Sunday, September 7, 2008

True Religion & False Profits?

I saw a teenager wearing "Buddhalicious" sneakers a month ago, while I pondered the dharma's finer points in the bardo while on the Blue Line. Yesterday, I encountered another blending of Buddha with fashion locally. Alana Semuels reports in the Sept. 7th, 2008 Los Angeles Times, "Wanna buy some knockoff jeans?" about counterfeit pairs for $60 of True Religion, a brand "which usually retails for between $170 and $400." Real or fake, they feature the trademarked horseshoes on the pocket and tags "picturing a Buddha holding a guitar." The children's pairs are made in Mexico; the adults in the U.S., which at least balances the sad exodus of Levi Strauss when their unionized workers were no longer able to compete, as they say in the trade, with cheap foreign sweatshops. Still, I wonder how much those seamstresses pocket from these amazingly expensive (to a guy like me undoubtably with denim vintage enough to have been stitched in the U.S.) dungarees. The symbolism of a smiling Gautama on one's pocket, sold for so much, traded legally or illegally, remains unmentioned except as a detail in the six-part sidebar of how one can spot a fake pair.

In the same paper, John Edwards' New Age muse and mistress, Lisa Jo Druck, in true Californian fashion remaking herself as an on-line host of a now vanished website "" named Riell(e) Hunter, now living mysteriously provided for in a Santa Barbara manse, has her story dissected. Her charming Floridian father died of cancer after "never charged" in a "horse-killing insurance scam" in which he figured how to electrocute show horses, including teenaged Lisa Jo's favorite. The future Riell(e) dropped our of college and wound up in turn or concurrently as "a party girl, a minor (but working) actress, a writer of oddly titled compositions, a yoga enthusiast and a spiritual seeker."

She found her way as so many of her ilk to L.A. All we need. Interviewed in 2005 by her one-time beau, Jay McInerney-- who has seen his share of bottle-blonde Big Apple debauchery-- she stated how "someone referred me to a healer who did a clearing on my energy field." The week of ecstasy, not the drug but the sensation, led her into a path "addicted to higher consciousness, addicted to enlightenment." This might have been great. Yet, she morphed into a stereotype of another sort. Her Big Apple 80s life of boys and blow evolved into that of the Westside actress/model/whatever who in her divorce proceedings to a Beverly Hills lawyer sought custody of "21 pieces of intellectual property--- possibly scripts or treatments-- with quirky titles including 'Jupiter, Where Are You?', 'So Very Virgo,' and 'How Did I Get Here?'"

She ran into Edwards on the street and they flirted immediately. Her video legacy can embarrass both the politician and the playgirl on You Tube. She was paid by Edwards' campaign an enormous sum to produce a few minutes of amateur point-and-shoot videos of her cavorting with The Man With the $400 Haircut. Her friend tells the Times how "The Buddhist Rielle was into honesty and integrity and having an affair with a married man might have been a lark at one point," but why she'd continue the deceit and hopes-- that she'd end up with Edwards-- does appear at odds with her inspired persona. As with us all, we must forgive. Most of us, less driven by fame or the proximity of power and wealth, have the good sense to sin privately, not before the camera. Still, in every heart, our higher ideals clash with our dreams, our searches, and our passions. That too remains the warning of karma and the impetus that believers of all sorts constantly must battle with: to escape our own worst flaws, those that dazzle us and enchant us into masks, come-ons, and poses.

This direction leads tangentially if typically to "The Polymath" column "What are the Jewish Issues?" by law prof, gay activist, published poet and, yes, a JuBu, Jay Michaelson in the Aug. 29th 2008 "Forward" about the fading parochialism of Jewish issues to younger folks who seek, of course, a more relevant appeal that would keep them going to shul, say, rather than another form of temple. Not to mention shopping for pairs of True Religion at the knockoff stands on Santee Alley. The "pro-Israel bromides" peddled to the elders by the lobbyists will not, Michaelson insists, assuage those who quail at the usual kowtowing to our "hyper-capitalist health care system" (and I wonder how much Michelle Obama's implicated in its particular branding of wellness), tax cuts for fat cats, corporate welfare, and endless surges abroad.

Michaelson argues quixotically but truthfully for what he and I'd call True Religion. Our woes match those of Hosea or Micah as they fulminated against their Hebrew peers in ancient times, I suppose. Michaelson laments our "vulgar, puerile sexuality which goes hand in hand with a hypocritical Puritanism, consumerist greed, environmental devastation, and sexism and racism" to clash with commands to be a holy people and to protect the planet.

Our Polymath warns that by such failures to live up to the Jewish tradition of justice, the tribe will diminish inexorably. I add approvingly his comment about the Chinese genocide in Tibet, and he publicized efforts (I blogged about this last spring) for a Seder commemoration to raise awareness and cash to assist Tibet. He stresses what I did not find elsewhere the past month too loudly proclaimed in the press: our bowing to Beijing "has led to the most offensive Olympics since 1936."

