watchers and Bodies in Motion. We will buy Filofaxes and Palm Pilots. We will start to meditate, visualize and count slowly to 10.

But come Jan. 6, only one week later, approximately 90 percent of us will have reverted to our overindulgent, disorganized and short-tempered ways.

“We make ’em, we break ’em,” my son Jeremy, 11, says matter-of-factly.

“Then why bother making them?” Gabe, 13, asks.

“I think it’s good when people can admit their faults,” Zack, 16, adds, “even if they don’t keep their resolutions.”

The problem, as my father used to say, is that New Year’s Eve is amateurs’ night. He was referring to the forced frivolity and heavy drinking.

But New Year’s Eve is also amateur’s night in terms of making resolutions, which are mostly insincere, inconsequential and spur-of-the-moment.

Spiritually, we know that real change comes only after extensive and painstaking self-reflection and repentance. For us Jews, that traditionally takes place before Yom Kippur. In fact, we devote the entire month of Elul plus the Days of Awe — 40 days — to introspection and prayer.

Then, after genuine apologies to those we have injured or harmed during the previous year, including concrete amends, and after intense discussions with God regarding promises we have broken between God and ourselves, we begin anew, with a new slate of resolutions, and with the knowledge that, in a year, we will once again have to answer to a Higher Authority.

Psychologically, we know that real change occurs only after life slams us headlong into a brick wall or brings us helplessly and humiliatingly to our knees. Real change occurs after we are forced to brutally confront our actions and our addictions, our losses and our illnesses.

As the Yiddish proverb says, “When one must, one can.”

We humans seem programmed with some eternal and internal urge to improve, especially strong before the start of a New Year. Perhaps it’s a reminder of the inexorable and irretrievable passage of time. Or disappointment that, once again, we didn’t make anyone’s year-end Top Ten list. Or our self-imposed deadline for settling accounts for our excessive holiday partying.

Concomitant with this urge is a desire to find an instant and painless path to self-improvement. Thus, we comb newspaper ads, pharmacy shelves and self-help book sections for the quick fix, the magic bullet and the easy answer.

And for most of us, that’s what New Year’s Eve is — a blind shot in the dark that this time, merely because it’s a New Year, a proverbial new leaf and, literally this year, another Monday morning, our resolution will stick. This time, magically and mysteriously, we will actually lose those 10 pounds, keep our appointments straight and curb our road rage.

But there’s nothing magical about Jan. 1. For most of the world’s existence, the new year didn’t even begin in January. Many early cultures, including those of the Jews and the Babylonians, celebrated the new year in the spring, which made more sense as it coincided with the rebirth of the earth.

But Julius Caesar, who perhaps forgot his mother’s birthday one too many times, instituted the Julian calendar, moving the start of the year to Jan. 1. And while it again reverted to the spring during the Middle Ages, Pope Gregory XVIII restored it in 1582. Most countries followed suit over the next several centuries, with Turkey the last to comply in 1927.

In addition, there’s nothing magical about change. It’s a tedious and difficult process, often involving relapse and regression. That’s because, as Judaism teaches us, we are in a constant battle between our yetzer hatov (good inclination) and yetzer harah (evil inclination). We are born neither good nor bad, but with a capacity for both, and yetzer hatov never conclusively conquers yetzer harah.

But traditions die hard, even arbitrary and inauthentic ones. So this year, in honor of the real millennium and in honor of my contrary inclination, I pledge to give up chocolate. Again.