Why Cairo; Why now?

Let me answer the second question first.  This year, I “celebrated” 30 years of practicing law.  G-d willing, I will be able to retire in 15 more years, meaning I’ve hit the 2/3 point in this marathon.  In human years (as opposed to lawyer years), I’ve hit 55.  If that’s the 2/3 point, I’ve got 27.5 years left.  Any way you slice it, I’m long past a mid-life crisis.

So what is driving me to get involved with a depopulating city that I have never visited that is 800 miles away from me?  First, there is an element of time sensitivity.  My clock is ticking, but so is Cairo’s…much faster than mine.  The immediacy of the problem appears in the eminent condemnation of housing for about 15% of the city’s population and possible insolvency threatening the Cairo city government, which is the largest employer in town.   http://thesouthern.com/news/local/another-crisis-brewing-in-cairo-this-one-at-city-hall/article_c12e7048-4a69-5b1b-b99c-16add8d72bd8.html

But more than that, Cairo represents a failure of what our country is supposed to be about that occurred in my home state while I was oblivious.  As such, it is imperative that we correct that failure while we still can.

In earlier essays, I have detailed the tragic history of this once-prosperous city that could not accept racial integration well into the 1960s and 70s and the “white flight” that followed when the judiciary compelled integration and equality.

When I was growing up in Skokie, IL, I had a neighbor who was like a grandfather to me (both of mine had died by the time I was 7).  I called him “Uncle” Walter.  He was not college educated and spent most of his career selling shoes.  But, he was an extremely wise and gentle man.  During that time, the news was full of protests, violence and carnage.  I remember deciding to turn away from the TV at the first mention of Viet Nam.  Uncle Walter had a saying that he would invoke at times like that…”man’s inhumanity to man.”  That saying, reflecting the fundamental oneness of humanity, was formative in the development of my world view.  It was also a stark reminder that our most intractable problems are self-inflicted.  We simply do not know how to get along with people we perceive as different.

In Cairo, that inhumanity reached outrageous proportions.  The good people who have stayed are living in a dystopian present, without amenities and comforts that we take for granted.  There is little opportunity in that small town.

Geographically, Cairo is closer to Mississippi than to my home town of Skokie.  Yet, both are within Illinois, the self-proclaimed “Land of Lincoln.”  What would President Lincoln make of the situation in which Cairo finds itself?  More importantly, what would he make of the indifference of the rest of the State to Cairo’s plight?

Illinois is home to approximately 12 million souls.  About 2,500 of them live in Cairo.  They are overwhelmingly poor and African-American.  If the remainder of the State, especially those in the well-to-do parts of Chicago and its suburbs knew that a legacy of racism has put Cairo on the very brink of extinction, would it lend a hand up?  I’m betting that it will.  Making this situation known to Illinoisans and other people of good will is the mission that will animate the next phase of my life.


Cairo, Illinois: A City in Crisis; a Legacy of Racism

At the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, at the southernmost point of Illinois, between Kentucky and Missouri lies Cairo, a once prosperous city of 15,000.  As of the 2010 census, Cairo’s population had declined to 2,800 and the county in which it is located, Alexander, is one of the poorest, fastest-depopulating in all of America.

At the close of the 19th century, Cairo was a southern city with wealth in the hands of a small group of white people who controlled river trade and other commerce.  Cairo’s population was about 1/3 black, but those Cairoites did not share in the wealth or even in access to public accommodations.  Segregation and Jim Crow were the order of the day.

In 1909, a black man accused of murder was lynched in the middle of downtown Cairo.  As estimated crowd of 10,000 watched as the hangman failed in his task, the victim was shot, burnt and dismembered with the good white citizens of Cairo taking body parts as souvenirs.

Cairo’s economy declined during the 20th century because of the falling market share of river transportation as compared to rail, highway and air.

