December 30, 2007


It was a sad day for Orthodox Judaism when the New York Times ran this story:
December 20, 2007. The grand rabbi of Spinka, a Brooklyn-based Hasidic sect, was arrested Wednesday with his executive assistant in Los Angeles on charges that they arranged and profited from inflated charitable donations that saved the donors millions of dollars in federal income taxes.
I was not at all surprised. Something like this, involving Hasidic dynasties, comes to light almost each year. I was just amazed it took so long and that only Spinka is involved, because this has been going on for so long and amongst so many different sects and on almost every continent, that I'm surprised so little has come to light.

If rebbes are endowed with hotlines to heaven, how come anyone ever gets caught? And if they are such great spiritual leaders, then I guess it's a case of "healer cure thyself". More importantly, why do people and organizations that present themselves as religious, seem to go in for this as much as if not more than anyone else? If they are, as they claim, such important charitable and educational organizations with schools and yeshivas, what sort of education are they giving? That the state is a sucker to be milked? That the Law of The Land is a joke?

There is absolutely no basis in Jewish Law for stealing from or defrauding secular authorities, regardless of their denomination. So why is fraud and dubious business practices as common as they are amongst people who outwardly proclaim their own sanctity in dress and ritual?

There is a mood in parts of the Orthodox world that justifies this because they have persuaded themselves that, as they are fighting God's battle, anything goes. But at the same time they are creating an impossible situation by encouraging mendacity. The ultra-Orthodox world has, as never before, denigrated earning a living in favor of study as a career. It can do this because the world has become increasingly friendly to the indigent and superstitious moderns seem ready to hand over vast sums to almost anyone wearing black as a sort of insurance policy for the next world.

The culture of study as a career, regardless of whether one is temperamentally or intellectually suited, is now so widespread that young Orthodox girls are conditioned to reject marriage proposals unless the young man is dedicated to "sitting and learning". The motivation behind this elevation of full-time and perpetual study is praiseworthy. It is to bring Judaism and Torah study back from the brink to which both assimilation and Hitler brought it sixty years ago. Anyway study of Torah is an essential means of expressing one's religious energy and devotion. In this it has proved so successful that never, since the glory days of Babylon, have there been as many Jews studying Torah full time as there are today. I cannot think of a time when economic, political and social conditions been as favorable to so many Jews. But this all comes at a price. The issue is who, apart from State welfare, supports these now hundreds of thousands with no job, no means of earning a livelihood?

For wealthy families there is no financial problem. But with the sort of exponential family growth not seen since Biblical times, you have to be one of a pretty small number of magnates to fund the number of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren all clamoring for support, and still have any spare change for charity! But how many property millionaires are there?

With no family business, no rich grandpa, if getting an education that might qualify you for a job has been excoriated as anti-spiritual and corrupt, and if you are not one of a small percentage of top academic yeshiva students who might fill the small number of teaching jobs in yeshivas that are available after all the sons and sons-in-law of the Rosh Yeshiva have been accommodated, then what avenues are open to you? In the past you could rely on your wife to go out and work (as well as look after five to ten children--superwomen, saints, or victims?). But nowadays there is too much competition for too few places.

Is it surprising that, in addition to Rabbis laundering money, more and more young ultra-Orthodox men end up smuggling currencies or drugs and looking for all manner of illegal ways of turning a fast buck? The situation has gotten so serious that at grassroots levels things are beginning to change and the dreaded words "career training" are being whispered in the halls of Torah. But it is still unofficial and beneath the yeshiva radar. The biggest and best yeshivahs still preach perpetual study as the ideal.

The famous Gemara in Brachot (35b) discusses the need to combine Torah study with work. There it says many tried to follow Shimon Bar Yochai and only study and failed and many followed Rebbi Yishmael's instructions to combine study with a career and succeeded. That was then. Nowadays full-time study too often means unproductive attendance at a dubious institution for the whole of one's working life, and anyone who doesn't study full time is regarded as a bad catch!

Now if there were no pressure to make money, or if a person were not judged by his pocketbook--that would be one thing. But in the most Orthodox of circles the demands of the materialist society are increasing all the time, to the point of sickness. Increasing and exaggerated material aspirations without the means of satisfying them, leads inevitably to a culture of deceit and dishonesty. It is hardly surprising that this has become institutionalized and so widespread. And even without being a materialist, simply educating children in the USA is a massive commitment.

