Note: It has been another challenging week for me. Aside from my mother’s continuing health issues, I am troubled by the violence in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. I do not subscribe to the narratives offered by the far left or far right in explaining what is going on there. I believe all the participants share responsibility for the violence and that they all need to change to come to peace. In view of these events, I thought it was a good time to revisit a book review I wrote a couple of years ago. The book, Salt Houses, was insightful and provocative and was written from a Palestinian perspective. Even if you haven’t read the book, I hope you find my discussion of it enlightening and thought provoking. It is clear that we, across the globe, all of us, need to find better ways to address trauma that has been passed down through the generations. We see the impact of failing to do so everywhere we look.
I recently read The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power. To remind you, she was U.N. ambassador representing the United States during Obama’s second term as President. Prior to that she worked in his administration on the National Security Council. Hers is an interesting story. She was born in Ireland and lived there until her mother, unable to access a divorce in Ireland, took her two children and immigrated to America. Power’s and her mother’s journey is worth reading about. Not surprisingly, the issues raised in the book have spurred questions for me.
Some observations after reading the book:
It seems that immigrants have a clearer understanding of this country’s founding principles than many native-born Americans. Samantha Power and her family are examples of that. Fiona Hill and Alexander Vindman, NSC officials who testified in the House impeachment hearing, are two more examples.
Many of the events Power describes happened only four or five years ago, but I barely remember them. Or, more accurately, I remember the incident (for example, Assad gassing his own people in Syria or the killing of U.S. embassy staff in Benghazi) but have forgotten the specifics – if I ever knew them. It makes me wonder if it is information overload or a short attention span or not paying attention in the first place. Whatever the case, it is disturbing because how will we learn from these events if it all becomes an incomprehensible jumble swept under the rug.
As a person who has grappled with the causes and lasting impacts of the Holocaust, I was surprised to learn that Power made a name for herself by researching and writing a book about genocides in history (‘A Problem from Hell’ America in the Age of Genocide). I will look for it next time I’m at the library. She was a reporter covering Bosnia in the 1990s and viewed her role as bringing the war crimes there to light so that the world would respond. I have always appreciated the importance of journalists educating us about events in far flung places, but this renewed my understanding of how crucial the press is. They may get things wrong or not tell a complete story but having eyes and ears on the ground is essential.
Reading about our conflicts with Russia, over its invasion of Ukraine and Assad’s actions in Syria, which Power had direct experience with at the U.N., brought into sharp relief the differences in values between our two countries. I studied Russian history (Soviet history at the time) when I was in college. I have some understanding of their single-minded concern with national security and their view of the world as an ‘us against them’ equation. They also have no legacy of democracy so when the Soviet Union crumbled it didn’t have a democratic tradition to call upon. Human rights never enter the equation for them. In the Russian scheme of things, what a country does in pursuit of its interests is not subject to any limitations – they don’t appear to apply a moral compass to the behavior of themselves or other nations. Power recounts her negotiations with Russia’s ambassador and those interactions illustrate very clearly that they are not our ally. We need to coexist with them, and we need to find opportunities to cooperate, but we cannot be confused about who they are. This reality makes Trump’s respect and affinity for Putin that much more frightening.
Another point that is driven home in the book is the power of politics. According to Power’s narrative, much of our country’s government action or inaction in foreign affairs is driven by perceptions of opinions/support of Congress, which, in turn, is driven both by their polling of their constituents and the influence of special interests. For example, Power describes Obama’s failure to act when Assad crossed the ‘red line’ in using chemical weapons, as mostly a political calculation based on lack of Congressional support for an air strike and fears of long-term engagement. After reading her analysis, in which she supported a military strike, I came away thinking that this was a failure of leadership on Obama’s part, but I have a better understanding of the factors that led to his inaction.
The notion of polling constituents or relying on phone calls/emails from constituents to gauge public opinion, raises a bunch of questions, some of which I thought quite a lot about when I was a school board member. The issues I faced were thankfully not life and death, but the fundamental question was the same: is my role as a representative to poll my constituents and vote accordingly; or is it to use my best judgment based on the information I have (which the public may not have) and apply my values to that data? Both paths are fraught. If I take the first approach, do I really know how my constituents feel? How many have I heard from and is it just the squeaky wheels? Do I poll on every issue, knowing that polling is not a perfect science?
If I choose the second approach, using my judgment, then I may be limited by the information I have and those who have provided it likely have an agenda. In the case of Congress, a lot of the information they rely on is supplied by special interests.
Whichever approach an elected official takes, representative democracy is flawed in some respects.
In my school board service, I generally went with the second approach. We didn’t do polling at that time, and I would have had some issues with it if we did. For me, it comes down to information, facts, data, analysis. If I could pull from different perspectives and look at data, I thought my decision-making would be stronger than basing it on a poll. Ultimately, the community would have their say in the most important poll – the voting booth. If they didn’t like where I came down on the issues, they would vote me out. Of course, I wasn’t terribly concerned about being voted out of a volunteer position. The challenge of taking my approach, relying on the data and applying one’s values, is that these days no one can seem to agree on a common set of facts or data. To make matters worse, there are those who benefit from exploiting the cynicism about science/data. At some point, we need to evaluate the information to assess its credibility and then trust in something!
