Part IV: The United States Refugee Act of 1980 – Holbrooke’s Role A Review of George Packer (2019) Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

The United States Refugee Act of 1980 (USRA1980), signed by Jimmy Carter on 17 March and made effective on 1 April 1980, amended the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act (MRAC) to alter an ad hoc system of admitting refugees into the U.S. The aim was to standardize the process of admitting refugees and people of humanitarian concern. The Act provided uniform and consistent procedures for the selection, resettlement and integration of those refugees, but was not concerned with asylum procedures, that is, with refugees who claimed Convention refugee status in the U.S. The Act also primarily set as a goal the effective resettlement of refugees to assist them to achieve economic self-sufficiency as quickly as possible after arrival in the United States.

 Within six weeks of its signing into law, another source of a large refugee flow arrived on the shores of Florida, the Cuban boat people.

USRA1980 incorporated into U.S. law the UN definition of a refugee, raised the limits from 17,400 to 50,000 per year and provided mechanisms for the executive branch of government to exceed those limits in cases of humanitarian emergencies. The Act established the Office of the U.S. Coordinator of Refugee Affairs, whose responsibilities were temporarily assumed by the Secretary of State, but a year later was housed within the Department of Health and Human Services. As its foremost function, the Office administered the funds available for domestic resettlement costs, including ESL and employment training, in cooperation with state and local authorities. Reporting and oversight systems were put in place.

George Packer claimed that Holbrooke had “a lot to do” with USRA1980 and Jimmy Carter signing the Act into law. (p. 205) Was this the case? It is well known that Senator Edward Kennedy drafted a bill to reform refugee policy in 1978 and tabled his proposal in the United States Senate in 1979. The Carter administration had sent its proposed draft legislation to Congress in March of 1979. The eventual consolidation of the President’s proposal, the legislation tabled in the House of Representatives and Kennedy’s bill took only a year and was passed unanimously by the Senate, indicating no significant opposition to the legislation in spite of a majority of Americans opposing an increase in the refugee intake. The relative speed of passage was a clear indicator of the widespread support for new legislation in Congress.

Note how modest the legislation was – 10% of the annual immigration intake and only 1 refugee for every 4,000 Americans. Canada admitted 60,000 Indochinese refugees alone between July of 1979 and December of 1980, or about 40,000 per year, and about 1 refugee for every 600 Canadians. Was Jimmy Carter reluctant to sign the bill so that Holbrooke provided the extra heft to get it passed? Not if anyone knows anything about Carter’s empathy for refugees. Finally, the bill was mostly about resettlement and Holbrooke disdained domestic policy; he was a foreign policy wonk.

An academic colleague of mine at the time, David Martin, who taught immigration law at the University of Virginia, took a leave of absence then (or was he on sabbatical?) and served as special assistant to the assistant secretary for human rights and humanitarian affairs at the State Department. (Holbrooke was very busy as assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific.) Martin, an expert in refugee law, was the principal drafter of the legislation that dealt with this program to move selected refugees (humanitarian in contrast to Convention refugees) from refugee camps overseas to resettlement programs in the U.S.

In Canada, the mandarins in Ottawa had become acutely aware that the refugee outflow from Vietnam was no longer primarily an after-effect of the Vietnam War as thousands of Vietnamese – primarily ethnic Chinese at first – crowded old unseaworthy commercial vessels to escape. In November of 1978, when Hong Kong would not allow the 2,600 refugees aboard the Hai Hong to disembark, Canada offered to resettle 25% of them. The U.S. civil servants were as well aware of the looming crisis as the Canadians. Americans at the time called for action from federal officials when it became clear that the 25,000 target for resettlement in 1978 was clearly insufficient.

At the same time, acceding to U.S. pressure, the U.S.S.R. began to permit large numbers of Soviet Jews to leave. Canada, in response to lobbying by the Jewish community, amended its 1976 draft legislation that was incorporated into law in 1978 to make provision for the private sponsorship of refugees. That became a major factor in Canada’s large and disproportionate uptake and resettlement of Indochinese refugees. The American legislation had no equivalent provision.

USRA1980 was a direct product of increased demand – Soviet Jews, Indochinese, the continuation of freedom flights from Cuba about to erupt from a trickle to a flood, let alone Argentinians and Chileans, Iraqi and Lebanese Christians, Ethiopians and other Eastern Europeans. Further, in spite of a majority of Americans who were unsympathetic to an increased refugee intake, there was an upsurge in popular feeling, especially among urban educated groups, politicians of all stripes, business leaders, professionals and academics, to reform the law and increase the number allowed to enter.

There was also a significant gap between existing legally permitted levels (17,400 annually) and the need to legislate an increase and regularize the process. Existing legislation, limited to refugees from Communist countries and the Middle East, also failed to provide for the movement of people fleeing oppressive regimes, such as those from Argentina and Chile. Reliance on the parole provision of section 212(d)(5) of the INA allowing the Attorney General at his discretion and in emergencies to admit aliens into the U.S., that is, to ameliorate threats to isolated individual cases, was clearly insufficient to handle large movements.

Further, the parole provisions for the Cubans in 1962 provided for 100% federal funding of, for example, medical assistance for the refugees, with no termination date, a patently unfair provision in comparison with assistance available even to American citizens. Most of those Cubans were by now citizens. There were other odd provisions for assistance to refugees, such as Jews from the Soviet Union. The motley provisions for aid were inconsistent and incoherent and led to clashes between the legislative and executive branches of government. Legislative order was needed.

There is no doubt that Richard Holbrooke was totally supportive of these changes. However, there is little evidence that he had “a lot to do” with the legislative changes, in particular, with Jimmy Carter signing the legislation into law. Yet reviewers seem to have accepted and summarized Packer’s account as an accurate representation.

For example, Fred Kaplan in Slate (9 May 2019), in “When America Took Responsibility for Refugees,” simply summarized Packer’s five pages without a single critical note. Though his review is mildly critical of Packer, David Klion, too, uncritically echoed Packer’s account of Holbrooke’s role with respect to refugees. “Holbrooke consistently defended human rights and played a central role in getting Jimmy Carter to sign the Refugee Act of 1980, which welcomed an eventual 1.5 million people from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia into the United States.” (“The Unwinding: Richard Holbrooke and the lost idealism of a generation,” The Nation, 13 August 2019) Once again Donald Camp: “What about the achievements? …His idealism came out in his…focus on Indochinese refugees, while Assistant Secretary of State in the Carter administration, culminated in the Refugee Act of 1980, which tripled the number of refugees admitted to the U.S.” (American Diplomacy, May 2019)

David Martin, who was intimately involved with the legislation, opined that, “combined frustrations account for the surprisingly wide consensus that new legislation was needed. Outside lobbying played at most a minor role; their own unhappy experience with the process furnished the key executive and congressional figures with ample motivation for hammering out the Refugee Act of 1980 and seeing it through to enactment.” (“The Refugee Act of 1980: Its Past and Future,” University of Michigan Journal of International Law, 3:1, 1984)

Further, as I indicated previously, the claim that Holbrooke brought the plight of the Cambodian refugees to the attention of the world was unwarranted. The 1975 Indochina Migration and Assistance Act already encompassed both Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees. Why was Packer claiming special credit for Holbrooke in this area?

There are several possibilities. Holbrooke in his notes, diaries and memoirs may have taken such credit himself. Former wives and friends interviewed by Packer may have said this as a result of what Holbrooke told them in his propensity for self-promotion. Since there are no citations included, I do not know. Packer may have exaggerated Holbrooke’s role to enhance the importance of the person whose biography he was writing and, therefore, the importance of his own work. His version may have made the account more dramatic. Finally, it could have been a device to match and, indeed, enhance Holbrooke’s own sense of his own self-importance.

I do not know the reason. However, Packer was incorrect on a number of matters on the refugee issue. After 1975, America did not close its gates to or turn its back on Vietnamese refugees. Packer exaggerated Holbrooke’s role in changing American Naval policy with respect to the Indochinese from simply picking up refugees in the path of American war vessels to actively seeking to rescue refugees at sea. The intake increase from 7,000 to 14,000 Indochinese refugees per month was not the result of Holbrooke badgering either the President or the Secretary of State. Packer also mischaracterized the activities of both the UNHCR and the NGOs.

The first and last points, as well as the one re American action and publicity shifting the world’s attention to the Cambodian refugees, suggests that the issue was not just a desire to enhance Holbrooke’s status and roles, clearly unnecessary given his actual accomplishments, but a matter of too little concern with ensuring that Packer’s claims bore a close resemblance to what actually occurred in history.

Why let a fact get in the way of a good story? And Packer’s biography of Holbrooke is an enthralling read and a significant accomplishment. But he is not a historian. He is a journalist. The book not only generally lacks citations, but there is no index to facilitate cross-checking. The book is also advertised as a tale of the end of the American century or half-century of dominance on the world stage. The book alludes to such a claim, but never explores or develops it. The book is and should be read only as a biography. However, as a biographer, is his account of Holbrooke’s career and character accurate or persuasive?

And it is to that biography I will return and largely ignore the question of accuracy or comprehensiveness with respect to history. There is an irony in all of this. For Packer makes a very strong case, that though Holbrooke personally often exaggerated and even lied, he was driven to establish for himself what the real facts on the ground were.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part III: Indochinese Refugees – Holbrooke’s Motives and Impact – A Review of George Packer (2019) Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

What motivated Holbrooke to provide strong support for the plight of the Indochinese refugees? Later, he would go on his own, first to Tibet and to Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is clear that he had a very soft spot for those who were forcefully displaced, were persecuted or were denied the right to self-determination. Packer opined: “I don’t think being a child of refugees explains his passion on this subject. The past was buried by his parents and their son didn’t want to dig it up. No, it wasn’t the Jews – it was Vietnam. That was where he had seen a mother nursing her child next to her husband’s corpse.” (p. 204)

Second, did the world only start paying attention to the Cambodian genocide and the plight of the refugees who fled only after Holbrooke’s photo-op with Rosalynn Carter with Cambodian refugees in late November of 1979? Had UNHCR been silent and impotent as both the Indochinese and the Cambodian refugee crises developed? Were NGOs mostly passive and incompetent? Finally, did Jimmy Carter sign the 1980 Refugee Act in large part because of the influence of Richard Holbrooke? I will save the last question for a separate blog. If any of the above claims turn out to be a stretch or even a misrepresentation, why did Packer make such claims and what is the impact on one’s assessment of the quality of the biography?