It is a sad reflection on current religious leadership that their only response is to try to justify, explain, or even blame the wicked prosecutors for not turning a blind eye. What a crushing condemnation of our present religious climate. All of this is reminiscent of what the Talmud says were the conditions that led to the fall of both previous Jewish States and Temples: excessive materialism, disdain for other humans, and a failure of leadership. I don't want to be a prophet of doom but it seems to me that we are heading for another major disaster.

December 23, 2007

Happy Holidays

I have changed my mind about Xmas. A few years ago I wrote a piece excoriating those Jews who celebrated it, because it was a Christian festival whose undertones were anti-Semitic. I fancied an exaggerated scenario. In a winter pine tree-clad Bavarian hilltop village, a sweet Aryan couple has been cast out onto the streets by dark-skinned, hook-nosed Jews, who own all the real estate. They find refuge in a Northern European style country barn, together with Friesian and Guernsey cows and a few Welsh sheep, where a beautiful, fair-haired Aryan baby is born. Wise men from all over the world come to worship the child. Only the nasty Jews are so stubborn they can't see who he really is, so they hound him until he is nailed to a cross. To make matters worse when I was a child I went briefly to a State village school in Berkshire where I was the only Jew. I was given a really hard time because when they put up the Manger at Christmas time I dared to declare that I did not think the baby Jesus was the most lovable child in the world.

The fact is that Xmas represents a religion that for thousands of years has vilified, attacked, and massacred Jews simply because of their different beliefs. That was my case then. And I extolled the American practice of having study-ins over the Xmas period and using the opportunity for creative, constructive education instead of silly self-indulgence. No doubt I was also reacting against the deep psychological trauma of disappointment when as a five year old I hung out a stocking on Xmas eve in the hope that Santa would fill it, only to find it empty and be told off roundly by my father the following day.

The experience of living in America has changed me! We have just experienced eight days of Chanuka where you see a menorah in every store, in every apartment building, on almost every street corner. You are greeted on the radio, the television, by your doorman, and everyone else with "Happy Hanookar", and at worst it's "Happy Holidays", so that you can include Kwanza too. Not to mention Chanuka postage stamps and stickers on your mail. There's a pleasant air of goodwill, as well as commercial mania, that altogether has little to do with Jesus or the Maccabees or even the Jews. But it has a lot to do with being accepted and feeling one belongs rather than rejected and alien, which is still quite common in Europe and is one reason why so many Anglo Jews are so cringingly defensive, insecure and frankly ashamed of their Jewishness.

Even in the USA we are occasionally brought back to earth with a bump when one or other of the Evangelical commentators or presidential candidates comes out and declares the Jews are doomed to hell unless they wake up and see the light! But then they are made to feel the insensitive fools they are by most commentators and they usually end up manifestly embarrassed by the nonsense of their religious dogma. Still, the craziness persists.

Despite all that, my opposition has softened. First came Thanksgiving. It too started as a religious occasion. The Pilgrims suffered through their first winter in the Promised Land and then gave thanks for the harvest that would tide then through the next. Thanksgiving became part of American culture and everyone eats turkey and cranberry sauce (except the vegetarians of course who eat seitan and soya and other indigenous nutritional products). Even in some very Orthodox circles Thanksgiving is celebrated, and responsa have been written by distinguished rabbis authorizing a turkey meal, although under another name because Heaven forefend we should imitate others.

In New York this is particularly important where people tend to hide away in their high-rise isolation. We went round to visit others that we wouldn't normally get to on Shabbat and it was a delightful social experience. If, in addition, it is combined with studying Torah and words of wisdom, what could be a nicer and more uplifting experience? And a big mitzvah, too, if it includes the sick, the elderly, or the lonely--even if it originated with the experiences of some very, very frum Christians.

