Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Mendocino To Berlin

The countryside of Northern California is awash in brushfires. Acrid smoke is filling the air destroying natural beautify and wildlife. Eyes are reportedly tearing from San Francisco to Mendocino.

On a recent trip to California one was struck by the beauty of the redwood forests, the raw jagged beautiful coastline and the consistent bark of sea lions from their perch on an outcropping near the shore.

Boutique wineries dot the area. One was known by its proximity to the San Andreas Fault, that lies ten miles off shore.

But one of the most interesting sights were the aging hippies, long gray hair tied in a bun, earrings in their ears, scarves wrapped around their foreheads, meandering around some of the towns. Billboards blared out their message, “Vote No For Amendment B.” The of the local radio also dealt with “Amendment B.” As far as one could tell “Amendment B” was a county-wide rule that would limit the amount of marijuana plants needed for “medicinal purposes” a homeowner could possess.

Now, according to a local resident who did not grow or use marijuana for medicinal or other purposes, one could grow up to twenty-five marijuana plants. “Amendment B” would limit the amount to eight plants.

The radio call-in program fleshed out the issue. Local residents explained that new neighbors were not only exceeding the twenty-five plant limit, but had entire fields under cultivation, with generators running all night to keep the processing plants going.

One caller complained that he was afraid to tell his neighbors to stop their activities, or go to the police, for fear of reprisals. Apparently these new neighbors were Mexican drug-lords who were taking advantage of the liberal California laws to make money. The caller to the radio show wanted to know how they were going to meet their “medicinal” needs on only eight plants.

In Mendocino County, and other places in California, it is legal to hold limited amounts of marijuana if a doctor has filled out the appropriate form and the patient is registered as a medicinal user.

According to one source, receiving permission for medicinal use is not difficult. “But what do they need ten pounds of marijuana a year for? That’s what this eight-plant rule is. Ten pounds of pot a year. And they say that’s not enough.”

The average visitor doesn’t know how much pot comes from one plant. Nor how lucrative the industry is. “The growers, these Mexican gangsters, are the ones paying for the “Vote No To Amendment B” campaign. They’re buying these politicians on the local board.”

Is this true? Could be, but one has to be careful. Mendocino is not only made up of wealthy homeowners from San Francisco and even LA, but also people who have vineyards, ranches and other establishments who are simply trying to make a living. It is also made up of a lot of old grouches. Some hippies, some just grouches. People who moved way up to Mendocino for the view, the quiet, the seclusion, not because they could smoke their pot legally.

Mendocino was, according to some old timers, once a haven for hippies, back in the 60’s when young people slept out in sleeping bags, pitched tents, started communes. Most left to get on with their normal lives, a few stayed, never changed their lifestyle or their thought process: sort of just petrified right there back in 1968.

Listening to the radio one heard first about the controversial ‘Amendment B’ but then the callers would inevitably get onto the military industrial complex, and how the Bush administration was destroying America and the world. The traveler even heard a rant on UFO’s and Bush, but that conversation was linked to how much weed the caller could or couldn’t smoke in a given year, so drug-induced hallucinations and paranoid fantasies seemed part of his mental process.

As if there weren’t things more important to think about, or worry about. Wine and grass and the San Andreas Fault. Maybe they all went together, the latter the threat, the first two ways to escape it without leaving the county.

Mendocino comes up as a reminder that alleged corruption in politics isn’t limited to the goings on in Israel. Supposed Mexican drug lords controlling a pot amendment is small potatoes compared to Israel’s Prime Minister with envelopes of cash in his pocket. But the principle is the same.

Then there’s Berlin. It is a strange trip that leads from Mendocino to Berlin but also passes through San Jose where the daughter of Major Ernst Bloch lives. Major Bloch was a hero in the German Army during World War I. He was a professional soldier and served loyally all the way through the war until he was killed defending Berlin. There were two interesting things about Ernst Bloch, one was that he was half-Jewish, and two that he was involved in the rescue of the sixth Lubavitch Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1939.

The Warsaw Ghetto in 1939 is about as far as you can get in both thought and circumstance from pastoral Mendocino of 2008. The Nazis had declared war on Poland. The city of Warsaw was occupied. Jews, already battered and abused in Germany, were now the targets of persecution in Poland. Ultimately over 2 and a half million Polish Jews would die at the hands of the Nazi occupiers before the end of the war.

Rabbi Schneerson became the bone the Americans tossed to the American Jews who were clamoring for something to be done about the German persecution of the Jews in Germany. How he was rescued was a “strange story” according to Dr. Winfred Meyer of the Anti-`Semitism institute at the Technical University of Berlin. “It involved the Americans passing information to the Abwer(the German Intelligence service) who then passed it to the Lubavitch, telling them to tell the Rabbi in Warsaw to surrender to the German army officer looking for him.”

The German officer was Ernst Bloch, son of a Berlin Jewish doctor and Gentile mother, who worked for the Abwer. He had orders to save the Rebbe, and he did, taking him out of the Ghetto, blustering and bluffing, using ‘military secret’ as an excuse . The Rebbe had an entourage of 18, all ultra-Orthodox Hassidic Jews, the men in black kaftans, with side curls, long beards, and black hats, the women with their heads coved, the male children with skullcaps.

Bloch commandeered a first-class cabin, to the chagrin of the German officers forced to stand in the corridor on the ride to Berlin. From Berlin the Rebbe was spirited out of German to Riga, and later to the USA. His son-in-law Menachem Mendel Schneerson later took over the small Lubavitch sect and turned it into the Hassidic version of McDonald’s, with a branch on every corner.

Bloch’s daughter lives in a small apartment an hour from San Francisco. She left Germany in 1968, and has mixed feelings about her father. She doesn’t understand why he didn’t just quit, walk away, have nothing to do with the Nazi army. Good question.

In Berlin today one is struck by how alive the city is, how vibrant, and gay (the mayor is reportedly homosexual.) There’s something of a Jewish Revival going on there. Small reminders are embedded in the sidewalks, though. Names of people who once lived on the street, Jewish people, who perished in the camps. There’s the Jewish Museum, and the memorial to the murdered Jews, slabs of concrete that look like coffins taking up a few very valuable acres near the Reichstadt, the German parliament.

One can enjoy Berlin. It’s a wonderful city. East Berlin is now like Soho in New York, alive with clubs and theaters, restaurants and pubs. West Berlin is staid, but elegant. Rebuilt so long ago most people don’t remember what happened there. And that’s Berlin, too. Don’t think too deeply and it’s a fine place, but the past is still there to haunt the visitor.

The Germans are happy, they say, to see Jews back in town. There are approximately 150,000 Jews in Germany today, eighty-percent come from the former Soviet Union. You find them in the synagogues, in the kosher restaurants, in the Jewish community centers. If there’s a Jewish revival in Germany today, they’re it.

Oh, and Mendocino? A ship crashed on the shore of Mendocino in the 1800’s, during the height of the opium trade. The ship was taking goods to India, picking up opium and delivering it to China, picking up goods from China and selling them in the US. A search party came upon a band of Native American dressed up in Chinese garb. The Native Americans lived in a beautiful forest, right along the sea. Soon the forest became San Francisco, and the Native Americans slowly disappeared. The new residents of their villages are well-to-do retirees and artists.

The history of the place is remembered in the old Point Cabrillo Lighthouse. Museum. The original people are gone, and the new comers have changed the face of the place, much as today’s `Berliners have changed the face of what was sixty-years ago. Both are still the same place, but both are different. Both had natives who are no longer there, with new people taking their place. And in both instances it’s better not to dig too deeply into the past; or the beauty and enjoyment sort of fade out leaving dark memories.