Packer claims that Holbrooke was not motivated by his identity as a Jew. “No, it wasn’t the Jews.” Definitive. Assertive. Not a whisper of doubt. Packer claimed that Holbrooke was influenced by the actual suffering of the Vietnamese people during the war and his sense of America’s considerable responsibility for that suffering. Further, he was a man of action and when he saw a cause, he was disposed not to feel pity but to act with force and determination. At least, in my opinion, if he believed he could make a difference.

I want to argue that Holbrooke’s Jewishness did matter both with respect to his style, his shamelessness, compassion and his passions. I cannot prove that Packer is wrong, but I offer evidence that Holbrooke’s Jewishness was a major influence, unconscious at first but increasingly part of his consciousness in the last two decades of his life. Why was he so driven to go into the province of Ba Xuyen in the Mekong Delta where he saw for himself that the policy of strengthening the hamlets was not working because the Viet Cong came out at night and destroyed what had been created each day? His passion for the downtrodden and for refugees preceded his Vietnamese assignment.

Further, I have both my own experience as a once assimilated secular Jew who first became involved in 1957 in helping house Hungarian refugees arriving in Toronto and then in 1979 in playing a role in the private sponsorship of Indochinese refugees in Canada. Then, I would have said that it was my universalist humanitarian outlook that motivated me. Later, when I undertook empirical research on what motivated sponsors of refugees, it was clear that a prior connection with refugees, especially when reinforced by a strong Christian sensibility in the case of non-Jews and a strong liberal sensibility as Jews, served as a critical catalyst. Reform Jews, who were usually much more distant from the Holocaust, sponsored Indochinese refugees far out of proportion to their numbers. The mixture of identification and a religious injunction, even when secularized, was a powerful if unconscious source for those commitments. It is not at all clear why Packer is so dismissive of unconscious propulsion.

In the last twenty years of his life, especially after he was named Ambassador to Germany, Holbrooke proudly spoke of his pride in his Jewish heritage. He even hung a portrait of his grandfather in a WWI German uniform on the wall of his ambassador’s residence and would always point out to visitors that his grandfather was Jewish. But in the first fifty years of his life, he was silent on the subject, though, unlike Madeleine Albright, he was fully aware of his family’s Jewish roots.

The turning point perhaps came when Holbrooke turned fifty and his friends and colleagues, at Holbrooke’s own urging, threw a large party for him in Packer’s telling. The speeches were a roast. The stories told hit very close to the bone. He felt humiliated. Perhaps never as much as when his oldest and best friend, Les Gelb, in the final speech of the evening, acted out both sides of an interview with Richard.

Reporter: Are you Jewish?

Holbrooke: No.

Reporter: Are you sure?

Holbrooke: Yes, I am sure.

Reporter: We have information.

Holbrooke: Actually, I had a Jewish great-grandfather.

Reporter: We heard it was a more direct line.

Holbrooke: Well, maybe I am half-Jewish.

Reporter: (to the audience) And that sounds half true.

His friends and colleagues roared with laughter as Holbrooke smiled weakly and squirmed in his seat.

Packer suggests a second key stage in Holbrooke’s coming out of the closet and embracing his Jewishness that went beyond shameful acknowledgement. Holbrooke was offered the position of U.S. Ambassador to Germany. (p. 271)  

“One thing you have to realize if you go to Germany is the people will ask you if you’re Jewish or not,” [Peter] Tarnoff said. “So are you Jewish?”

“Why is it important?”

Tarnoff explained why being Jewish was important in Germany.

“Yes I am.”

Jewishness now had become a badge he wore on his sleeve or a flag on his lapel. It was simply a label that allowed him then to express pride in his Jewishness, possibly instigated now that it was to his advantage. Holbrooke had to learn how deep his Jewishness was in his soul. That came when he doggedly set out to win the heart of Kati Marton after her marriage to Peter Jennings, the ABC News anchor, had disintegrated. I had only known of her as the author of a 1994 volume on Count Folke Bernadotte, the Israeli-Arab mediator in 1948. Until I read Marton’s book A Death in Jerusalem: The Assassination by Jewish Extremists of the First Arab/Israeli Mediator, I had not associated her with Holbrooke, which is more an indication of how out of the loop I remain when it comes to celebrity couples.

Kati Marton had been raised as a Roman Catholic. While researching for her book on Raoul Wallenberg, she discovered that her own parents were Hungarian Jews when she learned that her own grandparents had been killed at Auschwitz. She was the daughter of two famous journalists, UPI reporter Ilona Marton and award-winning Associate Press reporter Endre Marton. (Cf. Kati Marton (2009) Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America.) They had hidden from Kati their Jewishness and her father even initially denied it when Kati confronted him.

Holbrooke had run into Kati a number of times in her role as a journalist and writer. What Kati did not know was that Holbrooke had been stalking her for years. They “happened” to be in Paris at the same Christmas of 1993 and arranged to meet and then to take a three-day jaunt to Chartres. The meeting became a tryst and Holbrooke single mindedly, with as much determination as he had brought to anything in his life, wooed and won her heart. It would be the same type of persistence and passion that he brought to the negotiations that led to the Dayton Accords.

Holbrooke was a good listener. He was devoted to Kati Marton’s happiness. And, unlike Jennings, he supported her success rather than feeling threatened by it. As Marton wrote, “Richard was a one-of-a-kind personality. He was also a very good husband, and a very loving one.” (Cf. Kati Marton (2012) Paris: A Love Story.) As Packer said in an interview on his biography of Holbrooke, “It’s through his relations with women that I think we really get to the heart of Holbrooke.” And it was through his relationship to Kati Marton that I suggest that Holbrooke finally got in touch with his own heart and the depth of his Jewishness.

He had always been an idealist as well as a realist wrapped in a patina of unrestrained ambition. As Packer described him, “a different person might have become secretary of state; someone more diplomatic, more suave and smooth, knowing how to operate, and being restrained and self-aware. But I’m not sure that person would have ended the war in Bosnia because it took a kind of shamelessness and relentlessness and willingness to fail in order to end a war that had defeated the attempts of everyone else who tried.”

My only dispute with this description is Packer’s contention that Holbrooke was not self-aware. Certainly, though he admired the aristocratic bearing and impeccable dress of diplomats like Warren Christopher, he very well knew that he ate and stained his ties, that he could never be the dapper dresser that Kati Marton’s father was. But he was very aware of how he had to temper his bleeding heart with an iron will and an acute intelligence if he were able to translate his passions into actions that made a difference. And those traits came together into a braid best when he married Kati Marton and became inwardly Jewish.

Given his best friends – Gelb, Rosenblatt and their shared convictions – I suggest that Holbrooke’s Jewishness was not an accidental and incidental part of his make-up, but integral to his passion and compassion as well as his commitments.

What about Holbrooke as a publicity seeker? He could not compete with Donald Trump. Further, he sought publicity to advance good causes even more than himself. Did his concern with publicity and use of Rosalynn Carter in a photo-op bring the Cambodian refugee issue to the attention of the world for the first time? If so, why were the Cambodian refugees included in the June and July mandates to resettle Indochinese well before Holbrooke’s visit with Rosalynn Carter to the Cambodian refugee camps in November?

Recall that Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December of 1978. The new, pro-Vietnamese government proclaimed the People’s Republic of Kampuchea in January 1979. That is when the largest exodus of the half million refugees who fled Cambodia that year began. During that year, older members of the small Cambodian-Canadian community established the CCAO (Cambodian-Canadian Association of Ontario) partnered with private sponsors to bring Cambodian refugees to Canada. The Canadian government in both June and July included Cambodian refugees in its targeted population for resettlement in Canada. (For a more detailed account of the role of Canada in the intake of Indochinese refugees, cf. Running on Empty by Michael J. Molloy, Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert Shalka with a foreword by Ronald Atkey who was the Minister of Immigration when Canada determined that 50,000 Indochinese refugees would be admitted.)

This points to a central fault in the book. As I and my Norwegian colleague discovered when we were preparing our report on the international community’s responsibility for its general passivity in responding to the emerging and actual genocide in Rwanda, Washington was unlike any other capital. The way Americans dealt with Rwanda was almost totally the product of the internecine struggles within the American capital. By contrast, policy in Canada was a product of the interplay between what was happening abroad and domestic politics, with, in the case of the Indochinese refugees, the overwhelming influence of the overseas situation. In America, the situation was the reverse. The overwhelming influence on policy always seemed to be the competition of ideas and power in America. What other countries did, what other countries thought, what other countries believed, fell far down the scale of influential factors.

George Packer suffers from the same failing. His is almost entirely a Washington-centric account. What was happening in Geneva or in the field with UNHCR, what was happening in Amsterdam when he offered his very vivid account of the wars in ex-Yugoslavia, were very peripheral if even on the horizon of his perspective. He is prone to make declarations about the world – such as that the world’s views of Cambodian refugees came into focus only after Rosalynn and Richard visited the camps – but this was simply untrue. There is no indication that he undertook research in any other capital, even to get German or Pakistani or Afghan views of Holbrooke.

What about the role of American NGOs? He knows that Rosenblatt went on to head Refugees International. That should have informed him that the agency would have been effective and driven by both commitment and knowledge. This was true of many of the NGOs, but certainly not all. But a negative generalization about the vast majority reflects more the views of Washington political insiders and critical journalists than the judgement of dispassionate investigators.

To be continued

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part II: Indochinese Refugees – A Critique — A Review of Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

Did America close its gates to refugees in 1976 and 1977 after admitting 130,000 in 1975?

After WWII, the U.S. resettled 650,000 displaced Europeans, took in refugees fleeing Communist regimes (38,000 Hungarians in 1956-7), took in tens of thousands of Cubans and in 1975-6, 130,000 Vietnamese refugees as part of the U.S.-sponsored evacuation program culminating in Operation Frequent Wind. That program evacuated 7,000 American civilians and U.S.-allied Vietnamese by helicopter from various points in Saigon. By November, Operation New Life processed 110,000 refugees from Saigon who had been brought to Guam. Operation New Arrivals relocated Vietnamese refugees from Guam and other Pacific Islands to the United States. Did American policy change after this response to the fall of Saigon and emergency refugee crisis in 1975?