So why not the same thing on Xmas? It's a public holiday, an opportunity to be sociable when you can travel, unlike on Shabbat and festivals, and you can get together with friends and eat good food and discuss the Talmud. Not only but I know quite a few Jews who stand in or man hospitals and emergency services on Xmas to give non-Jews a break, or help in shelters. That's a mitzvah, even if it also gives you credit at work. In the past many Jews would fast on Xmas, but nowadays why not enjoy a national holiday, a day off? And you could have a siyyum, a meal to celebrate finishing a tractate of the Talmud, and that's a mitzvah too! Of course, Christmas trees are silly. Why cut down a perfectly healthy tree, designed for the outdoors, to mess up your carpets? Chanuka bushes are even more ridiculous. But if you are confident in your Judaism and you experience the warmth and intensity of Shabbat and Festivals throughout the year, then come on, surely a tree isn't going to corrupt you. Oh yes, I did forget about all those Asherot and Pagan Groves and Druid mistletoe and human sacrifices. So perhaps the trees really are out of place in a Jewish home, certainly if they have a baby Jesus lurking around.

Now, Easter is different. Easter records the crucifixion and resurrection, and it was always around Easter time that preachers whipped up their audiences into a righteous frenzy of hatred against the Jews. Crusaders, the monk Rhindfleisch, Count Emicho, even Chmielnicki--they all massacred Jews around Easter time. So, for goodness' sake, leave off those chocolate bunnies. But this time of the year? Enjoy. After all it is all about the Winter Solstice really, as all good Pagans know!

December 17, 2007


Everyone seems to have a story to tell about how blessings from Holy Men miraculously changed the course of people's lives. They rarely tell of the cases where they did not. But what is a blessing? If it were simply a prayer, it wouldn't have a different name. And both in English and Hebrew the word is good and bad, a curse as well as a benediction.

Despite, or because of, the advance of science, we have become more insecure. Human beings in all societies expend enormous amounts on blessings, charms, and wonder workers. In Judaism it is common now to go to rabbis for blessings to cure cancer, solve marital problems and guarantee good investments. This is a reflection of our need for miracle cures for everything from wrinkles, fat, old age, even stupidity. I believe in spiritual power beyond rational humanity. But this factory line production of miracles strikes me as medieval. So, how do I reconcile this with our traditional emphasis on brachas, blessings?

The word "bracha" itself comes from roots that can mean KNEE, as in bending in worship; this would apply to blessing God. Or it can be associated with the word SOFT; at a circumcision the child is called a RACH. This second theme implies tenderness, caring. A blessing, therefore, is a way of showing that one cares, about God and one's family. This is the blessing God gives to the world, and that we give to God and, indeed, to our children.

There are two kinds of blessings. There are the formulaic expressions we humans use to bless God before performing religious actions, and then there are the blessings that we receive. God blesses creation that it should be fruitful and multiply. There was nothing yet to be healed, no promise of wealth and fortune. It simply was the expression of the hope, support or encouragement that someone or thing should go on to fulfill its potential or that events would play out positively.

When Rebecca is blessed by her family before leaving to meet Isaac, it is the hope that she and her descendants would succeed. When Isaac blesses both sons, he is expressing his hope that God will treat them in accordance with their own deeds. When Jacob blesses Ephraim and Menasha, it is for being who they were. From this comes the idea that every parent should bless his or her child every Friday night. This blessing is an expression of love for someone one knows.

What is the nature, then, of a personal blessing from someone who knows no more than a name on a piece of paper? To think that a clairvoyant or rabbi can know everyone and care about him or her, lovely as it may sound, is rather facile. And if the person has such powers then surely he wouldn't need a piece of paper and if his power works how come it's so selective? The Talmud says one should not treat lightly even the most modest of blessings, regardless of the source--except we are not talking about humble blessings, but talismans, magic, and miracles--that cost!

If it were simply that a great man expresses to God the hope that someone's prayers will be answered I could understand that as giving encouragement to the troubled. But there is an assumption of efficacy that strikes me both as superstitious and offensive and when it is coupled with the demand for money it is frankly evil, like the two sons of Eli in the Bible.

A quite different idea is that a good or saintly person can somehow call down Divine energy because of his great level of spirituality. This was a power that Avraham had and some prophets such as Elijah and Elisha. But these were exceptions, not common as is the case today. The Torah itself has already warned us to beware of miracles and that false prophets would often be able to perform miracles in dishonest ways. As Maimonides says, miracles are the lowest level of faith.

