Thursday, July 31, 2008

Lice Free and On the Bus

I have spent every free moment during the last week sticking tiny little name labels onto underpants and flashlights and shower shoes. The campership Gods were generous and the Murphy boys have returned for another summer at Jewcamp in Malibu. Last year, the then 14 year old, wrote a series of terse desperate letters the gist of which were, "I hate it here. Everyone’s an asshole. Come get me immediately." I was assured by the camp administration that this would blow over and it did and when we went to fetch him he said that it had turned into a wonderful experience and that he wanted to return this year. In the last several months his mind changed and he’s been bitching and moaning and negotiating about a second summer at camp. It wasn’t until I saw him in line to board the bus that I stopped being frightened he would bolt.

Spuds loved camp and looked forward to returning, although he was slightly apprehensive about attending a later session than last year because he’d know fewer, if any, kids. He helped me organize the many items in his duffle and spruced up with a new crew cut which makes him look like a little thug, albeit a cute freckly one. I could see he was getting some butterflies about leaving the night before camp when he requested we leave a really exciting Dodger game early. After I had the duffels in the car I got a real sense that my children would not be with me for three weeks. I know this will be quiet and sweet for him and myself, but slamming the trunk, I became bereft and terrified. I attended the same camp thirty-five years ago and I know the value of a three week break from family life and how in a pack of peers/strangers there is a wonderful liberty to be(come) yourself. I send my children away (from me) to give them this gift. I took them to their favorite deli for breakfast and the fifteen year old was focused still on his anger at me for insisting he go. Spuds and I didn’t say a lot but we were both conscious of avoiding eye contact with the other, knowing we’d both start to blubber.

The drop off point for camp was way the fuck out in the valley at the Milken North Valley Jewish Community Center. This part of the valley that was virtually the country when I grew up in Van Nuys is now dense with strip malls and acres of gated home communities. Our friend John O’Malley won an enormous suit against billionaire Jewish philanthropist Sheldon Adelson at the time when I was completing the camp scholarship forms. Adelson made his money on gambling, profiting on human degradation and is now probably the largest donor to Jewish causes in the world. Michael Milken, a valley native, was the junk bond king and spent two years in a federal prison for racketeering and some ninety other charges.

When Milken was released from prison his net wealth was over 2 billion dollars. He has devoted himself to philanthropic work in the areas of medical research, education and Jewish communal life. Maybe Milken was actually a great guy before the bust too and he got so caught up in the bond trading juggernaut that he simply lost sight of the moral implications of his business practices. Would he have become one of our nation’s great philanthropists if he hadn’t been arrested? Milken launders his dirty money by throwing large amounts of it into good causes. Is his motive the rehabilitation of his name after a public humiliation or the product of a true spiritual epiphany? I wonder if Milken even knows this himself. The boys are going to camp on the dimes of lots of benevolent folks in the Jewish community and inevitably a lot of donations are generated from profit gleaned by things I find reprehensible. I do know that the far valley complex that bears the Milken name is spectacularly ugly. The jury is out on whether Milken is a sinner or a saint but he will win no medals for commissioning design and architecture. Let there be as much stucco as possible and let it be brown.

The Milken Center is only about four miles from where Buford Furrow, nine years ago, shot up a J.C.C. preschool. Since then, the Jewish Federation has paid for us to have a security guard at high holiday services at the tiny temples we attend. These guys wear polo shirts and help the old folks up the steps and join us for the Kiddush. The Milken Center has an enormous security staff. There were incredibly beefy guys with crew cuts in black suits with headphones and lots of others in military type uniforms. There is a metal detector and x-ray machine at the door and we were subjected to scrutiny before being allowed to enter the parking lot. I spent about an hour and half in the center and except for when I was in the bathroom, there were always several security personnel in my line of sight, moving briskly and speaking with urgency into headsets. There was one particularly large and fearsome bald, bulbous eyed security man who appeared to have a gnarly jagged scar running down the back of his neck. I realized it was his communications wiring.

The foyer of the building has large Jewish Federation posters with huge blown up snap shots of youthful and innocent faces imploring us to remember the Jewish martyrs of the Intifada. I know that there must be similar poster displays of fallen young Palestinians somewhere in the world where children see them. I wanted to tell my boys that for every child murdered in an act of religious intolerance, there is a mother. I kept my mouth shut though. The security was too heavy.

My kids have spent time in tiny temples and the funky Silverlake JCC. They were unsettled by the Milken Center. It occurred to them that the presidential level security was in force mainly as a reaction to the Buford Furrow shootings and they became even more unsettled. I didn’t have the wherewithal to remind them that Buford Furrow was a mentally ill loner and that as far as I know, there is no organized conspiracy against Jews in our country. We registered them and they were sent to stand in line. A short squat kerchiefed woman donned rubber gloves and examined each child carefully for lice.

It was time to line up for the buses and the kids shepherded me out of eyeshot to say goodbye. We didn’t end up crying but it was a crap shoot so the selection of a private (except for the security camera and half dozen guards) spot to exchange our final hugs was prudent. The boys joined the line. I turned my back, leaving them with a free of lice bill of health in that ugly place, and I wept to have children so precious that I cannot let them go and I cannot not let them go.

I returned to my office and while my boys rode the bus, the earth shook and God reminded me again that every beautiful and wonderful thing we depend on can be torn away in a nanosecond. As nominal as I am in my Judaism at this time, so inconsequential in the history and the future of time, I am reminded of the fragility of everything I cherish and that the most urgent requirement for any of us is to show love. And to trust.

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