No. When American officials realized the exodus was continuing and that 90,000 refugees remained in camps in Thailand or were stateless persons in various countries throughout Southeast Asia, the U.S. established a refugee office in Bangkok, Thailand, headed by Lionel Rosenblatt, a friend of Richard Holbrooke. In 1975, Rosenblatt, with L. Craig Johnstone, had defied State Department orders, flew to Saigon and organized the evacuation of friends and colleagues with whom they had worked in Vietnam. For their work, they were formally reprimanded by Henry Kissinger who, at the same time, informally smiled and shook their hands. Rosenblatt received the William R. Rivkin award from the American Foreign Service Association for his work rescuing Vietnamese refugees. (See the character named Larry Rush in the 1990 movie Last Flight Out.)

Rosenblatt was then given the responsibility for processing additional Vietnamese refugees for entry into the United States. (Cf. Larry Clinton Thompson (2010) Refugee Workers in the Indochinese Exodus, 1975-1982.) Rosenblatt, who would eventually leave the State Department and become President of Refugees International, assumed his role as founder and chief of the Refugee Section at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. During 1978-81, he became the refugee coordinator and director of the Khmer Emergency Group. (His archives are located at the Irvine campus of the University of California.)

The U.S. continued to admit about 100 per month under Section 212 (d) (5) of the Immigration and Nationality Act permitting the Attorney General in his discretion to: “parole into the United States temporarily under such conditions as he may prescribe for emergent reasons or for reasons deemed strictly in the public interest any alien applying for admission to the United States.” Other than this discretionary option, no legislative mandate existed to admit more. However, by 1977, pressure had grown to admit 1,250 per month led by Ted Kennedy in the Senate and, in the House of Representatives, Joshua Eilberg, a Democratic Representative from Pennsylvania.

Cyrus Vance, Secretary of State, rather than ignoring the refugee issue as Packer claimed, recommended that President Carter authorize Attorney General Griffin B. Bell to use his authority to admit 15,000 additional Indochinese refugees: 8,250 Vietnamese, including more than 7,000 “boat people,” 6,000 Laotians and 1,000 Cambodians living in Thai refugee camps. They were to be admitted at the rate of about 1,000 per month over the following fifteen months.

Now it may seem as if I am making a mountain out of a tiny molehill. However, these mistakes about claiming that the U.S. closed its doors and that Vance was indifferent to the plight of the refugees may signal a much larger problem in Packer’s writing. They may represent a plethora of errors and misstatements, perhaps influenced by Holbrooke’s grandiose self promotion. Further, Packer, in getting things wrong that are so easily checked, immediately becomes suspect as a source of historical accuracy. Finally, it suggests becoming very wary when Packer denigrates other officials, the UNHCR and NGOs when compared to Holbrooke’s purported creativity and activism on behalf of refugees. Let us see how Packer’s claim stands up, that, against widespread opposition, Holbrooke promoted the use of the American Navy to rescue refugees at sea. Did Holbrooke, in Packer’s words, badger President Jimmy Carter to increase the intake of refugees from 7,000 to 14,000 per month prior to the international conference in Geneva in June of 1979?

America may indeed have wanted to forget the war, but that was not the reason for the delay in the uptake of more refugees. A new president had just taken office. He had to get his feet wet. There were legislative obstacles. Further, the same people who opposed the intake of the 130,000, because the refugees were from a different culture and would not assimilate, because they would provide competition for American workers, even though the organized union movement supported the intake of the refugees, because of the costs of the resettlement program (one half billion for the 130,000), continued to oppose the intake of Indochinese refugees. And they were supported by a majority of Americans. However, and this is very important, the legislative and executive branches of the American government continued to provide the leadership in opposing the majority opposition to the intake of the refugees and the xenophobic voices that championed those sentiments. Fortunately, in both the Republican and Democratic parties, saner voices prevailed. Holbrooke may never have given up his concern for refugees, but he was far from being a lone wolf advocating on their behalf.

A much larger exodus was on the horizon. At the same time as Congress was holding hearings on 4 August 1977 of the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and International Law, at which Holbrooke appeared to support the 15,000 intake, 1,500 per month were escaping from Vietnam, mostly on unseaworthy boats. The Boat People exodus was in its very early phase. On 12 June 1977, a 1,570-ton oil tanker, the Leap Dol, well past its recommended use date but chartered by the World Conference on Religion and Peace for precisely the task of rescue, sat in a Malaysian harbour unable to unload its cargo of 249 mainly Laotian refugees rescued at sea in January. So much for Packer’s slighting of the majority of the NGOs for their incompetence and lack of initiative.

The Laotian flight adumbrated a new boat exodus from Vietnam as the Hanoi government in 1978 began harassing the Hoa, specifically the “overseas” Chinese who made up a significant segment of the merchant class in South Vietnam. At the time, Richard Holbrooke was Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. On 30 July 1984, he wrote a review for The New Republic of William Shawcross’ book, The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust, and Modern Conscience, that contributed to the debate over the responsibility to protect, given additional momentum following the Rwanda genocide in 1994. Holbrooke wrote:

“The routine of government meetings never seems more unreal than when their consequences are so real—literally life or death—for people who have no spokesman present in the room. One such meeting that remains vividly in my mind took place in the White House Situation Room early in 1979. The South China Sea was filled with tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees, many in ramshackle boats, seeking sanctuary’ in neighboring countries. Large numbers of them drowned, and others were attacked by pirates. There were ships of the U.S. Seventh Fleet in the Western Pacific, but not where the boat people were in greatest difficulty. At the time, the Navy was following traditional rules of the sea: picking up refugees sighted during regular naval patrols only if they appeared to be in imminent danger. No extraordinary rescue efforts were being made.

“The question arose: Should the Seventh Fleet be instructed to make the rescue of refugees fleeing Vietnam, in effect, an additional assigned mission? There was serious division within the U.S. government. The Navy was concerned about the diversion of ships from their primary naval mission. Moreover, some countries in the area, in violation of long-standing rules of the sea, would not let ships unload refugees. What destination, then, for those picked up by the Seventh Fleet? Would the Navy bring them directly to the United States, allowing them to “jump the line” and enter the United States months, or even years, ahead of others already waiting in the swollen camps of Southeast Asia? Some, including at least one staff member of the National Security Council (not Zbigniew Brzezinski), opposed doing anything that might “generate” refugees. They argued that once the news reached Vietnam that the Seventh Fleet was rescuing refugees off the Indochinese coast, many more people would set out to sea in ever more dangerous small boats. This would not only create more refugees, they argued, but would also remove from Vietnam many people who, if forced to remain inside Vietnam, might cause the Communists serious internal problems.

“Most of the points raised against the use of the Seventh Fleet had some validity. But as Washington argued, people continued to drown. Finally, the issue made its way to a high-level meeting chaired by Vice President Mondale. Sitting at the head of the long table in the windowless, sterile atmosphere of the Situation Room, as far from the stormy waters of the South China Sea as could be imagined, we debated the issue, at times as though it was just another abstract interagency dispute. Mondale patiently listened to every argument for almost two hours. At the end of it all, he cut through the legalisms and the complications. He could not imagine, he said, being part of an Administration which did not ask its ships to try to rescue innocent people fleeing an oppressive regime. He wanted the orders to the Seventh Fleet amended in order to save lives.”

From the details in Packer’s brief capsule of the incident, I suspect this is the source of the story. But obviously not the only one. Note a number of points. The issue was not, as Packer depicted it, the Navy picking up refugees at sea, but the Navy actively searching and rescuing those refugees. Second, Holbrooke explicitly states that Brzezinski did not speak in opposition to the Navy actively rescuing refugees. Third, though there was one person vocally opposed, certainly others, the general consensus supported assigning the Navy the active role of rescue. Fourth, Holbrooke makes no claim for playing a leading or heroic role in the discussion as Packer suggests. Finally, there is no indication here that Mondale reprimanded the admiral present for not getting on board (no pun intended) the new policy.

That does not mean that it did not happen, but since Packer does not cite sources, we do not know the origin of the anecdote. It may just have been a good lively tale. This use of imaginative licence is suggested by the false factual claim that, “Every agency found a reason to oppose his idea.” First, there is no evidence that it was Holbrooke’s idea, though he clearly supported it. Even in Holbrooke’s account of the incident. it was not opposed by most agencies (my italics) let alone all of them. Finally, the debate was not over the Navy rescuing refugees, as Packer depicted it, but of initiating a search and rescue operation rather than just taking on board refugees that Navy vessels came across.

Refugees fleeing by boat surged to more than 25,000 per month in 1979. Following UNHCR urging, several maritime Southeast Asian nations established camps, Bidong Island by Malaysia and the Galang Refugee Camp in Indonesia, to house the refugees. But these nations were explicit: this was intended to be a temporary solution and would only remain an open possibility if Western states committed themselves to resettling the refugees.

Did Holbrooke badger President Jimmy Carter on route to the G7 meeting in June of 1979 in Japan to double the monthly intake from 7,000 to 14,000? Note the gap in the narrative. There is no accounting for the increase in the monthly intake from 1,500 per month to 7,000. Look at how Packer described the lead up to the next conference in Geneva. “No one expected much from the [28 June 1979] conference…the U.N. refugee office was stuck in its own bureaucratic inertia.” Further, Packer insists that Holbrooke was the main source for Mondale’s moving speech at the G7.

By 1978, a consensus was beginning to emerge among mandarins in Western states that the cause of the exodus was not directly linked to the American Indochina war. Hanoi initiated a war to bring Kampuchea into line. Hanoi wanted to get rid of its “overseas” Chinese. Hanoi actively took steps to pressure tens of thousands considered “undesirable” to leave while expropriating their assets. The influx of refugees into other nations in the region was destabilizing. In Malaysia and Indonesia, the Chinese were already a threatened minority and upsetting the current balance would likely exacerbate tensions in those countries. Chinese antipathy to its fellow communist regime in Hanoi exaggerated the situation. The special statement in June 1979 in Geneva summarized the consensus: “The plight of refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia poses a humanitarian problem of historic proportions and constitutes a threat to the peace and stability of Southeast Asia. Given the tragedy and suffering which are taking place, the problem calls for an immediate and major response.”

