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Apr 11

I am not a special person, crowned with renown or glittering connection—nor would I wish to approach the reader with my narrative via some flashy press release.  The fact is that my newest book tells the story of a carefree high school black-white friendship of the 1960s that was crippled by the murder of Dr. King and that only his legacy saved it—after I searched my soul and this country and found my friend 38 years later and we jockeyed in middle-aged commiseration.


It's called NOTHING LIKE SUNSHINE: A Story in the Aftermath of the MLK Assassination, and every word of it is as true as history bends into our hearts.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn.  

 

The book is a remembrance of my life at Cincinnati's notorious Woodward High School, a microcosm of the 1960's, and of America itself—from the blood of MLK to the promise of Barack Obama.  In the watershed and bloodshed year of 1968, I was 15, impressionable, sentimental about the country, frightened of its civic turmoil, and its obsession with Vietnam.  I had a friend in my grade, a brash, funny, tuneful African American classmate named Clifton Fleetwood, and we participated in the music and exploits of the Woodward High School Marching Band.  We were inseparable at school—until April 5, 1968, the morning after King was murdered in Memphis, and Clifton walked away from me.

I’ve carried this story in my soul—the story of a socially forbidden friendship—since I was 15.   I’ve been writing, lecturing, teaching, about my spiritual mentor, M.L. King, since my first Op-ed piece appeared in The New York Times in 1984, “It’s as if Dr. King never lived.”  Every pulpit I’ve held, every book I’ve written, every community gathering I’ve organized, has been driven by my unyielding sense of his presence in my own life as a preacher, neighbor, husband, and father.  The high school and the friendship I describe in this book are paradigmatic of MLK’s iconographic shadow on the national soul.

This book is about that search—for Clifton, for America, for the key to understanding what race relations really are in the United States, four decades after JFK, MLK, RFK, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Bill of 1964 and 1965.  Really, it’s memoir of that time in America, and my understanding that Woodward High School, with its blood, anger, soul-searching, and real, hands-on American edification, was required learning for my own escape from the tradition of racism. 

To my great joy, I was asked to be the keynote and tell this story on  Easter Sunday at the National Civil Rights Museum / Lorraine Motel in Memphis, in commemoration of the anniversary of the death of Dr. King.   Meanwhile, Clifton and I will share in the upcoming 40th Reunion of the Woodward High School Class of 1970 this July right there in Cincinnati!

It’s a quick read, but if you agree with Michigan State University Press and a host of very enthusiastic early readers and critics, it could be a fresh take on the legacy of M.L. King that has nothing to do with legislative bills, political statements, or historical revisionism.  

It’s just two boys who found their way back home.




Ben Kamin is one of America's best known rabbis, a multicultural spiritualist, NYT Op-ed contributor and author of seven books, including his latest, "NOTHING LIKE SUNSHINE: A Story in the Aftermath of the MLK Assassination."  He is a regular ShareWIK.com columnist. To find out more about Ben, go to: www.benkamin.com


More Ben Kamin articles, click here



©ShareWIK Media Group, LLC

 

Apr 25
There is this willowy, sweet, and forceful young woman in my life—my acquired daughter, Samantha.
 

Look, I thought it was a big deal when my two girls, now well into their twenties, showed me what email was (was there another service forever other than AOL?).  It was the 1990s, and it was my conviction that civilization had exceeded all expectations: There was a fax machine in my office, there were tons of shiny space garbage orbiting the earth, and I could rent “recently-in-theaters” movies on my home machine calibrated for something called VHS.  I did have to physically travel to the video store (the very term has been rendered prehistoric by blue rays and rental boxes) to collect and then return my flick based upon a 1 or 2-day contract.

OMG, that was so 20th century.  Here comes Samantha, my golden-haired, muscular, level-headed, pragmatic, no-nonsense stepdaughter, replete with 500+ cellular contacts, a scan-ready printer, her Facebook account, and, oy vey, a California driver’s license.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, wonderfully, I live a lot of the time with this heretofore young stranger who has become part of my blood.  When her remarkable mother, my indomitable wife, is so often traveling on business, and her younger brother stays with their father, Samantha stays put—with me.