It is one thing for a spiritual leader to radiate love, concern, and support. It is another to set up machinery for raising cash through blessings. Nowadays we are inundated with miracle workers wearing all sorts of different clothes and each one seems to have a gimmick--read your mezuzah, your ketuba, your tefillin, your skull, your palm, your eyes.

It is a principle of our religion that the Almighty deals with humans according to their deeds. Of course, this is impossible for us to see or measure, for Divine criteria are not ours and there are indeed forces beyond our control, call then fate, luck or Divine Intervention. But if one behaves according to the Torah then one is doing what is expected and this is what defines Judaism regardless of whether one is rewarded.

Superstition implies something different; that, no matter how you behave, the special person with unique powers can do something for you. This has been the secret behind the ability of many men of God to retain the deep loyalty and affection of even totally non-practicing sinners!

The Talmud has always been tolerant of superstition, according to Maimonides only because so many people actually believed in it. The role of a tzaddik, a saintly person, is to help us humans rise, not to take away our sins or help us win the lottery.

A great Lithuanian rabbi was once asked for a bracha. "Why?" he replied, "Are you a vegetable?" That has a double meaning, of course. But the fact is that he was no less a Jew for his opinion.

My complaint is not against placebos. They can help. Reassurance is terribly important at every stage in life. But I am offended when Judaism is seen as a placebo, that money achieves miracles. My fear is that this aspect of Judaism should come to be seen as an essential ingredient, because then what would there be to differentiate us from the pseudo-Kabbalists who also promise Heaven for cash?

According to the BBC today in Andhra Pradesh a holy man called Yanadi Kondaiah who claimed his leg could cure and perform miracles, was abducted and his leg cut off by thieves! Now there's a thought!

December 09, 2007

Bad Government

Chanuka always reminds me what a sad record we Jews, Israelites, Hebrews, have of government. Yes, I know we pray for the return of King David, but honestly look at what the Bible itself records of Jewish kings during the first five hundred years of our peoplehood. The good ones were few and far between. As for the Hasmoneans, the only half-decent monarch was Queen Salome (Shlomzion). The rest were a bunch of murdering psychopaths. There was Agrippa II, a great grandson of wicked wife-killer King Herod. But he was not even Jewish. One sister, Berenice, was the mistress of Titus, and the other married the nasty Roman procurator, Felix. At least he was popular and pro-Jewish. By then it was the Romans running the show anyway.

As for the Pharisees, they argued over everything from Bar Cochbah to what books you could read. They could not agree on anything about the Messiah let alone his sort of government. When the Priesthood held power, it did not cover itself with glory either, and I suspect a great deal of longing for a return to the good old days was the nostalgia of the dispossessed rather than any evidence that we held some secret of good governance. To those who think theocracy might work nowadays, just ask yourself how, if the major rabbis today (I mean major only in the sense of numbers of committed followers) cannot agree on much from "Land for Peace" to eiruvs, would they ever agree on how to run a country (or which architect should be employed to rebuild the Temple)?

Throughout the two thousand years of exile, with a few notable exceptions, we have not shown those gifts of good people management that give one any confidence that if power were handed back to us we would know how to use it well. And so it turned out. All the good things in Israel nowadays are despite the politicians not because of them. But I guess that goes for everywhere I can think of!

There is a view held in the West that we have the best political systems available, though friends who spend time in China assure me they are running things far better over there with hardly any democracy at all. It seems a cross between an oligarchy, a benevolent dictatorship, and a meritocracy ("banditry" might sum it all up in one word--like Russia, only successful for a greater proportion of its citizens). The US had gone from backing the most unsavory dictators and sick regimes to suddenly finding a passion for imposing democracy. I am glad to see that the US passion for forcing democracy on people who simply do not know how to value it is dimming. So why, I ask, are they and the Queen's Commonwealth, which has suddenly woken up, leaning on Musharraf of Pakistan instead of the Saudis?

He is not my favorite by any means. He has trotted out the usual hatred against Jews, but this is just par for the course for any Muslim leader nowadays, except possibly King Abdullah and President Mubarak. But look at the country he's got to deal with. Pakistan has probably a higher percentage of suicidal religious fanatics, of the most obscurantist and primitive nature, than any other country.

