Saturday, December 19, 2009

Conversations With Naomi: Jonathan Meola


The following interview with Jonathan Meola is a fascinating peek into a brilliant mind. I became acquainted with Jonathan, and also his dog Bruno, on Twitter. Somewhat like speed dating; making friends on Twitter can involve ridiculous conversations, missed communications, and hilarious encounters. Jonathan and I started tweeting in each other's direction due to both of us having pro-Israel beliefs. It took me longer to compile my interview questions for Jonathan as I sensed a need to dig deeper into his psyche to reveal a very interesting man with a Jewish Heart. It is with intense Jewish pride that I present Jonathan Meola.


Naomi: What is your inner struggle with Festivus?

Jonathan:
Well, I wouldn't call it a struggle, really. In fact, I've learned to embrace this newfound holiday with a not-so-subtle nod to, as the Coen Brothers would put it "3000 years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax." Festivus is, in my humble opinion, the first post-modern American Jewish festival, even if it was originally created by a Gentile writer for the Seinfeld show. I say that because it is both a reflection of, and reaction to, the prevailing holiday season currently celebrated in the United States, much more so than the minor historical festival of Chanukah. What is more Jewish than the "Airing of Grievances?" Kvetching is for Jews as natural as breathing or fressing. Not to take anything away from latkes or dreidels, mind you, but the fact still remains that it is not nearly as much of a opposing reaction to Christmas as what you find in Festivus. The pratical aluminum pole instead of the decorated tree decked with "distracting" tinsel, the Airing of Grievances as opposed to Christmas cheer; it's definitely a minority culture's reaction to the prevailing majority.

That said, I still have to say that I do have some struggle with the idea of celebrating any sort of holiday come December. It’s probably because my inner child is a curmudgeon at heart.

Naomi: Are you a ventriloquist or a man tweeting out of a dog's mouth? This is in reference to your tweeting dog, Bruno. Are you living a double life?


Jonathan:
It's funny, the whole tweeting dog thing started as a joke for my kids, after they saw the movie "The Golden Compass." Apparently (I didn't see it with them) the human characters in the film were shadowed in their lives by animal "avatars" that were an expression of their inner selves. My children immediately decided that Bruno was my animal alter ego, and it just grew from there. When we lived on the Westside of L.A., we joked that Bruno was the "King of Doheny Drive" since he would walk and act like he owned the street and suffered the rest of the population's presence there.

The thing about @BrunoBulldogRVA is that he can get away with saying things that his human alter ego would never utter in public. Bruno has, shall we say, a unique perspective on things, undoubtedly influenced by years of watching Borscht Belt comedy. That makes his observations on life in a Southern U.S. city all the more entertaining, in my humble opinion.

Naomi: I read your resume on LinkedIn and see that you've had a Jewish education. How did that help or hinder you? What was your experience in Hillel like? Do you recommend it for college students now?


Jonathan:
Yes, it's true - I survived a Jewish education (just kidding, Rabbi...I joke because I love). From 2nd to 12th grade, I attended yeshiva and Jewish day schools, and also attended Young Judaea clubs and camps. Those experiences did help me in terms of cementing my identity as a Jew, even if I don't subscribe to any particular movement's philosophy. People ask me if I'm Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox - I don't like those kinds of labels since I don't see myself as being 100% in line with any of those movements - but the synagogue I don't go to regularly is an Orthodox one. The idea of instrumental music on Shabbat just doesn't do it for me...I find it distracting. Give me an old-school chazzan (Ashkenazi or Sephardi) who knows how to daven and move people with his voice any day of the week over the latter-day hippies who use tambourines, guitars, or ukeleles to bolster their less than adequate vocal skills.

Anyway, sorry for going off on that tangent. As to rest of the question...I have to say that my experience once I started college was a bit of culture shock for me. It was the first time since 1st grade that I found myself in the minority, and I made it a point to find and identify with Jewish groups on campus. After two days in the dorms, I pledged AEPi (the only national Jewish college fraternity) and moved into the frat house, where I spent the next four years. Identifying with AEPi was in many ways a security blanket for me, since I was in a house with fellow students who came from backgrounds somewhat similar to mine. In fact, the brothers who recruited me were from the same neighborhood I lived in, just a couple of years older (and wiser) about life on campus. I can proudly say that I still am in touch with quite a few of these guys via Facebook and the Internet, and they are still friends, 20+ years later.

I also became active in Hillel & the Organization of Jewish Students, and added Judaic Studies classwork to my regular course load. (I wound up graduating with a double major in English & Judaic Studies as a result) In fact, I met my future (and now former) wife through our common involvement with Hillel and AEPi. Would I recommend it now to today's Jewish students? Absolutely. The college campus can be quite a lonely (and unfortunately antagonistic) place, especially for students who come from a Jewish or Zionist environment. One of my friends from Young Judaea has gone on to become a Hillel director for a major university in the Midwest, and I admire his dedication to bringing Jewish and Israeli programming to students in that kind of environment.