His co-religionists cannot afford to keep rallying their confreres around only jeremiads for a threatened Zion and guilty self-preservation; I would add endless fundraising for more Holocaust memorials, although this may be anathema to many with whom I will share a pew later this month.
"Since when did core ethical values become luxuries? Anyway, the premise is wrong; if we focus only on what's good for the Jews, our minority will grow ever smaller, for there will be no clear reason for the not-already-converted to perpetuate it. It would be a dead tribalism worthy of the burial it would receive."

Elsewhere in this issue, there's a parallel. One of the last landsmen associations set up for those from the same region of the Pale to assist each other with a sort of insurance policy when they reached the New World is fading away. Marissa Brostoff investigates. The Rohatyner Young Men's Society, a century after its establishment in a Manhattan long before McInerney's Coke Age binge, dies out. "The normal life of an organization like that is, it goes from having all kinds of social activities to something like an annual banquet, and the last thing to survive is the burial benefit," said an officer of the similarly structured Workmen's Circle/ Arbeter Ring, although I suppose that Yiddish can argue for a somewhat healthier prognosis, if among few who remain non-Orthodox.

Nothing new in this recapitulation of the prophetic message to smug Babylon. Or in predictions of its impending demise. I'm sure Abraham Joshua Heschel warned us of the same predicament in the Civil Rights era. Yet, back then, to take our own small temple for example, it still had a rabbi until the '70s, although tellingly it lost its children's Sunday School by 1960 as the neighborhood had been losing Jewish residents to the Valley and the Westside as suburbia boomed and the barrio shifted.

The merchants who once lined Figueroa closed. The families fled for tract homes. The shul has not yet entered into the dire straits of Royhattner, however. As Ed Leibowitz in the Sept. 2008 Los Angeles Magazine covered in what its TOC lists as: "Finding Sanctuary: In this memoir of fatherhood, lost causes, and a Highland Park shul, a prodigal son brings his own young son into the flock and rediscovers something resembling faith." [I taught Luke's parable of the Prodigal Son to my literature students last week; I looked up the meaning of the adjective to find it came from the Latin for "wasteful," whereas "prodigious" derives from "marvellous." So, are they related?]

As I commented on my wife's blog, I'm not sure that the recent infusion of young families into the local synagogue scene will result in rebirth; we went through a burst of hope there over a decade ago which soon dwindled as the hipper couples shrank back from the traditional, stodgy, and old-world style of services held on Shabbat. They wanted a hippie-friendly havurah; the stalwarts at the shul disagreed with what the PRC might label as "splittism." Understandably so, for the Conservative Movement proved to be exactly that, proof in advertising.

Still, sundry if often older and non-procreating misfits stuck with it. A few found that they preferred shuckling from a prayer book last revised before WWII to niggun chords for haplessly strummed guitar, munched after services defrosted day-old Entenmann's baked goods rather than pricy rugelach from Nate & Al's, and kvelled in the haimish welcome of a humble sanctuary rather than a giant edifice complex festooned with building plaques and crimes disguised as art.

While I prefer for my own ginger forays into the realm of the spirit's senses quieter time for reflection, or perhaps despair, than those afforded by a stolid service bent on much more time for communal prayer and group engagement, Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, founded 1926, the second-oldest extant in the city, remains for me and for my family -- as for Leibowitz and his-- a place that we know will still be there. As his article's titled on the cover: "My Synagogue's Struggle to Survive," there's a bit of the nagging conscience involved in its refusal to keel over. TYI may guilt-trip us in the guise of gently conniving Henry into a Belfast-accented reminder of our infidelity, but it will also make sure we gain a nod, a smile, a familiar greeting when we do darken its wooden doors.

Such fringed and frayed (and you should see the state of the tzitzit!) Judaism may not gain headlines garnered in today's LAT by Wilshire Boulevard Temple (the oldest remaining temple) and its $100 million campaign to revive the other "easternmost" of our city's temples to its Tinseltown 1920's glory days under Rabbi to the Stars (for 69 years!) Edgar Magnin. The amount of space given in the Los Angeles Magazine article astounded me, even if it ended up more about the author's ups-and-downs as an Jersey-born (speaking of stereotypes who wind up in L.A.) M.O.T. than about the self-effacing folks at TBI itself. I suppose this is as it should be. Judaism does not ground itself in the building. The home, and the troubled heart, remain its first shrine. The congregants represent the surrounding families, outposts, survivors.

The founders would have, eighty years ago, spoken I bet lots of Yiddish. Same as Irish that my great-grandparents would have been able to muddle along with before being obliterated by anglicization, commodification, and homogenization. Such tiny tongues writhe, to scholars and prophets, as if always on their deathbed for those of us who witness their stubborn survival, as if at the third stroke or the ninth hour. They keep on hanging on to spite those who'd make us all into one world, one language, one pair of jeans.