In 1967, an Army Soldier returned to Cairo on leave.  He was found hanged to death in a jail cell.  The authorities ruled his death a suicide despite strong evidence to the contrary.  Around that time, a prominent white pastor beat a 73 year-old black man to death for allegedly raping the pastor’s wife in Cairo.  No charges were ever filed.

Despite the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, Cairo continued as a segregated town, where educational and economic opportunity was for whites only.  When courts ordered that those laws be followed, as with the city swimming pool, the town fathers simply shuttered the facilities to which black people sought the access they deserved.  White vigilantes illegally given law enforcement powers by the local police terrorized black residents.  Nonetheless, those residents began to fight back.

In 1969, various African-American groups in Cairo banded together to form the “United Front.”   A central goal of the Front was to end the practice of downtown stores not employing black people.  To accomplish this goal, the United Front started a boycott of those stores.  As one Front member recalled, they “won the battle” but “lost the war.”  As with the swimming pool, the white downtown business owners closed shop and moved away rather than integrate their workforces.  This occurred in 1973, nearly a decade after similar events in the deep south.

Since then, Cairo’s economy has virtually disappeared, and its population has dwindled. The city lacks such necessities as a grocery store and a gas station.  It was the subject of the independent film, “Between Two Rivers,” which was released in 2012, shortly after Cairo was nearly obliterated by a historic flood.  As seen in the picture above, its historic downtown is deserted.



I have included this brief history of Cairo’s troubles not to focus blame on living individuals, but to establish context. These events did not happen randomly or in a vacuum. Recognizing that, the challenge remains to create a sustainable future for the over 2,000 people who continue to call Cairo home.

In truth, there is no amount of money that would accomplish that goal. Further, most of the people I’ve contacted in Cairo want a hand up, not a hand out. There are three important challenges facing that city today.

First, in April, HUD declared that about 200 units of public housing were not fit for habitation. While this appears to have been a correct decision, the question of where the residents go remains. Section 8 vouchers will be available, but the nearest suitable housing is in Paducah, KY or Cape Girardeau, MO. The loss of 200 families and their school children will have a devastating effect on them and the city. We must find a developer or developers that will construct affordable housing in Cairo.

Second, other than a barbecue restaurant and a nightclub, there are no private employers in Cairo. The largest employer is the school district that is threatened by the loss of many of its pupils to the move described above. Any vision of a successful Cairo must include the creation of decent jobs for the people who live there.

Third, I have learned that a major impediment to private development in Cairo is the fact that the electric rates are so high. The city’s municipal utility is in a very unfavorable contract to purchase electricity and passes those costs along to ratepayers.


Although I am no longer a Catholic, I recall something very relevant from my catechism training.  Jesus is supposed to have said “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.”  In material terms, the residents of Cairo are the least of our brothers and sisters.  In spiritual terms, they are giants.

This very day,  a group of Cairo residents, both black and white, engaged in a community clean up despite sweltering heat and humidity.  They showed their commitment to revitalizing their community and their never quit spirit. Will we do the same for our brothers and sisters in Cairo?  Will we work to find private investment in housing and employment?



Brian Sullivan Greenspahn

Utilities in Cairo Illinois: The Price of History — Shooting Irrelevance

Cairo Illinois, at the tip of the state where it flows into Kentucky, is where the Ohio and the Mississippi flow into each other, where two great river systems crashing their way through America join the east and the Midwest on the way to the Gulf. It a slow, languid area, more deep south than […]

via Utilities in Cairo Illinois: The Price of History — Shooting Irrelevance

Riding High Alone Through This Jewish Life

They’re called misheard song lyrics.  The title of this post comes from my hilariously ironic mishearing of a line in Blondie’s 1979 hit, “Heart of Glass.”  The real lyrics make less sense: “riding high on love’s true bluish light,” according to Google.  I like my version better.