At fifty-seven years of age, I find myself benevolently caught in a recycled if postmodern new world of one-on-one nutrition discussions, college aspirations, varsity sports bulletins, romantic updates, and sudden trips to the yogurt place because, well, she feels like yogurt.  And I feel lucky.  

“Hi, Sam,” I say, cheerfully, to the bone-cracking athlete who needs me to stop at CVS for a certain body wash and, oh yes, hair spray and an ace bandage for her knee and who can’t believe how much homework she has for her AP courses and did I know anything about medieval Spanish culture and can I print out the report she’ll probably finish at 1 AM and she needs it then to make sure it doesn’t have those lines across the page like the last time I printed something out for her?

“Hi, Sam,” I repeat, genuinely happy to see her.

“What’s for dinner?”  The text message comes to me faithfully about 6 PM each day (I actually look for it) after she has completed softball or whatever the season is. We commence a good-natured exchange about where to eat (I am a writer, not a cook) and soon enough, it this churning young woman, sharing her day, laughing, relaxing, intermittently working her cellular keyboard, yet always somehow present with her sense of irony, her high standards, and her hope for a world better than the one we older folks have left her.

What do I get in exchange for this 21st century paragon who can wrestle young men, send messages to fourteen different people with just two agile thumbs, and whose friends come over like herds of hormonal, hirsute ladies and gentlemen of the generation that is post email, post-denominational, and post excitement about most things because the only new things have more megabytes or pixels?

I get an intuitive, kind, caring young woman who still prefers her mother’s warm grasp and emotional intimacy more than any of the above.  I get a glorious child, heavy-shouldered and independent, who nonetheless needs me to help her decide which eye-liner works best with the outfit she’s contemplating.  I get a daughter via a second marriage who makes me think and remember and re-value ideas and concepts that had somewhat calcified because a child with clean values and an insatiable curiosity wants to learn about a world that is completely invasive, coarse, and unforgiving.

I get a second chance to parent, mixing wisdom with regret, into a menu of satisfaction.  Thanks, Sam—and it’s pasta with plain marinara for you this evening.




Ben Kamin is one of America's best known rabbis, a multicultural spiritualist, NYT Op-ed contributor and author of seven books, including his latest, "NOTHING LIKE SUNSHINE: A Story in the Aftermath of the MLK Assassination."  He is a regular ShareWIK.com columnist. To find out more about Ben, go to: www.benkamin.com


More Ben Kamin articles, click here



©ShareWIK Media Group, LLC 2010
May 09

OrangesIn my heart, I have looked for this Arab lad--now a man like me--for nearly 50 years.

 

The cyclical carnage of sectarian violence makes it hard to believe that peace in the Holy Land is possible. Yet each outrage, followed by unending grief and fierce response, makes me think even more about a little dialogue I had long ago with a Palestinian neighbor of mine.


Every now and then I read about the Palestinian town of Qalqilya and terrorists who might be seeking shelter there. But Qalqilya is not just a passing news reference for me.


In the fall of 1961, I was eight years old and living in the Israeli hamlet of Kfar Saba, where my parents had also been born. We could see the Samarian Mountains from our porch, and the town of Qalqilya, then part of Jordan, with its minarets and stone streets, just a mile or so away. A valley of orchards and wild brush hung between us and was forbidden; the border was more or less defined by an old rail path left behind by the British, who had quit their mandate in Palestine five years before I was born.


But exactly because the citrus-scented valley between Kfar Saba and Qalqilya was off limits to us, it was enticing to me one Saturday afternoon that fall. I rode my bicycle past the village square, beyond the old bus station, and into the valley that unfolded against the biblical mountains. Qalqilya was close by where I walked in the thick groves that divided the two worlds. And then I realized that I was not alone. Standing by and staring at me was an Arab boy, about my age, as surprised by this encounter as I.