In 1978, with exodus of over 2,500 refugees aboard the Hai Hong, Canada had already taken the lead and pledged to take 25% of them instead of following the usual formula of admitting 10% and relying on the U.S. and other countries to pick up the rest. Rather than inertia, by June 1979 the nations of the West had determined to take concerted action. As moving as Walter Mondale’s speech was, and evidence does suggest it was influenced by an article that Holbrooke had written on the 1938 Evian conference, all of the countries in the G7 were prepared to take more dramatic initiatives that did not simply rely on putting pressure on Hanoi to cease and desist. “The Governments represented (at the G7) will, as part of an international effort, significantly increase their contributions to Indochinese refugee relief and resettlement – by making more funds available and by admitting more people, while taking into account the existing social and economic circumstances in each of their countries.”

Taking advantage of its presidential rather than parliamentary system, the United States was first off the mark. On 29 June, President Carter announced that the U.S. would double its monthly intake. Holbrooke did not have to badger Vance, Mondale or Carter. The consensus had set in both internationally and domestically among the progressive leaders in the U.S. The Canadians had come to the meeting with prepared draft statements that would follow the Geneva meeting. Canada had already upped its intake in June from 8,000 to 12,000 per year and was making plans to increase that target further. By July, it settled on a figure of 50,000, about 4,000 per month, much more than the usual ration of 1:10 to the American commitment of 14,000.

My suspicion of Packer’s historical account of Holbrooke’s role had grown to a disquiet. Holbrooke was undoubtedly a leading voice supporting the refugees. Marty Kaplan, Mondale’s speechwriter, acknowledged the role of Holbrooke influencing the content of Mondale’s speech, not only the best that Kaplan ever wrote but one of the best ever on refugees. However, would my disquiet become a full-blown distrust when I looked into answering the last five questions raised in my first blog in this series?

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman.

Part I: Indochinese Refugees

A Review of George Packer (2019)

Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

Richard Holbrooke was three years younger than me. He died nine years ago. He too had a calm and somewhat nasal voice, but it had a singsong cadence when he laughed while mine remains a low rumbling monotone interrupted by the odd guffaw. If I was the wallflower who listened and observed, questioned and interjected, Holbrooke led you onto the political dance floor by “cajoling, nattering, bullying, seducing, needling, analyzing, one-upping you – applying continuous pressure like a strong underwater current, so that by the end of a conversation, even two minutes on the phone, you found yourself far out from where you’d started.” I always try to bring the conversation back to where we began, though I am sure I am equally or even more wearing and exhausting with my verbosity as I drill down deep rather than carrying someone forward in a torrent of words.

Richard Holbrooke was a world-renowned statesman. I was an academic on the sidelines who inserted my toes in many of the same areas in which Holbrooke had become centrally involved, first and foremost into the issue of the Indochinese refugees, but also Bosnia-Herzegovina where I became a severe critic of Holbrooke’s. He went on to try helplessly and hopelessly to extricate America from Afghanistan while I implicated and accused America of failing to intervene in the genocide in Rwanda.

Holbrooke mirrored and expressed America’s confidence and energy, its efforts to reach and grasp at a heavenly ring, while I was probably more like the quiet Canadian who tried to play a modest and glancing role in trying to improve the world bit by bit. Instead of excess and mindblindness, Canadians have strived to see clearly and distinctly. In our desire to preserve our sight and our vision, however, we have often avoided the fray.

Holbrooke developed his foundational principles concerning diplomacy and politics, in good part as a result of his American experience in Vietnam. My political principles took root from my role as a leader and participant in the anti-nuclear and anti-war movement during the same period in the sixties. In my life, I learned a great deal about diplomacy, but never was able to incorporate those lessons deeply into my behaviour. Richard Holbrooke, by contrast, was a sponge. And, I would argue, a leach in his own unique way. Other than this over-generalized personalized comparison of our respective experiences, reading the story of this period of Holbrooke’s life brought back many memories of my own encounters with the Vietnam War.

As I indicated above, our paths crossed in terms of policy in the latter part of the seventies in dealing with the Indochinese refugees, an issue on which I became very active. Then we were both on the same side. Our paths would cross again over the Dayton Accords and Holbrooke’s seminal role in that agreement. I have never forgiven Holbrooke for his role in forging the terms of that agreement and I was anxious to read the second half George Packer’s biography to see if my previous thoughts on his role were reinforced or whether I would learn to understand him in a new way and discard my previous harsh judgements.

George Packer’s biography offers a detailed account of Holbrooke’s personal development, his friendships, his loves but, most importantly, his in-depth involvement in the foreign policies, strategies and their implementation over five decades of American history. The book is as much a story of America as it is of Richard Holbrooke.

George Packer’s decision to write a biography of Holbrooke is itself a sign of the latter’s importance. Now a staff writer at The Atlantic and formerly for The New Yorker, George Packer previously published The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, that won the 2003 National Book Award. His book, The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize. In addition to his other political writings, Packer has written two novels and a play.

George Packer is a wonderful writer. He easily weaves the tale of the very personal and the very public life of Holbrooke as a pivotal diplomat over those five decades. The book is written more in the form of a novel where the author is often sitting on the shoulder of Holbrooke as the latter exchanges thoughts and intimacies with his lovers and exchanges ideas and political plans with his friends and colleagues. However, the volume is purportedly and primarily a political history and personal biography of Richard Holbrooke.

I read through the first over one-third of the book covering the Vietnam period in two sittings. I was entranced – that is, until I got to the relatively brief section on the Indochinese refugees. Then I paused. And I reflected. This was a period and an event that I knew very well. If it had been misrepresented, what should I now think of the portrait that so enthralled me up until this point? I jump ahead to this section before I review the tale of the previous sections on Vietnam through the refracted lens of Packer’s account of Holbrooke’s involvement with the Indochinese refugees.

The section on the Indochinese refugees is only five pages (201-205). It covers the period from 1975 to 1979. The story as told by George Packer is very straightforward. There were three phases. In phase I, in 1975-6, President Gerald Ford admitted 130,000 Vietnamese into the USA. In phase 2, from 1977-1978, “the gates closed” because “Americans wanted to be done with the region.” The refugee issue was ignored. The U.S. lacked any refugee policy. There were only two people in the State Department refugee office. Cyrus Vance, President Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State, believed that refugees were an internal matter for the “host” country, the country of first asylum. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s security adviser, “gave them no thought at all.”

Richard Holbrooke was the exception. Because the refugees were from Indochina, the area in which Holbrooke lost his virginity in foreign affairs, and because the refugees were desperate, they “became Holbrooke’s concern. For four years [1975-1979], he never lost sight of them.” In August 1977, before Congress, he pushed to admit an additional 15,000 refugees. “In 1978 and 1979, when Vietnamese by the tens of thousands were forced to take to the South China Sea, he pushed for a stronger American response, such as using navy ships to pick up those turned away by neighbouring countries. But the navy didn’t see rescuing refugees as a military mission.” (p. 202)

Phase three took place in 1979; during that year, the policy shifted. On the issue of naval rescue in the spring of 1979, Holbrooke convened a meeting in the State Department to push his position, but was opposed by other agencies, especially the Pentagon. It was only because Holbrooke had recruited Vice-President Walter Mondale to support his position that Mondale, at the end of the meeting, simply ordered the navy to pick up the refugees. Mondale added that, alternatively, the admiral could find another job.

In the second step of Phase three, in June of 1979, Holbrooke on the way to the G7, “badgered first Vance and then Carter to double the number of Southeast Asian refugees admitted into the United States from seven to fourteen thousand.” Even if you knew nothing about refugee policy and the period 1977 to 1979, there had to be something fishy about this statement. For if the USA had turned its back totally on Indochinese refugees, why had the USA been taking 7,000 Indochinese refugees per month or 84,000 per year or 56% of the intake in 1975-6?

We’ll return to this strand in the narrative. The resistance to Holbrooke’s proposal was too strong. Vietnamese refugees were not a priority issue. Nevertheless, when Carter reached Tokyo, he announced that the refugee intake would go from 7,000 to 14,000 per month, with the implication that, against all odds, Holbrooke had persuaded Carter. Further, in July, with Carter preoccupied with Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations, Mondale was sent to the pledging conference in July. His speechwriter used Holbrooke’s paper on the dastardly conduct of the Evian Conference in 1938 when Western states, with the one exception of the Dominican Republic, turned their backs on the Jewish refugees.

Mondale’s speech got a standing ovation in citing Evian. “Let us renounce that legacy of shame. Let us honor the moral principles we inherit. Let us do something meaningful – something profound – to stem this misery. We face a world problem. Let us fashion a world solution. History will not forgive us if we fail. History will not forget us if we succeed.” Holbrooke, according to George Packer, had been motivated, not by the plight and flight of his Jewish parents, but by his experiences in Vietnam and by his disposition, not to respond with psychological despair but with “furious action.”

Lionel Rosenblatt, Holbrooke’s friend from their service in Vietnam together, then stationed at the U.S. embassy in Bangkok, did as he had in 1975; he defied orders and helped evacuate South Vietnamese refugees from Saigon. In 1979, he moved to action to help the Cambodian refugees staggering across the border into Thailand while the UNHCR stood by and said nothing according to Packer. Ambassador Morton Abramowitz was on side. Holbrooke in Washington gave them political cover. In October, Holbrooke traveled to Thailand to visit the camps, when, with a few exceptions, according to Packer, international do-gooders “seemed more concerned with correct procedures than solving problems.”

In the camps, Holbrooke denounced the UNHCR, and, with “his egotism and idealism in perfect balance,” pursued a relentless policy of relieving the plight of the refugees as Rosalynn Carter took sentimental photo-ops with an exhausted refugee mother and her child and pronounced the situation “devastating.” Only after that, according to Packer, did the world pay attention. As a final outcome of Holbrooke’s efforts, Jimmy Carter signed the Refugee Act of 1980, tripling the number of refugees allowed into the country. “By 1982 the United States had admitted half a million Indochinese, by far the most of any country in the world. The number eventually reached one and a half million. Holbrooke had a lot to do with it.”