The fanatics are counterbalanced by more liberal westernized Pakistanis. But every elected government and prime minister over the past fifty years has been caught, both directly and indirectly, with fingers in the honey pot. Both Sharif and Bhutto, two democratically elected prime ministers, despite their fine words, were found to be corrupt. Although the army has more often than not stepped in to get things back under some sort of control, it too is divided into factions. The nether reaches of Pakistan are lawless badlands like the Wild West, except that there Shariah rules in its most repressive, male chauvinist, and intolerant manifestation. Now is this an environment in which democracy can flourish?

Winston Churchill said, "Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." The system itself is invariably unfair. In the UK a party that can poll a third of the votes gets a twentieth of the MPs, because of the way the constituency system works. And in countries that have fairer proportional representation, a plethora of small parties haggle for power, forming unstable, improbable alliances that either fall rapidly apart or hamstring government. The United States system is riddled with gerrymandering, and big money influences government far more than is healthy for anyone except big business and special interest groups. But in the West there is usually a solid base of voters who value freedom, liberty, and security and who also believe in open states where people are freer to act or worship whichever way they like so long as they do not infringe the law or other people. Indeed look at the bloody nose Chavez of Venezuela got last week!

What is the point of democracy in the backward world if it would allow its population, if they got control democratically, to dismantle it and hand government over to psychotic clergymen suffering from inferiority complexes who would bring back hand-chopping, lashing, and stoning, and punish women for getting raped?

Churchill was right--the alternatives are usually worse. But there may be exceptions. A benevolent dictator can exist in theory. Think of Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. It seems to me that economic progress is far more likely to lead to better government than forced democracy. Even in China the signs are that economics, rather than the Communist party, will eventually shape that country's future as, indeed, seems the case in Russia too, and with fewer casualties than either Stalin or Mao caused. Musharraf has not shown himself to be cruel, corrupt or immoral. If his only crime is holding onto power, and if the only alternatives are corrupt civilians, then for goodness sakes leave him be. After all, in Bangladesh the army has replaced the two corrupt granddames of Bangladeshi corruption. Perhaps that is what we mean by "King David"--a benevolent dictatorship with a monarch who accepts a rebuke from a prophet and can admit it when he is wrong.

Of course, when all is said and done I prefer democracy to any other system I know of. Sadly there are far too many people on this planet who do not agree.

December 02, 2007

Chanuka, My Way

It is the evergreen myth that Chanukah records the magnificent victory of Judah Maccabee over Antiochus Epiphanes of Greek Syria in 165 BCE. The truth is not so simple, and it is not without justification that the rabbis of the Talmud focused on the miracle of the oil. It is true that by the time of the compilation of the liturgy, the Al HaNissim prayer in the Amidah or the Grace After Meals, refers proudly to Matityahu, the son of Yochanan the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons, and indeed says they overthrew the mighty, the arrogant, and the impure.

The facts are these. After Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, his empire was divided up between his generals. The Jews of Israel fell under the changing authority of either the Ptolemies, based in Egypt, or the Seleucids of Syria. As a rule they all followed the Alexandrian policy of allowing subject nations religious independence so long as they towed the political line. The Jews were represented by their High Priest. The High Priesthood was a political as much as a religious position and whoever bribed more was likely to get it. Wealthy and aristocratic, most of the priesthood was pro-Greek and eager to imitate them. It was the priests who introduced the circus and theatres to Jerusalem and who spent their time cultivating Greek potentates, manners, and ideas.

The truth is that the Jews might well have assimilated altogether had it not been for Antiochus IV. He had been kept as hostage in Rome after his father had backed the wrong horse. You might say it was like being sent to a Spartan boarding school at a very young age, enough to disturb the sanest of men. He took the title Epiphanes, "the glorious", but his nickname was Epimanes, "the idiot". If only he'd have left the Jews alone to assimilate he'd have got his way in the end. But he insisted on trying to force the issue.

In 167, having looted the Temple, he ordered a statue of Zeus to be erected and banned the practice of Jewish Law. Hellenizers, like High Priest Jason, sided with the Greeks. Others, like Onias, came out in opposition. But it was Mattityahu, a country priest, and his five sons who started the rebellion by killing a Greek officer who was trying to enforce the king's orders. They fled to the hills and launched a guerrilla campaign against far superior forces. Matityahu died in 166 and it was left to his son Judah, who acquired the name Maccabee, "the hammer". (Reminds me of Edwards I of England who became known as the "Hammerer of the Scots". That was after he had expelled his Jews, of course.)