So as not to leave you on a downer, I will share an example of the positive power of politics from the book. As Power describes the efforts to control and thwart the Ebola epidemic in West Africa a few years ago, the United States had the political will and resources to lead the way in addressing a terrifying public health emergency. This seemed to be a case where the data and science were believed, and political leaders overcame fear to do what needed to be done. One can only hope this problem-solving model can become the norm.
If you are interested in recent political history, and want to consider how values fit into public policy, I recommend reading The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power. By the way, I am not the only one recommending the book. It appeared on President Obama’s year-end list, too.
I am not going to write at length about gun violence in this country. But I do want to comment on what I see as an irony after the two most recent mass shootings. As the majority of Americans get more and more fed up with and anxious about the frequency of mass murders, suicides and “regular” homicides (in sum the staggering rate of gun violence in this country), the more possible the great fear of the gun rights activists could be realized. If things get bad enough, maybe we will come for your guns, instead of common sense gun control legislation. The staunch unwillingness of the NRA to negotiate reasonable standards (background checks, allowing databases to talk to each other, outlawing high-powered automatic weapons) may create an untenable situation where the majority of Americans are willing to put even more limits on gun ownership. I certainly am.
I know most of my readers don’t enjoy my political writing much (judging by the number of views those essays get), so I will leave it at that and move on to other topics.
As I work on my book, I asked my mother a few questions to fill in some gaps in my understanding of our family history. First, I want to note how fortunate I am to still have my mother to ask those questions! Her memory may not be what it once was, but she still has so much to offer. Since beginning this blog and undertaking my memoir, I’ve had many conversations with her that have enriched my understanding of events and of our family.
Recently I asked her questions about Zada (regular readers know Zada was my maternal grandfather, Mom’s father). Zada was the patriarch of the Spilken family. He was a lover of life and an optimist. Two of his children, my mother and her brother, Terry, were able to adopt that approach. His other two children…not so much.
Zada’s life was hard in many respects. I didn’t fully appreciate some of the challenges until Mom reminded me of some tragedies that I may have known about before but had forgotten or not thought about for decades.
Zada came to this country when he was three. His father was ten years younger than his mother! She already had three children by her first husband. Zada was the oldest of five more children. All eight were raised together in a tenement on the lower East Side. It was a hard life – everyone worked as soon as they were able. I recall Zada describing sleeping in shifts because their apartment was so small, and they had to take on a boarder to help pay the rent.
What I didn’t remember is that one of Zada’s sisters, Ruth, who was seven or eight at the time, was playing with friends on the roof of the tenement when she fell off. She was found dead on the sidewalk. I can’t imagine the horror. But family life went on – I’m not suggesting that lives weren’t changed by the tragedy, but Zada was able to maintain his spirit. Maybe Zada was unique, but my sense of things is that in those days (this would have been early in the 20th century), people expected tragedy. Accidents and fatal illness were more common and as a result the death of a child was not so unusual.
I am glad standards have improved so that our expectations for our children are higher. But I do wonder if we could use some of the fortitude that our ancestors had. I can think of numerous examples of difficult times Zada endured. He lost everything in the hurricane of 1938 (fortunately none of his family died, but they lost their business and their home with most of their possessions). His sister, Lily, died as a young woman of tuberculosis. He went bankrupt when he was 60 years old and had to go to work in a commercial bakery at that late stage of his life. His wife, my Nana, died prematurely at the age of 56. So much loss to endure, but his spirit remained upbeat. He continued to be engaged with the world, even after macular degeneration took his vision.
I was thinking about this after our book club read The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton. Hinton was convicted of crimes he didn’t commit in Alabama in the 1980s. He was on death row for 30 years until he was finally exonerated. The book follows his journey. It is a very powerful story. He makes a choice, while on death row, to reclaim his humanity instead of giving in to anger and bitterness. He chooses to establish relationships with fellow inmates and guards, he starts a book club, he escapes to his imagination. He has the love and support of his mother and one friend throughout. There is much more to the story, but I will leave you to read it.
During our book club we discussed whether we would have the strength to make the choice Hinton made. Some of us were pretty certain we wouldn’t have the wherewithal, others of us thought we would try. Of course, you never know unless you are tested. I hope to never be tested in the ways that Hinton or my Zada were. While my life so far has brought challenges, they have not been on that scale. I hope I will rise to whatever my future holds with the fortitude of my ancestors, especially Mom and Zada.
Scaring kids straight isn’t supposed to work, but it worked on me. There is a school of thought that says that if you present adolescents with a frightening picture of what drug use looks like, it will keep kids on the straight and narrow. I haven’t looked at the data, but I’m under the impression that the strategy isn’t very effective. Maybe because adolescents think they are immortal, that they are unique, can maintain control and it won’t happen to them. Or maybe because they don’t believe the message adults are feeding them. When I was an adolescent, I believed.