A lot of claims were put forth in these five pages. I have selected ten:

  1. After 1975-6, America closed its gates to Indochinese refugees.
  2. The reason: America wanted to forget the war and turn its back on the refugees.
  3. Holbrooke, however, never gave up his concern for the refugees.
  4. Holbrooke, against almost general opposition, successfully pushed a policy of naval rescue of Vietnamese refugees fleeing in 1978-9.
  5. At the G7 summit in Geneva in June of 1979, as a result of Holbrooke’s badgering, Carter pledged to increase the American intake from 7,000 to 14,000 per month.
  6. In the August Indochinese refugee conference in Geneva, as a result of Holbrooke’s paper on the Evian Conference in 1938 dealing with the plight of the European Jews, VP Walter Mondale gave his historic speech rallying the world community to resettle the refugees.
  7. The initiatives Holbrooke took were motivated both by his memories of the suffering of the Vietnamese and his disposition to respond to suffering, not by an outflow of feeling, but by furious action.
  8. After, and, by implication, as a result of Holbrooke’s and Rosalynn Carter’s visit to the Cambodian refugee camps, “the world paid attention to Cambodia.”
  9. Up until then, the UNHCR had been silent and impotent and the NGOs mostly passive and incompetent.
  10. By implication again, as a result of Holbrooke’s dedication and commitment, Jimmy Carter signed the 1980 Refugee Act which tripled the annual refugee intake into America of Indochinese from 17,000 to 50,000.

In the next blog, I will examine each claim in turn.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Bread and Memory – Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

I want to thank all of those who wrote in response to yesterdays’ blog. And I mean “all,” For I started to reply to the first few individually yesterday. However, if I continued, it would have taken yesterday evening and the whole of this morning. I have never had such a voluminous feedback to any blog that I have written before. Was it the subject matter with which so many could identify? Was it my approach? Or perhaps the style I had adopted.

The responses fell into different categories. There were those who advised me on the biochemistry of why eating bread becomes an addiction and eating fruit does not, though I eat even more fruit than bread. Eating carbohydrates is connected with the production of serotonin by the body. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that can cross the blood-brain barrier to produce a feeling of pleasure. Carbohydrates – and very little is needed – leads to serotonin production.

If I stop eating carbohydrates, then no serotonin. Further, if eaten with pastrami, the protein offsets the serotonin production. If I eat quickly – and I do – then the serotonin is not produced fast enough to turn off my passion for carbohydrates. I act too quickly to give it a chance. I may not have gotten the science right, but you get the idea. “Challah and euphoria are universal, if not tribal.” There is also the physiology of the process – the effects on mood, on concentration, on sleep – which I have not gotten into. I had no idea how many scientists read my blog.

There were the humorists who tried to enter a friendly competition with me. One congratulated me for my “very evenly leavened depiction of the predicament. I haven’t laughed so hard in a while. I wasn’t laughing at you but out of recognition of and identification with the problem.” All said and done, we are all part of the great unwashed overfed brotherhood of bread fanatics.

There were those who shared my pleasure and those who reprimanded me, not for eating rye or challah or bagels, but for my poor taste. “What a bagel!” Those fluffy high-rise excuses for bagels are made by Israelis who should stick to Pita. An Israeli never learned to bake or boil let alone appreciate a good bagel. They had just become ersatz Americans for whom bagels have now become their favourite breakfast food. Now Gryfe’s. There is a good bagel. Or District Bagels in Montreal. “Bagel World in Toronto and the overly expensive Buby’s NY bagel are the true, dense, chewy, exuberant poopy seed versions.”

Many assured me that my condition was treatable. I could get control over my compulsive disorder and learn to maintain self-discipline and sobriety. Others suggested that I was genetically doomed. Further, the genetic pattern was geographically determined, in Toronto, via “Litvacks primarily! Montreal and New York had earlier and different immigrant patterns than Toronto…though we were contaminated by Pollocks, Galitzianers and the Romanische.” Others offered a number of tricks used in dieting in general to manage my weight. I could save bagels for family occasions and then savour them more richly.

There were very many women who wrote, though the category included one man, who offered me advice (and a great deal of sympathy) on how I could treat my addiction. They congratulated me on my courage at openly confessing that I was addicted. They ached for me. They felt my pain, even though I had indicated that I was addicted to the pleasures of eating bread, at least delicious bread with deep roots in Europe. They had been there themselves. Some of them had mastered the literature, the tools and the use of societal groupings to bring their addictions under control. They offered to share their experiences and advice in greater detail. I cannot thank them enough for their sympathy and their willingness to assist me.

There were, of course the more professional psychologists, though one writer advised that I simply need a substitute narrative for the one I put on display that is so entrancing. For “emotional eating is rooted in the subconscious. So no wonder conscious attempts fail.” There is an App (Insight Time) on offer that can help but it involves inventing an even more amazing food story than the one I told. I would have to give up my authentic history for a fictional one. Then there were also the historians who reiterated traditional analyses of the ancient Greek distinction between the Apollonian vs Dionysian cults.  Perfection vs pleasure; reason vs feelings; mind vs matter; virtue vs vice; the equally ancient Asian distinction between the ‘higher’/rational realm vs the ‘lower’/sensuous realm.

This analysis easily slipped into the region of theology. There were those who offered a very radical religious remedy. “Convert! Renounce your Judaism (and its customs like eating bagels and rye) and adopt some other faith. The shock to your sense of identity might be sufficiently powerful to provide an antidote to your addiction.” On the other hand, another writer accused me of being too akin to Catholicism.

As it turns out, there is a specific theological dilemma that is addressed in this week’s Torah portion dealing with bread. In Deuteronomy (9:9), Moses informs the Israelites upon his return from getting the ten advisories that

He not only did not eat bred during the 40 days but abstained from water. “And He afflicted you and let you go hungry, and then fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your forefathers know, so that He would make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but rather by, whatever comes forth from the mouth of the Lord does man live.”

וַיְעַנְּךָ וַיַּרְעִבֶךָ וַיַּאֲכִלְךָ אֶת הַמָּן אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַעְתָּ וְלֹא יָדְעוּן אֲבֹתֶיךָ לְמַעַן הוֹדִעֲךָ כִּי לֹא עַל הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם כִּי עַל כָּל מוֹצָא פִי יְי יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם:

Man lives by bread, but not by bread alone. “He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:3) In the desert the Israelites learned to live with manna from heaven. After the death of Moses, they would cross into the Promised Land where they could farm, grow grains and bake bread. There is a difference in elevation, geographical location and chronology. The manna from heaven precedes the growing of wheat and the baking of bread.

What is the difference between the heavenly bread (manna) and the earthly bread? מן or mon means a ready-made portion of food, fast food. Earthly bread was to be slowly leavened overnight, baked at the correct temperature for the proper length of time. Mon, in contrast, was fast food. So why is fast food associated with that which has status, that which has greater significance, that which comes from heaven?

First, it was of limited supply, an omer or 43 ounces. Just enough to be satiated but never enough to be overfed. And it could not be preserved. Only on Friday did the Israelites get a double portion for no manna reigned down on shabat. That is why the blessing for bread on Friday evening uses two loaves of challah. Bread, the best bread, was linked to manna from heaven. But how? And why?

Certainly, manna did not taste like bread. On the one hand, it was similar to a bagel and tasted like it was boiled in oil. But manna was also like a chameleon with different tastes depending on who digested it and at what age. Manna is a gift of God. Bread is a product of toil and time, of patience and loving care. Bread lives and rises. Mon falls. Bread requires growth. Mon is a product of daily repetition.

But bread is also a tempter in two very different senses – to our taste buds and to our pride in what we produce by our own two hands. Success seems to depend exclusively on our own efforts. “By the sweat of your face you will eat bread, Till you return to the ground. Because from it you were taken; For you are dust, And to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19)

According to the sages, the blessing for manna is said first lest we forget the One to whom we owe everything. Moses pointed to heaven and manna. Joshua led us to land on which we could grow barley. But no nation can be great if its bread tastes like cardboard. It was important to bake good bread, tasteful bread that was delectable to our palate. Beauty may belong to the soul but bread belongs to the belly.

From heaven we desire recognition, appreciation and love. Bread does not love us. We love bread. With bread, we disperse recognition. We grade, we rank, we appreciate and we are passionate about the different breads we prefer. With manna, we are left unsatiated. With bread, we are satiated, if only for the moment. The heavens may be the daily bread for the eyes, but for the tongue and our nostrils, only genuine bread will do. When I smelled the cinnamon buns baking in the oven of my Aunt Gladys – and I can still recall that smell – I return to an age of delight and innocence.

Bread is about judgement, not about commands from on high. For we have to decide which side our bread is buttered on. On the other hand, we listen for the manna falling. We are commanded to listen to God. 92 times in Deuteronomy alone! Attend. Hear. Heed. Judaism is both a religion of listening and a religion of eating. In contrast, the Greeks taught us to see and believed that by seeing we would know. Indulging the appetites allowed us to take our eyes off the prize. The appetites were opposed to the intellect, whereas in Judaism, they are different but complementary.

In Judaism, knowing is NOT primarily seeing. Knowing is what happened between Adam and Eve. When Adam was a knower, he named things. He offered taxonomies, But he did not recognize Eve as an independent other but as an extension of his own body and saw his own body as an independent other. His sin was not in knowing Eve but in not knowing he was embodied. Judaism teaches us that we are embodied as much as it calls for our souls to listen to voices from above. Greeks saw or failed to see. Israelites listened – and ate. Greeks esteemed detachment; Jews esteemed attachment – to God and to our wives and children. In the Greek agora, there were only men.

Eikev. Ekev. Ekeb. Egeb. עֵקֶב. I try to weave them dialectically together. If you follow, if you follow what you hear and if you listen to the rumbling in your belly as well as what comes from on high, only then can you take up the responsibility for both yourself and the society in which you live. The appetites are not at war with the mind. Rather, they keep the mind grounded. And that is what it means when Jesus said to his disciples, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” (Luke 22:19) Not that Jesus claimed divinity or to be an embodied deity. But if God was above, if God provided manna, Jesus was bread and bread, its smell and taste, was the embodiment of memory. Listen to God. Remember me.

Remember you mother’s rice pudding and the cinnamon buns of your Aunt Gladys. And listen to the word of the Lord.

So eat you bagels. Eat your challah. But be mindful.

“Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works.” (Ecclesiastes 9:7)

Bread

After our long road trip, I had gained twelve pounds. And I had worked so hard for months to lose forty pounds. I had purchased new clothes, primarily pants. Now those pants would be very tight if they would fit at all. We had left Toronto with the best of intentions. We would not eat junk food. We would eat healthily. However, on a road trip, the gas stations where you stop for fuel or to use the washroom are not exactly oases for providing healthy food.

 
But that is really not the main reason that I had gained weight. Some people go on keto diets or high protein diets to lose weight. I just stopped – not all, but most of the time – eating bread. Friends could not believe that I lost all that weight by ceasing to eat bread. But it is true. I did not eat cake or pies either. But I ate plenty of fruit. Fruit is rich in fructose, a form of sugar. But I do not gain weight from eating fruit. In fact, my fruit intake increased as a substitute for bread and, nevertheless, I lost weight.

Perhaps that is peculiar to me. All my aunts and my mother told stories about my love of bread when I was a child. If I was the least irritable, they would give me a piece of challah (the egg bread served on shabat) and I would be content. In fact, that was how I learned to walk. Most infants learn to walk when they are from 10 to 14 months old. I was evidently almost eighteen months old and still did not walk. I was a very fat baby and infant. Finally, my aunts plotted together to teach me to walk. They would hold up a piece of challah in the centre of the room just above my head height. Crawling towards the challah only led to frustration rather than satisfaction since I could not reach the bread held aloft. And I was too fat to get up without leaning against a piece of furniture. So I sat on my fat ass and wept.

I gradually learned to use a chair to climb to a standing position and waddle a few steps towards the bread before I came crashing down. But I was determined. I would return to my original position, stand up with the help of the chair and take a few steps again to reach the bread. I failed and failed. That is the family lore And I would end up sitting on the floor and weeping. But my aunts were tough. No walkee, no breadee. Of course, I eventually made it and learned to walk. That is the family lore.

I learned to walk, but only by reinforcing my addiction to bread.


And it is an addiction. Unlike many people with addictions, I do not deny I have one. Each week I would take a dozen bagels and visit my grandchildren on Sunday morning. “What a good saba,” people would say. But the truth is that it was also an excuse to eat bagels. They might have one each. But I would eat at least two and sometimes three. And I could get away with it without any superego around to remind me of my addiction. In my case, reminding me that I should not eat so many bagels because my reminder cared deeply about me and my health was not how I experienced any helpful suggestion. My reminder certainly cared deeply about me and my well being but I experienced it as sabotage and unjust interference.  Instead, I would plot how to get my next bagel without being discovered. Reminding me out of love for my well-being was useless. I could not care. I always said that I was not bothered by their mentioning my addiction. And I did not mind. Because I knew how to calculate and get away with eating bagels without their knowing it – or so I believed.

Is that not a sign of an addiction? After all, an addiction is both a psychological and physical inability to stop consuming a chemical substance – nicotine, an opioid – or to stop the activity associated with taking in the drug, such as continuing to smoke. I needed to taste bread. I needed to chew on it. When I was on a strict regime of not eating bread in order to lose weight, I chewed on those plastic teeth cleaners. I would leave the remnant of those chewed plastic feathers all over the house, which just doubled the disgust at my picking my teeth in public. Which was worse, the original addiction or the substitute?


It is not as if I am addicted to all bread. I hate cardboard that calls itself bread or Wonder Bread that can be easily rolled up back to dough – unless it is toasted. I hate ersatz bagels. But seedy bread can be a substitute for real bread. But only a substitute. Real bread is challah. Real bread is a bagel. Real bread is a rye with kimmel, especially if you are going to eat a smoked meat or pastrami sandwich. Real bread is Russian black bread.

Eating challah and bagels and rye bread is an addiction, not simply because I have such a passion for eating those items. but because I do not place limits on my eating. Further, I know my eating such large amounts of bread is physically harmful. It is bad for my health. It is bad for my cholesterol level. It adds to the spread of the tire around my waste. Perhaps, worst of all, it is psychologically damaging, but more on that later.


Let me offer a few examples of my addiction. I would go to What’s a Bagel and get a dozen bagels, some with poppy seeds, some with kimmel and a few plain ones in case others wanted a bagel and preferred it plain. By the next morning, if my wife was lucky, there were three bagels left in the paper bag – or the plastic bag to retain the freshness of the bagels. After all, when I got home, I would have a bagel to reward my effort at going to the store. Well maybe two. And with butter and jam.

Then I would have a bagel and cheese as a snack. Then I might suggest that my wife not cook and that I would be satisfied with a sandwich. Or two. Then when I arose very early in the morning at say 3:00 a.m., I would need a bagel, sometimes two, to sustain me while I was writing. And then there was the bagel I would eat with my yogurt and berries in the morning. Or, if I had hot cereal, there was nothing like eating a bagel with Quaker Oats. My wife might declaim, “Who ever heard of eating bread and porridge together? But could I care that it was unheard of in her experience. It was intrinsic to mine.


And it is not just bagels or challah or rye bread with kimmel. My wife has taken to buying very healthy brown breads with lots of seeds in them and in limited quantities. Two nights ago, I woke up very early as I am wont to do. I had just had a dream of a large slice from that brown seedy loaf with butter and strawberry jam.  I got up and as soon as I was dressed, I did not go directly to my computer without passing “Go.” I went to the bread box, got out the loaf and sliced a large piece of bread. I put butter on it and when I could not find strawberry jam, I put on Saskatoon berry jam which we had purchased on our trip. The combination was delicious. Then I wiped up all the crumbs lest I leave a trace of my misdeed and washed my face. Only then did I go to my desk and write.


But there are other much worse examples. We were invited to eat at a friends’ house on Monday evening. There were five couples. The table was round. A baguette had been sliced up and placed on the table in a basket. Unfortunately, the basket was placed on the opposite half of the table.  As we got up to serve ourselves from the dinner that had been arranged as a buffet, I filled my plate and planned to go by the other side of the table to pick up a few slices of bread. Unfortunately, my way was blocked by other friends standing and talking before they sat down. Drats! Foiled again.

I took my assigned seat and waited for the basket of bread to be passed around. I waited. And I waited. Finally, I could not help myself and asked for the bread basket to be passed to me. Politely it was passed around and other diners took a slice each on the way. When it reached me and I saw that there was just enough for a slice each for the rest of the diners, I took only one slice and watched the basket move along the rest of the table to go back to its original position. Most of the rest of the table passed up the opportunity to take a slice. There were three slices remaining.

The basket sat there and sat there. No one had evidently thought of passing the basket around a second time. I kept eying the basket. Should I or should I not ask for the basket to be passed a second time? I waited. And I waited. Finally, I politely asked for the basket of bread and it was passed to me. As it came towards me, my beautiful lady friend sitting next to me helped herself to a slice. There were two slices left. I took one and then asked if anyone else wanted bread. My wife on the opposite side of the table perversely said that she might want a slice. Disappointed, I passed the basket to her, but she did not take a slice but sat the basket down in front of her.

I could hardly keep my eyes off that final slice. The conversation was very interesting as it skipped from topic to topic – the SNC Lavalin affair and the effect on the coming election, Trump’s latest embarrassing comment, the current situation in Israel and the plight of the Palestinians and topic after topic. I listened. I participated. But my mind was mostly on that last slice of bread and how to get it without betraying my total indifference to etiquette. It was not only or even the problem asking that the basket be passed a third time. I anticipated that my wife would intercept the basket and quietly take the slice herself even if she did not intend to eat it. She is very committed to my well-being. Finally, in desperation, I totally misbehaved, stood half up, reached across the table and took the last slice. I was too self-satisfied with my accomplishment that I ignored how anyone had reacted to this enormous breach in etiquette.

If these vignettes do not clearly convince you that I have an addiction, just remember that an addiction is not only a great dependence on getting and injecting the substance, but the inability to stop. There is substance dependence. It is a behavioural addiction as well, like gambling, an addiction so demanding that social mores will be set aside to fulfil the addiction. I am out of control. Eating bread not only causes problems with my weight and with my societal behaviour but with my sense that I am in charge, that I am in control.


So I go cold turkey. I swear off bread altogether. Since I cannot seem to eat limited amounts, I will eat none. We came up to the cottage and we deliberately did not stop at What a Bagel to stock up on bagels and challah and rye. And I was good for two days. But I broke down yesterday morning and ate that slice of nutty healthy brown bread with Saskatoon berry jam. Oh, and I must not forget that I had two slices the evening before as substitutes for hot dog buns.


Why don’t I go for treatment? If you can be treated for a heroin addiction or a gambling addiction or even a sex addiction, why could you not be treated for a bread addiction? I am sure you could. But when I went to look it up, not one therapist advertised that they treated bread addictions. Perhaps my problem is not an addiction at all but simply a misuse of bread, an excessive dependence and love of bagels and challah. After all, how can I say I am addicted if I can swear off eating bagels and challah for months at a time, enough time to lose forty pounds?


I am convinced it is an addiction because my inability to moderate my use has been long term, in fact, has been lifelong. I not only get a high from eating a bagel. I not only get euphoric. I feel a deep need to eat bagels. And, more significantly, I will consume bread secretly, in private and at all times of the day and night. Most importantly, when I go cold turkey, the suffering initially is almost unbearable. I have to keep my mind busy all the time, and even then, daydreams and night dreams interfere. And, finally, I can never get enough of too much.


I easily get out of control in order to get my dose of bread. I know eating for me is harmful, but it is so deeply ingrained as a habit that it takes an enormous effort to break the habit. Eating bread will distract me even from activity that I say I love the most, such as writing. Push comes to shove, in the end I would give up writing in order to have a bagel. Hence the need for a strict regime of confessing that I am a breadaholic and doing so publicly. Hence, the habit of telling jokes about my eating when my children remind me that I am eating too much bread.


Eating the quantities of bread that I do eat detrimentally affects my social relations, most seriously with members of my family. My recourse to secrecy makes it worse, but my weight gain gives me away every time. I will even cheat or take significant risks to get, what I believe and rationalize will be my last piece of bread. Of course, this very vow to get myself under control is part of my undoing, for if I just cheat to tear off a piece of bagel, why stop there? Why stop anywhere?