Today I took a definitive step in the direction of reclaiming my hidden Jewish identity.  I attended a Saturday service at the Synagogue which I have joined.  This is no ordinary  Synagogue, and that was no ordinary service.  I learned of newly-formed Congregation Rauch HaMaqom through an article in our news weekly.  The Rabbi was familiar to me as the Cantor and Assistant Rabbi of a Conservative Congregation.  Rabbi Jan is full of energy and, most importantly, born and raised in my hometown of Skokie, Illinois.  We even grew up on the same street, albeit ten blocks apart.

Ruach HaMaqom is a “Renewal” Congregation.  It blends Jewish mysticism with an ecumenical outlook.  It’s the perfect thing for our new-Agey community here in what is often referred to as the People Republic of Burlington.

I remember that the Catholic masses and Jewish services I have attended seem to have much in common.  Unfortunately, these were mostly negative features to me, including a liturgy that is repeated by rote and the use of a language in which I did not have training.

Those two elements had put me off of joining one of the more “traditional” congregations here.  But this Saturday’s service was nothing like that.  It began with an hour of yoga, led by Rabbi Jan, in which Hebrew words and blessings were substituted for the original language of yoga (Sanskrit? — too lazy to Google that now).  Of course, it ended with “Namaste,” which is universal.  But the chant that preceded it was “Shalommm” rather than the traditional “Ommm.”

Next up was an hour of group Torah study.  As a new Congregation, resources were a bit scarce, and it soon became apparent that almost everyone in the group was reading from a different transliteration. Some actually contradicted others.  This made the discussion more lively and underlined Rabbi Jan’s statement that the Bible is comprised of archetypes and allegories rather than accounts to be taken literally.  Unfortunately, this caused great consternation to one of the most vocal members of the Congregation.

That reminded me that one of the great gifts and potential curses of the Jewish people is how much we like to argue with one another.  Argument is not necessarily pejorative; here it was simply exchanging conflicting opinions.  I like the freedom of thought.  But fragmentation of the group is always a possibility in such circumstances.

I managed to avoid the blunders I had feared — falling down or passing gas in yoga and saying something off the mark in the study — and did a feel a sense of community in this fledgling group.  I was sorry to have missed last night’s service, which had approximately 50 attendees.

We convene again in two weeks — on the eve of Christmas and Channukah.  At the moment, I am riding high alone in this Jewish life.  But I hope to make some lasting connections even as the novelty of the experience fades.





A Happy “Ending” — updating my essay on discovering my Jewish identity

Epilogue:  Jewish Geography and Tikkun Olam

Growing up in Skokie, I learned the phrase “Jewish Geography” at an early age.  As I understand it, the phrase refers to the “small world” phenomenon within the Jewish community.  Everybody seems to know or know of everybody else with only a couple of degrees of separation.

As I was preparing the draft of this essay, I realized that some of the people in it could be identified even though I’d only used their first names.  So, I sought their permission to use their real first names.  They asked to see the draft and gave me some very helpful feedback.

In particular, Cindy, my high school friend, whom I presumed I could not date because she was from an observant family, is still very active and respected in the Jewish community in Skokie.  I wanted to protect her identity if she wanted it protected.  So, I sent Cindy a draft of this essay.  She said that she was flattered to be included in my story.

In it, I have used pseudonyms for my second cousins.  Cindy asked for their real names, first and last.  She recognized them.  Cindy decided to get in contact with them to vouch for my character and encourage some form of détente.

The initial response caused guarded optimism.  The wife of my second cousin, Mark, passed an email to Cindy in which Mark said I could email him.  I did so, choosing my words very carefully.  I asked three basic questions about his Grandmother, Fannie, my Grandpa Al’s sister, who lived until Mark was a teenager.[i]  The timing seemed fortuitous because this communication occurred shortly before Pesach, a time when I would expect that Mark’s family would be gathering and could, if they so chose, discuss my questions.

I awaited a response for a week, then two, then three.  Radio silence.  I sent a follow up message to: 1) make sure Mark had received the first one and 2) to share with him some clippings I had found online about an ancestor of his (not in my blood line) who had been a champion billiards player.  I thought the latter selection might be an ice breaker.