We both froze in fear. But curiosity quickly prevailed and we began to talk. It was a halting mixture of Hebrew and English; I did not know any Arabic. I still remember that he knew words from both of my languages and I did not know any from his. And I still remember his face very clearly, particularly the way that he smiled.


I told him about my village and described my father as a war hero and a mighty man who had once fought in that valley. He told me that his father was very tall and strong and was chieftain of his village. We talked about the orange trees and agreed to meet again in a week at the same spot. I told him my name. He told me his -- Ahmed. We parted, the sons of fathers who may have battled each other in that valley.


Our second appointed meeting was washed out by an autumn rain, but we did again meet several days later. I had not told my parents about the first meeting because they would certainly have disapproved. Ahmed stood waiting for me. We barely touched shoulders. There was a tension we did not understand. But we were driven by something very good that we also did not understand.


We both knew that this second meeting would confirm the first but necessarily be the last. Nevertheless, it was truly friendly. We taught each other words from each other's languages, simple words like ''goat,'' ''bicycle'' and ''rain.'' We compared notes on siblings. And then the time grew short. Before leaving, we did something together, reaching almost simultaneously for the same large orange hanging down from the tree above us, we opened it and shared the slices. How sticky and sweet it tasted. We buried the peels and the seeds in the ground under the tree.  And we promised to meet at the spot again one day, when day peace came between our people. 


I remember Ahmed's face. In the television footage of rage coming to us from that same valley, I look for that face. We are both middle-aged men now and, on a recent visit, I saw that few trees were left in that valley. Israeli tanks have had to roll into Qalqilya across the years. Unforgivable bombings have killed children in my birth village. I wonder where Ahmed is and what we would say to each other if we were to meet again. Might it be possible for us reach a reconciliation now? Would he remember that we once knew more about peace than all of the grown-ups on either side of our valley?

 

(This essay originally appeared in The New York Times)





Ben Kamin is one of America's best known rabbis, a multicultural spiritualist, NYT Op-ed contributor and author of seven books, including his latest, "NOTHING LIKE SUNSHINE: A Story in the Aftermath of the MLK Assassination."  He is a regular ShareWIK.com columnist. To find out more about Ben, go to: www.benkamin.com


More Ben Kamin articles, click here



May 23

Published reports indicate that youngsters are now literally connected to electronic devices, cellular units, iPods, video machines, for as many hours as they cumulatively are anywhere else.  What they have lost, this cyber-generation, is a relationship to the dance between time and creativity.


Life has given me a second generation of teenagers; my own two daughters are still vividly young adults engaged in the arts and media, connected to but not co-dependent upon the Web, the viral videos, the book-machines that don’t have pages and glow in the airplane aisles.  They enjoy repartee, are fond of language, and commiserate about good plays and fascinating movies.  They just escaped the ban on thinking.


My children by marriage are smart, engaging, and do cherish their relationships with family and friends.  They are also up against a world of impossibly invasive information, hyper-intense scientific axioms, global cynicism, and a core social trend towards absolute sameness.


My son recently had a near-thrombosis when he and his electro-buddy had to spend twelve un- programmed minutes together without access to wired data and image units.


I had collected them from junior high “Phys Ed” (read: Surfing; this is Southern California) at the end of another challenging, sun washed day.  I suspected they were hungry.  “Would you like some pizza, guys?” I inquired.  “Oh yeah sure thanks,” they both murmured, not even glancing up from their texting/ listening/downloading twitchiness.


We ordered a large cheese pie at the local eatery (any discussion of combinations, variations, or the sudden improvised distress of my suggested side salad would require thinking, or the removal of earphones and wires).  How long will it take?  I inquired—being the one person who was not connected to anything but my wallet.


“Oh, twelve minutes.”


I reported this to the boys, who obliged my living voice.