I stop cold turkey because the withdrawal symptoms, especially in the first three days, are so severe. I certainly get very irritable. My sunny disposition evaporates. But I do not know of an organization called Bread Anonymous. I have not heard of counseling being available for the problem. I do not know of any devices or drugs that can serve as substitutes. And I know that I have no way of preventing a relapse after I lose ten pounds. I think that this time I will try to lose 20-30 more pounds so I leave room for a relapse. But perhaps doing that will mean my undoing for I will simply go back to my old ways and regain all the weight that I lost.

The condition is chronic. I know it will take a long time to get it under control. However, I actually find it easier, except for the very beginning, to cut it out altogether rather than limit its use.


Bagels and challah and rye bread are surely the bread of affliction!

Bread

by

Howard Adelman

After our long road trip, I had gained twelve pounds. And I had worked so hard for months to lose forty pounds. I had purchased new clothes, primarily pants. Now those pants would be very tight if they would fit at all. We had left Toronto with the best of intentions. We would not eat junk food. We would eat healthily. However, on a road trip, the gas stations where you stop for fuel or to use the washroom are not exactly oases for providing healthy food. 

But that is really not the main reason that I had gained weight. Some people go on keto diets or high protein diets to lose weight. I just stopped – not all, but most of the time – eating bread. Friends could not believe that I lost all that weight by ceasing to eat bread. But it is true. I did not eat cake or pies either. But I ate plenty of fruit. Fruit is rich in fructose, a form of sugar. But I do not gain weight from eating fruit. In fact, my fruit intake increased as a substitute for bread and, nevertheless, I lost weight.

Perhaps that is peculiar to me. All my aunts and my mother told stories about my love of bread when I was a child. If I was the least irritable, they would give me a piece of challah (the egg bread served on shabat) and I would be content. In fact, that was how I learned to walk. Most infants learn to walk when they are from 10 to 14 months old. I was evidently almost eighteen months old and still did not walk. I was a very fat baby and infant. Finally, my aunts plotted together to teach me to walk. They would hold up a piece of challah in the centre of the room just above my head height. Crawling towards the challah only led to frustration rather than satisfaction since I could not reach the bread held aloft. And I was too fat to get up without leaning against a piece of furniture. So I sat on my fat ass and wept.

I gradually learned to use a chair to climb to a standing position and waddle a few steps towards the bread before I came crashing down. But I was determined. I would return to my original position, stand up with the help of the chair and take a few steps again to reach the bread. I failed and failed. That is the family lore And I would end up sitting on the floor and weeping. But my aunts were tough. No walkee, no breadee. Of course, I eventually made it and learned to walk.

I learned to walk, but only by reinforcing my addiction to bread. And it is an addiction. Unlike many people with addictions, I do not deny I have one. Each week I would take a dozen bagels and visit my grandchildren on Sunday morning. “What a good saba,” people would say. But the truth is that it was also an excuse to eat bagels. They might have one each. But I would eat at least two and sometimes three. And I could get away with it without any superego around to remind me of my addiction. In my case, reminding me that I should not eat so many bagels because my reminder cared deeply about me and my health was not how I experienced any helpful suggestion. Instead, I would plot how to get my next bagel without being discovered. Reminding me out of love for my well-being was useless. I could not care. I always said that I was not bothered by their mentioning my addiction. And I did not mind. Because I knew how to calculate and get away with eating bagels without their knowing it – or so I believed.

Is that not a sign of an addiction? After all, an addiction is both a psychological and physical inability to stop consuming a chemical substance – nicotine, an opioid – or to stop the activity associated with taking in the drug, such as continuing to smoke. I needed to taste bread. I needed to chew on it. When I was on a strict regime of not eating bread in order to lose weight, I chewed on those plastic teeth cleaners. I would leave the remnant of those chewed plastic feathers all over the house, which just doubled the disgust at my picking my teeth in public. Which was worse, the original addiction or the substitute?

It is not as if I am addicted to all bread. I hate cardboard that calls itself bread or Wonder Bread that can be easily rolled up back to dough – unless it is toasted. I hate ersatz bagels. But seedy bread can be a substitute for real bread. But only a substitute. Real bread is challah. Real bread is a bagel. Real bread is a rye with kimmel, especially if you are going to eat a smoked meat or pastrami sandwich.

Eating challah and bagels and rye bread is an addiction, not simply because I have such a passion for eating those items. but because I do not place limits on my eating. Further, I know my eating such large amounts of bread is physically harmful. It is bad for my health. It is bad for my cholesterol level. It adds to the spread of the tire around my waste. Perhaps, worst of all, it is psychologically damaging, but more on that later.

Let me offer a few examples of my addiction. I would go to What’s a Bagel and get a dozen bagels, some with poppy seeds, some with kimmel and a few plain ones in case others wanted a bagel and preferred it plain. By the next morning, my wife was lucky if there were three bagels left in the paper bag or the plastic bag to retain the freshness of the bagels. After all, when I got home, I would have a bagel to reward my effort at going to the store. Well maybe two. And with butter and jam. Then I would have a bagel and cheese as a snack. Then I might suggest that my wife not cook and that I would be satisfied with a sandwich. Or two. Then when I arose very early in the morning at say 3:00 a.m., I would need a bagel, sometimes two, to sustain me while I was writing. And then there was the bagel I would eat with my yogurt and berries in the morning. Or if I had hot cereal, there was nothing like eating a bagel with Quaker Oats. My wife might declaim, “Who ever heard of eating bread and porridge together? But could I care that it was unheard of in her experience. It was intrinsic to mine.

And it is not just bagels or challah or rye bread with kimmel. My wife has taken to buying very healthy brown breads with lots of seeds in them and in limited quantities. Two nights ago, I woke up very early as I am wont to do. I had just had a dream of a large slice from that brown seedy loaf with butter and strawberry jam.  I got up and as soon as I was dressed, I did not go directly to my computer without passing “Go.” I went to the bread box, got out the loaf and sliced a large piece of bread. I put butter on it and when I could not find strawberry jam, I put on Saskatoon berry jam which we had purchased on our trip. The combination was delicious. Then I wiped up all the crumbs lest I leave a trace of my misdeed and washed my face. Only then did I go to my desk and write.

But there other much worse examples. We were invited to eat at a friends’ house on Monday evening. There were five couples. The table was round. A baguette had been sliced up and placed on the table in a basket. Unfortunately, the basket was placed on the opposite half of the table.  As we got up to serve ourselves from the dinner that had been arranged as a buffet, I filled my plate and planned to go by the other side of the table to pick up a few slices of bread. Unfortunately, my way was blocked by other friends standing and talking before they sat down. Drats! Foiled again.

I took my assigned seat and waited for the basket of bread to be passed around. I waited. And I waited. Finally, I could not help myself and asked for the bread basket to be passed to me. Politely it was passed around and other diners took a slice each on the way. When it reached me and I saw that there was just enough for a slice each for the rest of the diners, I took only one slice and watched the basket move along the rest of the table to go back to its original position. Most of the rest of the table passed up the opportunity to take a slice. There were three slices remaining.

The basket sat there and sat there. No one had evidently thought of passing the basket around a second time. I kept eying the basket. Should I or should I not ask for the basket to be passed a second time? I waited. And I waited. Finally, I politely asked for the basket of bread and it was passed to me. As it came towards me, my beautiful lady friend sitting next to me helped herself to a slice. There were two slices left. I took one and then asked if anyone else wanted bread. My wife on the opposite side of the table perversely said that she might want a slice. Disappointed, I passed the basket to her, but she did not take a slice but sat the basket down in front of her.

I could hardly keep my eyes off that final slice. The conversation was very interesting as it skipped from topic to topic – the SNC Lavalin affair and the effect on the coming election, Trump’s latest embarrassing comment, the current situation in Israel and the plight of the Palestinians and topic after topic. I listened. I participated. But my mind was mostly on that last slice of bread and how to get it without betraying my total indifference to etiquette. It was not only or even the problem asking that the basket be passed a third time. I anticipated that my wife would intercept the basket and quietly take the slice herself even if she did not intend to eat it. She is very committed to my well-being. Finally, in desperation, I totally misbehaved, stood half up, reached across the table and took the last slice. I was too self-satisfied with my accomplishment that I ignored how anyone had reacted to this enormous breach in etiquette.

If these vignettes do not clearly convince you that I have an addiction, just remember that an addiction is not only a great dependence on getting and injecting the substance, but the inability to stop. There is substance dependence. It is a behavioural addiction as well, like gambling, an addiction so demanding that social mores will be set aside o fulfil the addiction. I am out of control. Eating bread not only causes problems with my weight and with my societal behaviour but with my sense that I am in charge, that I am in control.

So I go cold turkey. I swear off bread altogether. Since I cannot seem to eat limited amounts, I will eat none. We came up to the cottage and we deliberately did not stop at What a Bagel to stock up on bagels and challah and rye. And I was good for two days. But I broke down yesterday morning and ate that slice of nutty health brown bread with Saskatoon berry jam. Oh, and I must not forget that I had two slices the evening before as substitutes for hot dog buns.

Why don’t I go for treatment? If you can be treated for a heroin addiction or a gambling addiction or even a sex addiction, why could you not be treated for a bread addiction? I am sure you could. But when I went to look it up, not one therapist advertised that they treated bread addictions. Perhaps my problem is not an addiction at all but simply a misuse of bread, an excessive dependence and love of bagels and challah. After all, how can I say I am addicted if I can swear off eating bagels and challah for months at a time, enough time to lose forty pounds?

I am convinced it is an addiction because my inability to moderate my use has been long term, in fact, has been lifelong. I not only get a high from eating a bagel. I not only get euphoric. I feel a deep need to eat bagels. And, more significantly, I will consume bread secretly, in private and at all times of the day and night. Most importantly, when I go cold turkey, the suffering initially is almost unbearable. I have to keep my mind busy all the time, and even then, daydreams and night dreams interfere. And, finally, I can never get enough of too much.

I easily get out of control in order to get my dose of bread. I know eating for me is harmful, but it is so deeply ingrained as a habit that it takes an enormous effort to break the habit. Eating bread will distract me even from activity that I say I love the most, such as writing. Push comes to shove, in the end I would give up writing in order to have a bagel. Hence the need for a strict regime of confessing that I am a breadaholic and doing so publicly. Hence, the habit of telling jokes about my eating when my children remind me that I am eating too much bread.

