I missed only two issues over the past six years
of writing a bi-weekly op-ed column. Now, as college professors do, I am taking
a real sabbatical.
Thirty or 35 columns a year is not really a big deal for professional
journalists. many write two or three columns a week and put together books at
the same time. Still, I need a break, not so much from the writing but having to
pay such close attention to many newspapers, magazines and books everyday. I
just need a time out from so much bad news every morning, or shall I say
dwelling on that bad news.
I got into op-ed writing in Israel in 1988 on a lark, almost on a dare. I was
instantly hooked when the first column I submitted to the Jerusalem Post took up
a quarter of the back page. The headline read, "The Bureaucracy Needs Managing."
My byline was Dov Levy, to which I added Burt for the next column because Dov
Levy is about as common a name in Israel as John Smith is here.
My biggest misjudgment in the past six years came in February 2003 when I
revealed that this inveterate peacenik had become a supporter of the Iraq war.
It was the most difficult column I ever wrote. Like many, I had come to accept
what I was reading, that Saddam, a crazed dictator who had killed his own
citizens by the tens of thousands, would not hesitate to use his weapons of mass
destruction to do the same to other nations.
Except, there were no WMDs. I had believed that a United States president would
not lie to the American people about a subject so grave and important. I was
wrong. With their continuous twisting of the truth, President Bush and his true
believers have injected a large dose of cynicism and distrust into the American
A better predictive column ran in this space last July. In it, I urged readers
not to expect much, if anything, from the forthcoming Annapolis summit with
President Bush and Prime Ministers Abbas and Olmert. I said it was a PR event
signifying little, by actors who were reading a tired old script, and that all
three had extremely low ratings among their people.
I was right. Movement on Bush's dream of a Mideast peace legacy has moved at a
snail's pace. Meanwhile Abbas can't or won't prevent Gaza-based rockets from
being fired into Israel, while Olmert is about to resign amid a financial
scandal. And Mr. Bush, with a long term, record breaking, low approval rating of
under 30 percent, and with his successor's election underway, he is irrelevant
as a political force in America.
My lighter columns were a lot more fun than those on heavy topics. For example,
in March 2003 I discussed the controversy in Kennebunk, Maine, whose town
officials refused to allow a restaurant to use Hebrew National Hot Dog signs on
their outdoor umbrellas, as a sort of latter day invocation of the time that
local hotels did not allow Jews to vacation at such sea side resort areas.
Later that year I told you about the op-ed contributors in an issue of the
International Herald Tribune read while sitting in a London café. Because all
the authors were Jewish except for Korean Professor Han Sung-Joo, I got to write
the dream headline: "Five Jews and a Joo." More important was the realization
that five Jews across the political spectrum could fill the opinion pages of a
major international newspaper.
During the past week, many people at my home base in Boston learned I would be
taking this break. Many came up to me or wrote with the nicest, complimentary
comments. Most of them seemed to think, no matter what I told them, that this
short departure signaled something profound, like a newly minted disease.
I have two comments about that. First, no new or even old outbreaks of disease;
just a simple time out. Second, what a great thing it was for me to have
announced this sabbatical because the feedback made me feel like I had died and
I was hearing eulogies that most people will never tell you when you are alive
and can appreciate it.
Which leads me to offer some advice. If there are people you like, love, care
about, like their work or anything else about them, do yourself and them a real
big favor. Tell them. Now. Not in a prayer for the dead. Not to their survivors.
Not in a letter to the newspaper editor for the community to read after their
demise. Say it now; say it loud. Make them, and yourself, proud. (with apologies
to James Brown)
So, dear reader, I am honored to have been on your reading list these past
I look forward to returning refreshed and renewed and singing the praises of
what a sabbatical does for the heart, soul and mind.