Naomi: As a 'subject matter consultant' how do you know the subject matters? Can you work for a company that you disagree with politically?


Jonathan:
Let me start by answering your last question first, since it's the easiest for me. In a word, no. I couldn't see myself involved with a firm that would advocate causes or beliefs that run in contradiction to my own. For me the lines between work and life are blurred, and not in a bad way. Some people talk about selling themselves out in order to get ahead. I've come close at times, especially when I've had to worry about not just myself but my family's well-being - but I haven't done anything professionally that would cause me to not sleep at night. It's a tradeoff I can live with.

As for knowing "subject matters" - well, let's just say that I've worked at quite a few different jobs, starting all the way back in high school, and I've learned something from each of those experiences. You can learn lessons from working as a carpenter that will apply when designing complex business systems. It's just a matter of couching and changing the lingo so that people who work in different professions will understand you. I think that I can safely say that I've learned to take that knowledge and use it in a way to benefit the clients I work with professionally. One of the main issues I come across today is that people in business don't always have the ability to say what they need in a clear and concise manner. They talk in terms of paradigm shifts, synergies, and realignments when they really need, to borrow the Israeli expression, talk tachlis about what they need to accomplish. When I go to work for a client, I work to achieve that state of communication with the different parties involved. Some may call it brusque, or may label me as a throwback, but it's better to me to act in that manner, and get clear answers to questions, as opposed to spending (and wasting) time with all the BS that is sadly too prevalent in today's workplace.

Naomi: Can you please tell the readers about your connection to the Altalena? And also some of your family's history?


Jonathan
: On Miami Beach, there is a Sephardi synagogue that I used to attend from time to time, founded by Cuban Jews who fled the island when Castro took over in 1959. On the wall of that shul there was (and I'm assuming it's still there) a plaque I'd walk by every time I'd enter to daven there, with the names of several Jewish community members from Cuba who were killed when the ship was sunk by Haganah forces in 1948. Every time I saw that plaque it served as a visual reminder to me that there were always some of our own people who put personal power and prestige over principle and doing the right thing.

As for my family's history - my background is a mix of Italian, Polish, and Balkan origins. However, I really grew up with my mom's mom (Grandma Rita z"l) and her sister (my nana Sarah z"l) Their family came from Kielce, Poland. Her mother was the daughter of a pharmacist/chemist, and they were quite progressive for the time. She went to the local gymnasia (high school), which was quite the big deal in those days. Her family was also active in Betar. My great-grandmother managed to leave Poland for England, and then the United States, before the Holocaust, which is probably the only reason I'm able to write this today. Most of the rest of her family stayed behind, and with the exception of one or two, were murdered by the Nazis during the war, or by the Poles afterward in the Kielce pogrom of 1946. That slaughter, when Jewish survivors were butchered by their former Polish neighbors, was basically the tipping point that sent the survivors towards what is now Israel or the United States. One of my "alter" uncles, my uncle Chiel (who fought back during the pogrom and survived) wound up in Israel and lived until recently in Holon, while another brother (Adam, a musician who was hidden by Polish neighbors for years) managed to make it to Tel-Aviv. Chiel remarried and his children and grandchildren are still in Israel today. The rest of the scattered family were divided between Argentina and the United States.

My grandfather was drafted at the ripe old age of 38 by Uncle Sam, but soon found himself working with Army intelligence, since he could speak several languages fluently. Same went for my Uncle Moishe, who wound up being parachuted into Norway to organize resistance against the German occupying forces there. My Uncle Marty fought in the Battle of the Bulge. There was also my Uncle Lou, who was a survivor of sorts himself. He was born here in the U.S. and when this country entered the war he was part of the construction crews sent to build bases in Greenland. However the ship he was on was (the Dorchester, also known as the "Four Chaplains" ship) was torpedoed and sank. He managed to survive exposure in the North Atlantic until being rescued by another ship. So, I guess survival comes naturally to my family. It also probably explains a lot about the way I look at the world, and why I tend to think and act older than my (almost) 43 years. I grew up around quite a few people with numbers on their arms - in shul, at the local market, the local coffee shop, or even on the beach, enjoying their day in the sun. When you see those things as a kid, and when you first find out why they're there - it changes your whole outlook on life.

Naomi: You have recently started blogging, but I sense that you are 'holding back' What is it that you really want/need to say? What is holding you back?

Jonathan:
Holding back? I don't know if it's as much holding back, as trying to find, and get attuned to, my inner voice. That, and getting over my internal inertia. Part of what's held me back has been due to hesitancy for professional reasons. There really isn't such a thing as anonymity on the Web/Internet, and being outspoken about certain issues can lead to "problems" in the professional world. However, I think I've finally reached the age and point where I can't be silent about certain things any more, and I hope to start sharing more of those thoughts with readers in the near future.