Eating the quantities of bread that I do eat detrimentally affects my social relations, most seriously with members of my family. My recourse to secrecy makes it worse, but my weight gain gives me away every time. I will even cheat or take significant risks to get, what I believe and rationalize will be my last piece of bread. Of course, this very vow to get myself under control is part of my undoing, for if I just cheat to tear off a piece of bagel, why stop there? Why stop anywhere?

I stop cold turkey because the withdrawal symptoms, especially in the first three days, are so severe. I certainly get very irritable. My sunny disposition evaporates. But I do not know of an organization called Bread Anonymous. I have not heard of counseling being available for the problem. I do not know of any devices or drugs that can serve as substitutes. And I know that I have no way of preventing a relapse after I lose ten pounds. I think that this time I will try to lose 20-30 more pounds so I leave room for a relapse. But perhaps doing that will mean my undoing for I will simply go back to my old ways and regain all the weight that I lost.

The condition is chronic. I know it will take a long time to get it under control. However, I actually find it easier, except for the very beginning, to cut it out altogether rather than limit its use. 

Bagels and challah and rye bread are surely the bread of affliction!

Canyons – Part II: The Grand Canyon

As I wrote yesterday, the canyon is deep – one mile down from the southern rim where we were, and even deeper from the northern rim which was as much as two thousand feet higher. The canyon is wide averaging about a mile, but actually varying in width from a half mile to eighteen miles. We could have gone to the north rim, but we were assured by several people we spoke to that the views from the south rim were more exciting.


We arrived at the Grand Canyon East Entrance Station in mid-afternoon. We had to pay a park fee again as we had to in Bryce Canyon. However, if we had our receipt from Bryce Canyon (as I did), we could use it as a credit for an annual fee to get into any federal park for a year. Since the cost of the annual fee was but a little more than the cost of the entrance fees to the two parks, we quickly agreed to purchase an annual pass. The deal paid off quickly when we visited two other federal parks on our way back to Toronto.


As in Bryce Canton, there were a number of points from which to view the canyon. At Bryce Canyon we had looked at the huge gorge from Sunrise Point, Bryce lodge, Sunset Point where we had returned in the evening, Inspiration Point and Bryce Point. That was it. We decided not to go to the end of the road, a further eighteen miles, to Yovimba Point or Rainbow Point. We were totally satisfied with different perspectives from different locations at what was effectively different seats at the top row of the red rock amphitheatre.  

Our first sight of the Grand Canyon was from Desert Point, which you reach very soon after you pass the eastern entrance into the park. It had the watchtower designed by Mary Colter, whose structures were inspired by the architecture of the Puebloan people who occupied the Colorado Plateau. We would encounter several of her other structures, particularly Hopi House at the Verkamp’s Visitor Center, in about the middle of the public road on the south rim of the park. (More on this later.) The tower, as did Hopi House, was designed to blend into the rock rather than stand above it. The walls were textured as the rocks used in the construction had no pattern we could discern but seemed as random as the rockscape around. The rocks used were not shaped but inserted as they were found. Menno, who is our dry rock specialist and built the wall around our front garden, would be extremely impressed by the structure.


From the tower with its high band of white decorative rock, in fact, from the rim itself, you could see the Colorado River bend and twist as it moved westward. I actually enjoyed the view from the rim itself rather than from the small windows in the tower. However, to our surprise and amazement, we were initially disappointed – no, that is not the correct word – less enthused than we had been with Bryce Canyon. The Grand Canyon lacked the combination of intimacy yet large scale, the range of colouring and shapes that we viewed in Bryce Canyon. We thought, as well, that our expectations had been too high. We were somewhat taken aback.

One could not be disappointed. The views were spectacular. What we did not know was that, for us, the view from Desert Point was the least interesting of all the various perspectives from which we viewed the canyon. And there were many, very many. Far more than at Bryce Canyon. As we stopped at one after the other, skipping only two because we wanted to check into our hotel well before dark and get a good rest. Each had its unique vista and each was far more intriguing than the initial view from Desert Point.

At Navajo Point, just about a mile further into the park, the view was much better, if only because we had better perspective and could see both east and west of the canyon. Further, we were able to view the rock formations closer at hand. At Lipan Point we walked out to what was in effect one end of the top of an amphitheatre that went back in the direction from which we had come. We had both proximate and distant depth. Below us was an abandoned old copper and silver mine.

 
Each time we returned to our car, we drove through juniper and pinyon pines and it looked like the park workers raked the floor of the forest presumably to prevent fires. In fact, for one stretch we observed piles of underbrush, fallen branches and twigs that had been gathered in heaps, presumably to be hauled away. The greenery of the forest stood in such stark contrast to the rock formations.


I only wished that I had visited the canyon when I was younger, when I could have climbed down – or, more importantly, climb back up – the sides of the canyon along well-worn but nevertheless treacherous paths. I was not surprised to learn that over 770 people had lost their lives since the canyon had been opened to tourists. An average of 12 lose their lives annually, but only 2-3 from falls; many more die from dehydration. Nevertheless, the dangers are not to be underestimated. And in only a few select locations are there barriers along the rim.


Even when you stand on the rim and in the few places you can watch hikers on the path below, either the Bright Angel Trail just near the Maswik Lodge where we parked on the second day, or the South Kaibab trail near Yaki Point that we also saw on the second day (hikers can even get permits to camp overnight on the lower part of the canyon), you do feel you are somehow on the rim of one world with another rim of a different world in the distance. I think, since the day was clear, we could see for about fifty miles, perhaps more. Though you face only sky and rock and empty space, I felt as if I was looking at a physical replica of current politics in America.

The colours, though not as bright and spectacular as those in Bruce Canyon, were, however, more nuanced, crimson and beige, vermillion and grey, walls with deep alcoves rather than ribs. At many points, rock formations blocked our view of the Colorado River below. And when we did see it, the river looked more like a stream. And though we were told at one point by another visitor that those were rapids in one section below, all I could discern was a shift in colour to a grey-white. The river is too far below to be imposing.

Again, I wished I were younger. I wished I could raft down the Colorado River, gripping the shaft of my paddle in my left hand and my right over the end as I tried to stay in the raft and not fall into the rapids and strike my head on a rock. I was told that those in rafts are now required to wear head safety gear. If I fell in, would I pop up next to the boat or have to get to one of the shores as the rapids pulled me downstream?


I did not trust myself. When I was at camp in the summer as a nine-year-old going off to a canoe trip, the huge backpack holding our food supplies shifted when the canoe was hit with a wave, not a huge wave, but a wave nevertheless. I did what I was told not to do and my body went in the same direction as the food pack. I caused the canoe to flip.  A very auspicious beginning for a canoe trip and my unforgiving fellow campers who teased me for the loss of their pancake flour and other valuable ingredients.


Our lake had only been one mile wide and two miles long. The Grand Canyon itself ran for over 270 miles and the river for a much greater distance. The scale is overwhelming. The road on the southern rim covers perhaps 20-30 miles or so, a very small part of the canyon. The bus trip we took on the second day covered 8 miles. The spatial magnitude of the place is overwhelming.


But so is the temporal one. I was told that the Canyon itself exposes one-third of the historical formation of our earthly planet. For although the bottom of the canyon goes back 350 million years, the sandstone layer, the bright angle shale and the limestone levels go back, respectively to 550, 540 and 530 million years ago. The other 10-11 layers stretch back 250-350 million years. The gorges form an intriguing labyrinth which we only glimpsed rather than explored.


Go if you can when you are young. The geographic formation ranges over four states – Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona with all kinds of places far from the horde of tourists that visit the canyon like ourselves. Even the domesticated part of the canyon that we did visit was so vast that it never seemed crowded. It was a pleasure to see how respectful and sensitive the tourists were to protecting the fragility of this geological masterpiece. There were no papers or plastic bottles strewn about. Perhaps the visitors had been intimidated by the canyon itself rather than the signs.


On the second day, we parked our car outside the Maswik Lodge (there are four or five lodges on or near the south rim, but we stayed at a hotel outside the park) and took the bus to explore the western end of the road on that relatively small part of the rim open to tourists, about eight miles to Hermits Rest. The views were surprisingly even better from Trailview Overlook and Powell Point where there had even been a uranium mine below started at the height of the Cold War. Hopi Point was even better; you can see a tall mesa standing all by itself in the middle of the canyon, Mohave Point and Pima Point are must stops.


It was from Mohave Point that we had the best view of the Colorado River and even what we were told were the rapids. We stayed on the bus and did not disembark and wait for the next bus at The Abyss. By that time, it was afternoon and we had not yet had lunch. After we returned from Hermits Rest (was it there rather than in the Hopi House that I saw the enormous Colter-designed stone alcove and huge fireplace?), we had lunch at the historic lodge, the El Tovar Hotel built on the very rim. It was similar to the huge log resorts built by the Canadian National and Pacific railway companies in Canada. But the best part was Hopi House next to it. Again, it was designed by Mary Colter. The tourist trinkets and paraphernalia were, like the house itself, not your typical array of Chinese-sourced offerings.

The Grand Canyon was America on a widescreen – its enormous divisions and the rocklike hardened views of the different sides. But a little historical digging proved the Canyon was rooted even deeper in the history of America and infused with its psyche. The Grand Canyon was a product of the tension between a collective good and individualist enterprise, in particular, the rivalry between the Santa Fe Railway that still brings tourists to the Grand Canyon and the pioneering Ralph H. Cameron who eventually succumbed to the machinations of his larger corporate rival. The Canyon has a history of mining, but of failed mines, not because of the quality of the metals recovered, such as copper, which were of extremely high grade, and some high grade silver, but the large cost of mining in the area and, even more importantly, transporting the ore to the distant refineries from the depth of the gorge.

I was also offended to learn that after Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 declared the Grand Canyon a national monument, a decade or so later, the first nation that lived and farmed on a section of fields beside the Colorado River just where we were looking down below were forced by the federal government to relocate because the Parks Authority did not want year-round residents to live in the park. Yet lodges for tourists were allowed to be constructed along the south rim.   However, wildlife survives. But other than some deer and the unusual Abert grey squirrel, with its long ears and rust back, we saw very little wildlife. Perhaps if we had had a wide ride down the Colorado River itself we would have seen much more. Perhaps we were spoiled as we saw deer on a daily basis in British Columbia. Hopefully, our grandchildren will survive global warming and be able to visit one of the world’s great wonders and see more animal life.

With the help of Alex Zisman