More time passed, and it became clear, once again, that I was not going to receive a response.  I suppose I should be angry at Mark’s rudeness.  I certainly was when he and his family rebuffed my previous efforts at communication.  But this has happened so often that I just sighed and resigned myself to the fact that my second cousins want nothing to do with me for reasons that I will never know.

One of my favorite writers is Scott Turow, who also happens to be Jewish and a lawyer in Chicago.  Turow described the frustrations of being a first year law student taught by deliberately obtuse professors as like “trying to read a mind that is determined to elude you.”[ii] At age 53, I had no interests in trying to decipher the thoughts of my elusive second cousins.

Redemption occurred when, on Facebook (a “Growing up in Skokie” group, of course) I ran across one of members of the family thought to be responsible for trying to burn the Star of David on our lawn.  In a non-confrontational way, I mentioned that incident to her.  She took full responsibility for it and stated that she had intervened to prevent her boyfriend from setting fire to the gasoline.

I then sent her a draft of this essay.  She saw the effect that the incident had on me and apologized as deeply and sincerely as anyone could.  She even expressed shame.  I responded that I was ashamed of what my Grandmother had said that led up to the retaliation.  And anyway, she and her boyfriend were teens.  My Grandmother was well into her 70s, with all of her faculties, and knew better.  She just didn’t care whom she hurt.

To me, the concept of Tikkun Olam – that one can repair the world through individual acts of kindness – is central to Judaism.  That concept can be found in many other religions and belief systems.  My former neighbor accepting responsibility and apologizing for her actions over 40 years ago was Tikkun Olam.  I hope my acceptance of her apology and my denouncement of my Grandmother’s hateful language also accomplished some reparative justice.  The world is a tiny bit less broken because of this chance encounter and our willingness to put the hatred of the past behind us.  Rabbi Hillel wrote, in the Babylonian Talmud: “that which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”

Further redemption and a pleasant surprise appeared in my Facebook feed with a link to a local news weekly article about a new Jewish congregation that was forming.  Ruach HaMaqom had begun to hold services and events.  They follow the “Renewal” tradition, one with which I was not familiar.  I am now.  I contacted the Rabbi, whom I remembered as the former Cantor and the local Conservative Synagogue.  It turns out that she grew just ten blocks east of me on Fargo Avenue in Skokie all those years ago.  This was Jewish geography at its finest.

As I write this, I have joined Ruach HaMaqom and plan to attend my first service (which includes a yoga meditation!) on Saturday.  Further, I have begun the process of changing my name to push “Sullivan” into the middle and add “Greenspahn” at the end.  It has been a long journey and is far from over.  But I finally feel as if I’ve gotten a glimpse of home…and I like the way it looks.

[i] The questions were:  1. Could he send me a picture of Fannie? 2. Does he or anyone in his family recall Fannie ever mentioning having a brother?  3.  Who wrote Fannie’s obituary that specifically named her as the sister of the late Allan Greenspahn?

[ii] From One L, Turow’s account of his experiences as a first year law student at Harvard.

All Berned Out

Although I grew up in Chicago (Skokie and Hyde Park), I have lived in Burlington, Vermont since 1989.  That year, Bernie Sanders left his job as Mayor of Burlington (pop. 42,000) and set his sights on higher office.  The following year, he won the first of his eight terms in the U.S. House as Vermont’s sole Representative to that body.

I was proud to vote for Bernie in 1990, even though he was supported by the NRA and his opponent, Peter Smith, seemed to be a decent person.  The pride came largely from the symbolism of defying the Reagan/Bush establishment.  It was as if I had stuck up my middle finger at the distant Republicans responsible for Iran/Contra, Grenada, Reaganomics and other policies I considered retrograde.

Over the next several years, I continued to vote for Bernie, but my reasoning evolved.  I became troubled with the lack of legislative accomplishment and frustrated by his eagerness to blame everything on others.  As John Mellencamp sang:  “I fight authority; authority always wins.”  That was great at first.  It got old after the first ten or so years.