I take often a jaded pose concerning such matters. My inner conversation endlessly winds around to the same fixations of language and faith. But, these two impel me. Does it mean that much if I wrestle with my own adult attempts to come back to Irish, or to seek my soul's quest in the spiritual paths of Sinai so far away from those of my ancestors? Not to mention, as with The Polymath, all the neo-atheist and Buddhist books I've been reading the past few months.

All I can attest to with confidence: my own inner urges drive me on, not quite knowing what's around the corner. With all of our spiritual wanderings in our forty-years (or double if we're so favored or tested) in an existential desert, this jejune familiarity, betrays I suppose our weariness of not becoming better so easily. As I was told twenty years ago in my own Slough of Despond by a Catholic woman who'd entered the Church: "we are all adult converts." That is, anyone confronting faith or its lack as a grown-up must re-invent what they thought he or she knew as a youngster. Indeed, along with that observant Jew persecutor turned die-hard evangelist Paul the honorary Apostle, we put away the things of a child.

The other day, I wondered where my rosary was from my first communion. I have kept it from seven years on, the "age of reason," when we learn to distinguish, if not always follow, right rather than wrong. I assume the cocoa-bead and silver ensemble went missing with so much else in the remodelling, as I would not have misplaced it. Then, I thought about impermanence, about Paul's verse, and I wondered if I learned my lesson. Christians await salvation and gain sacraments to sustain them on the way to heaven. For Jews, they wait too, and their patience has been sorely and surely tested. The Buddha told us if we want liberation we must seek it ourselves. Our choices, twenty-five hundred years after the Axial Age that shook up much of the ancient Eurasian civilizations, still stumble along these options. Along with the fourth, at least, to go along with some Greeks and deny it's all up there. Humanists no longer look on ourselves as if trapped down below.

We're like poor Riell(e), trying to re-invent ourselves after hedonism, knowing we can do better, trying to do so, and failing miserably. Middle age looms, party girls fade, and the energy fields shimmer. We want to be addicts, still. But what replaces sex? Can the lure of the spirit dim the lust of the body? Luckily, most of us grapple with each other and with such choices so out of the public eye or tabloid's snap. Count our anonymity as a blessing in disguise in this city where so many pilgrims yearn for instant celebrity amongst us weary natives.


John Lofton, Recovering Republican said...

Conservative/Bible-believing Christian (NOT Republican Party cheerleader!) exposes Palin’s do-nothing, supposedly “pro-life” record. Please listen and comment.

John Lofton, Editor,


For more than 35 years John Lofton has covered national politics and cultural/religious issues as a journalist, nationally-syndicated columnist, TV-radio commentator/analyst and political advisor.

· Editor, "Monday," the weekly, national publication of the Republican National Committee, 1970-73.

· Nationally-syndicated columnist for "United Features" Syndicate in more than 100 papers nationwide, 1973-80.

· Editor, "Battleline," monthly newsletter of The American Conservative Union, 1977-80.

· Editor, "Conservative Digest" magazine, 1980-82.

· Columnist, "The Washington Times" newspaper, 1982-89.

· Program-host/commentator, "America's Voice," a national cable TV network in all 50 states, 1998-99.

· A commentator on the "Mutual Radio Network;"

· An advisor to the Presidential campaign of Pat Buchanan;

· Author of a monthly column on the Federal bureaucracy for Howard Phillips' "Conservative Caucus."

· Has written articles for the NRA magazine “America’s First Freedom”; Gun Owners Of America.

· Communications Director for Constitution Party Presidential candidate Michael Anthony Peroutka in 2004.

· Editor,

· Co–host with Michael Peroutka of “The American View” radio program.

John Lofton has given numerous speeches before various groups, Liberal and Conservative, including Liberty University/Bob Jones University. He has appeared on every major TV/radio talk show (including the Comedy Channel’s “Daily Show”/“Politically Incorrect”) to debate every imaginable kind of anti-Christian goofball --- and some who are unimaginable but who do, alas, exist. And he never went to college which is why he is so smart. He can be reached at: Phone: (301) 410-760-8885; cell phone: 301-873-4612; email:

* Being a Republican is not a disease but rather a choice – a very bad, destructive choice. So, please, no pity for those who suffer from Republicanism. We “RRs” have no telethon yet but many support groups are springing up across this once great country of ours – a country no longer great because it has been destroyed by, among others, Republicans.

Layne said...

We spoke of the challenge of making cogent connections in our writings and it amazes me how nimble you are and how deftly you describe our journey. Knowing that I’ll feel your heart near my own at day’s end nurtures the hope I need to pray. Thank you for this beautiful piece