Judah's strategy enabled him to win a string of modest victories. At the battle of Nahal Haramiah he defeated a small Syrian force under the command of Apollonius, governor of Samaria, who was killed. After this first victory, recruits flocked to the Jewish cause. Then Judah ambushed a small force commanded by a local general, Seron, near Bet Choron. Then at Emmaus, Judah blocked the pass and forced the Seleucid forces, led by captains Nicanor and Gorgias, to retreat to wait for reinforcements. Top General Lysias, was on his way to sort things out, but he was called back home immediately to support the king, leaving Gorgias to try and find Judah's guerrillas. While Gorgias was searching for him in the mountains, Judah made a surprise attack upon the Seleucid camp forcing the commander to withdraw to the coast.

Back he came, via a different route, and marched on Judeah from the south. Once again, Judah succeeded in blocking their advance at Beth Zur. This victory allowed Judah to enter Jerusalem, and he purified the Temple on the 25th of Kislev, 164 BCE. But there still remained a Syrian garrison in Jerusalem.

To his credit, it must be said that Judah then set about protecting Jews wherever they were attacked by the local Greeks, from Transjordan down to the Ashdod on the coast. But when he laid siege to the Syrian garrison in its fortress of Jerusalem, Lysias got serious. He cane with a serious army, defeated Judah, and Beth-Zur was compelled to surrender. Lysias went on to Jerusalem. However, just as capitulation seemed imminent, he had to withdraw once again to Antioch because of political intrigue. So he decided to propose a peaceful settlement, which was concluded at the end of 163 BCE. Lysias restored religious freedom and officially ceded the Temple to the Jews. Sure it was an achievement for Judah, but it was hardly comprehensive victory.

Judah was now free to deal with his local Jewish enemies (things never change). He turned on the Hellenizing priests. They appealed to the Syrians to come back, but there was more chaos in Antioch. Antiochus was removed. The new king, Demetrius, sent reinforcements led by Bacchides to support his candidate for High Priest. He too had to withdraw because of politics at home, and a smaller force led by Nicanor was left behind. Judah managed to surround him, and Nicanor was killed (and Nicanor's Day became a national holiday).

But it was only a matter of time before the main army would return, so Judah made a treaty with Rome in 161. This in fact signed away independence to the Romans, which certainly did not endear him to later Jewish freedom fighters. Anyway, it failed to stop Demetrius. This time the Syrian forces of 20,000 men were numerically so superior that most of Judah's men fled, and Judah was killed at Elasa. His body was taken by his brothers from the battlefield and buried in the family tomb at Modi'in.

After several additional years of war under the leadership of two of Matitiyahu's other sons (Yonathan and Shimon), the Jews achieved qualified independence when Shimon was accepted as the High Priest. But only his son, John Hyrcanus, finally acquired the title of king. All this was no mean achievement, but good fortune and trouble home in Syria played as much a part as fighting prowess. Little wonder then that the rabbis preferred God to Judah, given the deterioration in the Hasmonean dynasty with Herod and his family, and the increasing Roman interference. Besides, the main sources we have for the glorious Maccabee campaigns are the books of the Maccabees, that are not part of the Jewish Biblical canon, and Josephus, who was a dirty rotten traitor! It’s clear whose side the rabbis were on. Judah doesn't even get one mention in the Talmud. There's a peace agenda for you!

Nowadays Chanukah owes almost as much of its flavor to others. It is from Xmas that we get the current custom of wasting needed money on presents. From Rome we get the custom of gambling, because that was what they used to do December time at Saturnalia. And who knows, maybe even our Chanuka parties come from celebrations of the Winter Solstice. Still, it is nice to have a "contender", as well as a High Priest, for an ancestor.

Everyone takes from the story what he wants to. Some take it as a story of the tough Judean underdogs winning the Cup against a bigger team. For others the Almighty ensures our flames don’t go out if only we tend them properly. Some West Bank settlers believe the message is about never giving up and if you are lily livered liberal like me who thinks negotiation might be a better idea it reminds one that the main body of rabbis two thousand years ago thought the same way. So delight in the experience, the nostalgia and the spirit, and celebrate still being around despite everything.