But I continued to vote for Bernie throughout the early 2000s because he was usually pitted against someone I could not accept as my Representative in Congress.  His behavior continued to trouble me.  For example, he got a lot of local attention by attending the IBM shareholders’ meeting and demanding certain changes.  He did so in his typical abrasive, unyielding and self-righteous fashion.  Whether by coincidence or causation, IBM had a series of layoffs at our local plant (the largest private employer in Vermont at the time) and then sold the plant to a company based outside the United States.  Bernie certainly fought authority.  But did his constituents win?

At my former place of employment, there was a framed cartoon that looked like it had come from Punch in the 19th Century.  There was a Dickensian scene with a widow and her two young children, poorly dressed and slinking out of a courtroom.  Their aristocratic barrister said: “I may have lost your case, but you did have the honor of me pleading it.”  Although the analogy is not complete (Bernie is certainly not an aristocrat), I found the attitude to be reminiscent of Bernie’s to his constituents.  He may not have won many, if any, battles in Congress, but we had the honor of him fighting for us.  Maybe it’s just me, but I’d prefer to win.

Still, I voted for Bernie in his Senatorial campaign in 2006 (that’s nine votes for those of you keeping score at home).  That same year, my son and I flew to Chicago to see our then World Series Champion (eat your hearts out Cubs’ fans) White Sox play a couple of games.  On the way back, and wearing our Sox gear, I recognized the distinguished figure of Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) in the Detroit airport.  From our dress, he obviously knew we were not constituents.  Nonetheless, he spent a long time with us, chatting about baseball and politics and really giving a great example to my 11 year-old son.

Later that year, with the Conyers visit in mind, I decided to approach Bernie Sanders in our local grocery store.  I had seen him there many times before, and the vibe I got from him was that he did not want to be approached.  But he had just been elected to the Senate, I had voted for him and had seen how open and friendly most politicians are.  Yuuuge mistake!

Trying to strike up a conversation, I introduced myself and noted that we had both attended the University of Chicago and majored in Political Science.  I thought that would break the ice. Instead, I was the Titanic.  I don’t remember his exact words; I do remember that they were few and dismissive.  He also turned his back on me.  That kind of rudeness is not acceptable behavior in these parts, especially at a neighborhood grocery store.  First impressions count for a lot.  Bernie made a horrible first impression on me.

But I’m just one guy.  So when the 2012 Senatorial election came around, I held my nose and voted for Bernie because the policies his opponent was espousing were not in line with my beliefs and goals.  As one of his Vermont colleagues has said, “Bernie may be an asshole, but he’s our asshole:” http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/article/2015/09/29/bernie-sanders/

Then something dramatic changed.  Bernie announced that he was running for President, and benefiting from weak opposition, he started doing well in the polls, primaries and especially caucuses.  Suddenly, our asshole was most of the nation’s demigod.  I’ve heard intelligent people call him a “hero” and ascribe supernatural powers to him (Mother Earth sent the bird to land on his lectern at a campaign rally because he is such a “kind” person).  Paraphrasing the late Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-TX), I know Bernie Sanders, I’ve met Bernie Sanders, I’ve voted for him ten times….he is not a kind person, nor is he a hero.

As the child of a single, working mother, it always mattered and still does matter to me how one in power treats those with less power – specifically in an employer/employee relationship.  I found this article by our local weekly investigative paper to be especially damning of Bernie in that regard:


In sum, I do not respect Bernie’s personal qualities, and I have seen how little it bothers him when he tries to bring about revolutionary change and returns instead with the predictable loss.  Outside of some amendments, I believe he’s only been the main sponsor of three bills that have become law…in 25 years.

Living where I do, I expect to get Bernie shoved up my ass at every opportunity.  Mostly, it is people who are like I was in 1990: idealistic, a bit naive and wanting to stick it to the Man.  I get that.