Naomi: How do you feel about exchanging terrorists for Gilad Shalit? Do you have hope that he will come home?

Jonathan:
That is a tough one, I feel for his parents, his family, his fellow soldiers. As a parent, I have to say that if it were my son (G-d forbid) in enemy hands, I'd do everything and anything in my power to bring him home. I am sure that the current Israeli government is doing the same at this time, in spite of the obvious human cost involved. However (there's always a however, it seems) is it right to bring him home by releasing murderers who will, without a doubt, kill again at the first opportunity? I don't know, part of me finds it hard to justify that response. You can't reward terror by capitulation, or surrender. That's when you wind up with Sderot, where people had to learn to live with Kassam warnings as a fact of life.

There's also a part of me that thinks Gilad will only come home in a coffin, if at all. We aren't dealing with rational human beings, but bloodthirsty thugs that love and embrace death, and think nothing of killing us in the process. When you are fighting against that kind of mentality, you can't let your guard down for a minute.

Naomi: What are your ideas about what can be done regarding the Internet Jihad on Facebook, YouTube, etc?

Jonathan:
I think the best thing that can be done, given the current circumstances, is to expose these websites and content providers to the light of day, and press their hosting companies (where possible) to shut down these sites for TOS violations as soon as they're found. To that end, it's great to see people like the JIDF, Nizkor, and LGF do their part to expose jihadists on the web. People may not be familiar with those websites, and it's a shame, in my opinion. Those three, along with many others online, have done their part over the past 10-15 years to combat anti-semitism and jihad-ism online, from the days of BBS and Usenet, to the current Web 2.0 environment.

That said - in a perfect world, I'd prefer for our own intelligence agencies to do whatever is necessary to terminate these sites and their readership, with extreme prejudice. The enemy doesn't give a rat's ass about the niceties that we have hamstrung ourselves with, and I think it's time that we took the gloves off and hit them where it hurts.

Naomi: A recent article in Aretz Sheva said: "Iran is an excuse: It’s not Obama, and it’s not Iran. Lack of guts is what prevents Netanyahu from withstanding pressures and leads to him losing self respect and the last vestiges of shame." What is your opinion on the matter? 

Jonathan:
You know, it may surprise you, and your readership, to hear that I disagree with the writer's main points. One thing Bibi Netanyahu has no shortage of is guts, in spite of what Boaz HaEtzni writes. Same goes for Ehud Barak.

How about Arik Sharon - who would dare say that Arik didn't have guts? Same goes for Menachen Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Moshe Dayan, and Yitzhak Rabin z"l. These were men who fought to bring the State of Israel into being, and to keep it safe in it's earlier (and weaker) years. Even Shimon Peres, the dove did his part by insuring that the State of Israel, in its early years, had the right contacts in place to set up its still *secret* nuclear deterrent. For sure, I give Peres a lot more credit than I do people like Yossi Beilin on the Left, or even Moshe Feiglin on the Right. Those two men haven't had to make the big decisions, and I don't know if they actually would do much differently.

I think the author of that A7 piece makes a mistake when he sees the current situation of "realpolitik" as lack of will. To me, that's what the issue appears to be - one of political will. It's a lot different for these men once you're sitting in the big chair. Your bravery on the battlefield, or in the plenum hall, or street fight, doesn't always translate well to making political decisions. You see and learn about things that were only hinted at when you were a subordinate, or a candidate for office. There are consequences for actions taken that we as private citizens probably will never know about.

I think Bibi is making the best of a crappy situation in his current actions. Decisions that were made by previous Israeli and American governments have dealt him a hand of cards that no one could ever envy. The real threat Israel faces right now is the one from Tehran, it's an existential one that dwarfs any other that the country has faced in the past 61 years. The reality is that the Israelis will need help from the U.S., overtly or covertly, to eliminate that threat, and with that help there are political costs to be paid. The question is, as always, how much can the State of Israel (and by extension, the United States of America) afford to pay.

Should the State of Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people, relinquish control over the places that are integral to Jewish identity? Should the State of Israel negotiate with terrorists past and present? Should the United States, a country that was founded by leaders who recognized Divine Providence, turn its back on the nation whose prophets and teachers inspired their own Founding Fathers? All I can say is that I am glad to not be the one to answer those questions, and the countless others that the current Israeli and American leadership faces on a daily basis, combating these and other types of threats from enemies all across the globe. One can only hope that the men grow to the demands of the position, and make the right choices.

Naomi: Thank you Jonathan, it is a pure privilege to host you on my blog. Hope everyone keeps tuned to your blog.

Jonathan Meola's blog

Jonathan Meola on Twitter

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