“TWELVE MINUTES?!  What are we going to do for twelve minutes?”  I swallowed a palpitation with the realization that these good young men were utterly serious.  And afraid.


“Well, we could sit outside in the fabulous California sunshine and, well, talk.”  My son and his friend are polite, well-hearted, and actually very sweet lads but this still was not going to be a possibility.  They were really concerned about the twelve-minute programming gap and conversation was not an option.


Fortunately, my boy had access to some old videos of The Simpsons in his iPhone and the two did pass the dreadful void before the pizza arrived watching and listening in calm relief.


We are an advanced civilization, no?




Ben Kamin is one of America's best known rabbis, a multicultural spiritualist, NYT Op-ed contributor and author of seven books, including his latest, "NOTHING LIKE SUNSHINE: A Story in the Aftermath of the MLK Assassination."  He is a regular ShareWIK.com columnist. To find out more about Ben, go to: www.benkamin.com


More Ben Kamin articles, click here



©ShareWIK Media Group, LLC 2010

Jun 06

When my father died suddenly in 1976, a young and unknown Jimmy Carter was quietly walking across the bicentennial America to the White House, the twin towers of the World Trade Center had stood for three years, and a first class postage stamp cost 13 cents.  The next day, following my father's funeral at Cincinnati's Weil Funeral Home, an anonymous police officer touched my heart forever, and I remembered a postal services supervisor who had come to our house years earlier with a gentle admonition for my immigrant dad.


I remember now, in an era of economic anxiety, fear, and not a little xenophobia:  My father's spirit was buoyed by patriotic participation, ranging from baseball to voting  to his excitement about posting a letter to a friend with a fresh new stamp.  He got a little confused, however, late in the 1960's, when he brought home a batch of green trading stamps after a shopping spree for his favorite things--automotive parts.  They were called, in fact, "Green Stamps," and my immigrant dad put one of each of the four letters he was sending out that day.


Two days later, the uniformed U.S. Mail official came by with a twinkle in his eye but duty in his demeanor.  My parents were nervous at first but the postman assured them that they were not in trouble.  We all sat down in the small living room as the man spoke:  "Mr. Kamin, you have wonderful handwriting and I'm glad you printed your return address so clearly on these letters.  But these green stamps are, well, not for postage.  I know you meant well, sir.  These are trading stamps that you put in books for use at a redemption center."  He explained about the redemption center and then presented my red-faced father with four 13-cent stamps.  "Here.  These are gifts from the United States Government.  You are a fine citizen."


My father never looked more relieved or proud--even on the day he received his Master's Degree in Aerospace Science from the University of Cincinnati.


He would also have been very proud if he could have seen the uniformed police officer, with the flag embossed on his sleeve, sitting atop his motorcycle on March 3, 1976, as the hearse bearing my father's plain pine box slowly passed by the Weil exit onto Reading Road in Cincinnati.  I watched and wept as the officer, also in his 40s, a personal universe away from the short life of my troubled and departed dad, slowly raised his right hand in salute.  There was no reason to do it, I thought, but for the quiet discipline of honor and respect that transcends all traditions. 


Some 34 years later, we grown-up naturalized Americans, many of whom have lost the parents who got us here, protect our own children from terror and hatred, governmental cynicism, and poor social manners that prevail in schools and stores and across the Internet.  Writing a letter with a posted stamp is a lost art.  Strange faces are often assumed to bring dangerous agendas.  


I hold on to my father's journals of poetry, along with my respect for words, stamps, and salutes that inform me, along with my father's memory.



Ben Kamin is one of America's best known rabbis, a multicultural spiritualist, NYT Op-ed contributor and author of seven books, including his latest, "NOTHING LIKE SUNSHINE: A Story in the Aftermath of the MLK Assassination."  He is a regular ShareWIK.com columnist. To find out more about Ben, go to: www.benkamin.com



More Ben Kamin articles, click here.


©ShareWIK Media Group, LLC 2010






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