What I don’t get and what has motivated me to write this is the “Bernie or Bust” movement that has developed as his nomination is appearing less and less likely.  Adherents of that movement pledge not to vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election under any circumstances.  They would write in Bernie, or a third-party candidate or just not vote.  I don’t know how widespread this movement is, but clearly, if acted upon, that pledge could cause Hillary Clinton to lose the election to Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.

It just blows my mind that progressive, intelligent people would rather have Trump or Cruz elected President than Clinton. Suppose Trump is elected.  There will likely be three Supreme Court nominations to be made in his first term.  Can you imagine the type of person Trump would nominate? Unfortunately, with Cruz, I can imagine exactly the type of person he would nominate.  We would, in either case, have a conservative or ultra conservative Supreme Court for decades to come.  Goodbye Obamacare; goodbye Roe v. Wade, goodbye gay marriage; hello racial profiling, torture and nativist immigration policies; hello virtually unlimited Second Amendment.  Goodbye vestiges of the separation between church and state.

I like to say, if I had more time, I would have said less.  That is certainly the case with this wordy essay, thrown together after a fit of rage.

I will again vote for Bernie Sanders if he wins the Democratic Presidential Nomination because the alternative would be unacceptable.  I would ask that Bernie’s supporters do the same for Hillary.

Isn’t it Ironic?

DATELINE:  Burlington, Vermont:  Recently chosen as the USA’s fourth “hippest” city.

I try to get out and walk every day around lunchtime.  Invariably, I wind up at City Market, kind of a locally-owned but even more overpriced version of Whole Foods, which we don’t have here. It’s not much of a walk from my office to City Market — three blocks at most.  But I have seen a lot of interesting and odd things traversing that corridor.

Although people say I look younger than my age (54 at this writing), I am painfully aware of my grey hair and generally unhip clothing and demeanor.  Burlington is a small city with many young people, who are incredibly active outdoors.  I am incredibly active (for my age), but much prefer my exercise to be in a gym, heated in the winter, air conditioned in the summer. As with most people in my age group, I tend to be a creature of habit, hence the daily walks to the same place.

It strikes me as especially odd that so many young men (in their 20s and 30s) are trying so hard to look old.  They may not see themselves that way, but the affectations of the Burlington hipster scream out “aged.”  The long beards, curly mustaches, oversized glasses (I wear contacts mostly for vanity’s sake) and “vintage” clothing say 19th Century to me.  I’ve even seen a guy riding one of those old-time bikes with the huge front wheel.  Why would they do that?

To be ironic is the answer I’ve most often heard.  What exactly does that mean?  I guess it was ironic when I saw a hipster wearing a kelly green t-shirt yesterday because it was the day before St. Patrick’s Day.  How mundane and bourgeois to sport the green on the actual holiday.

In this context, irony also seems to have an economic component.  I have no statistics, but I suspect that a lot of the hipsters that I see have a lot more disposable income than they appear to have.  Somehow, going under cover or slumming it is ironic.

Take this example: in one of my trips to City Market I happened to see a young guy all decked out in hipster garb and with the most ironic facial hair one could imagine.  By the way, I might have a beard too, but it would be all grey and make me look older than I am. Anyway, the hip dude is in the checkout line ahead of me at City Market.  With all of the wonderful, organic, vegan, gluten-free food and excellent wines that are available at that lovely store, I wondered what sophisticated treasure Hip Burlington Man had purchased.

Imagine my surprise when I saw that his entire shopping trip consisted of a twelve pack of…..Pabst Blue Ribbon.  Yes, PBR, in cans.  Sorry for the digression into local geography, but there is a liquor store about three blocks up from City Market. I haven’t verified this, but I’m guessing that the price of that PBR would be substantially lower at the liquor store. But it wouldn’t be ironic to buy cheap beer at a cheap store.  It would be ironic to buy cheap beer at an expensive one.  I get it now.