When I was growing up in the early ’70s there were stories about people taking a ‘bad trip’ and trying to fly off buildings – to their death. There were other stories of tripping on LSD and wandering outside naked. I’m not sure which of those scenarios horrified me more. The idea of being out of control, or not being able to distinguish fantasy from reality, was terrifying to me. When there was a rumor that someone had laced the ketchup in Coney Island Joe’s, a neighborhood burger/hot dog place, with LSD, I stayed away for years.
When I was 12 a book came out,“Go Ask Alice.” It was released anonymously, described as the diary of a real girl who got mixed up in the drug scene. I don’t remember who got the book, my friend Deborah or me, but we were so anxious to read it that we went into her basement and read it aloud. I think we read the entire book that way – in one sitting. We were shocked and disturbed by it.
The story presented a 15 year old girl, who we could relate to as she struggled with social acceptance, whose first experience with drugs was accidental. It fed into the zeitgeist of the time (not that I knew that word then). After consuming LSD without knowing, she got deeper into the scene. She was new to her town and she became friends with a group of kids who were experimenting with drugs. It all seemed so plausible to me.
The worst part of the story was that the diary ended with her clean, starting a new path with new friends. There was a brief epilogue that reported that she died of a drug overdose a couple of weeks later. Deborah and I were devastated.
I was just starting junior high school and I never felt more alienated. As I have written before in earlier blog posts, Nana, my grandmother and closest companion, had died the year before. To make matters worse, I was zoned to go to a different junior high school from my classmates in elementary school. It was a challenging time to say the least.
Reading Alice’s story, the girl’s name is never actually revealed, we just assumed it was Alice based on the title of the book, convinced me that whatever loneliness I might have felt, befriending kids who were doing drugs was not an option. I think Deborah came away thinking the same thing.
I’m not sure what reminded me of the book or this issue, but when I did a bit of online research about it, I found some interesting things. Unbeknownst to me, a few years after it came out, there was controversy about whether the book was a real diary or if it was fabricated. The edition we read had the tag line “A Real Diary.” (see photo above) It was presented as non-fiction. Lo and behold, when information emerged about the possible author, Beatrice Sparks, it turned out she was a therapist who said it was a diary of one of her clients that the parents authorized her to use. But, apparently Sparks augmented the diary entries. Today the book is still in print, but it is categorized as fiction and includes a disclaimer. Turns out James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” wasn’t the first of this kind of controversy.
Perhaps those adolescents who were skeptical about messages from adults were right. Ironic, isn’t it? I think my fear of drug use served me well, though.
I just finished reading She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb, for the second time. Since I don’t remember much about books I read, it may as well have been for the first time. Anyway, it is a coming-of-age story of a girl, Dolores, which begins when she is about 4 years old. Her first vivid memory is of that age because a television was being delivered to her house, a momentous and exciting event. Her family hadn’t owned one before.
The television comes to play a significant role in her troubled life as she uses it as an escape. Dolores retreats to game shows and soap operas when her own life became too painful. The book isn’t about the role of television in our lives, but it got me thinking. While I don’t relate to her behavior exactly, I do know that House Hunter’s International and Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show got me through the Bush Administration, Dubya’s that is.
I have established a rule for myself in this new retired life I lead. I won’t turn on the tv until after 5:00 p.m. I think it is a good rule. I’m still not always productive, after all now social media can be a tremendous time waster, but knowing that I can’t turn to television makes the odds better that I spend my time constructively. It is too bad I didn’t think of that rule when my kids were little (and there was no social media). Sometimes when I felt drained and unmotivated, I sat and watched talk shows, watching a whole day slip away. And, after watching, I felt yet more drained and unmotivated.
Thinking about television brought up another issue: the messages we are fed. My view of myself as a woman was certainly affected by the images presented. I have written about this before (here). I certainly couldn’t measure up to the standards of Mary Tyler Moore and Marlo Thomas – though I don’t blame them personally. We were inundated with unrealistic views of women (and men, too, I suppose) in programs and advertisements. I don’t know how much that has changed, though I think there has been some movement to offer more diversity.
But there is something else in the images that television offers that troubles me. We have read a lot about violence on tv and in video games and how that may desensitize people. But, we haven’t read, or at least I haven’t, about the portrait of the criminal justice system – particularly the police.
Gary and I, especially Gary, are fans of police procedurals – like the original Law and Order. We watched Hill Street Blues back in the day and NYPD Blue. These days Friday nights are spent watching Hawaii Five-O (actually I just keep Gary company for that one, I do crossword puzzles) and Blue Bloods. I know that these shows, all of them, are not depictions of real life, though the better episodes can make me feel real emotion. I have been thinking lately about whether they do damage in how they manipulate you to feel that it is okay to rough up a suspect. They are counting on you to root for the cop, even as he (and it is most often a he) physically and/or mentally abuses a suspected perp (I picked up on the lingo over these many years).
I know we aren’t watching documentaries. But how much license are they taking? I realize that the writers are putting together a 60 minute episode (far fewer minutes with all the commercials) where everything has to be resolved. Actual cases take years to move through the system. That license, to compress events, is less troubling to me.
I don’t know which is worse. If the way interrogations are portrayed is realistic, then we have major problems with police abusing their power. If the picture painted is fabricated, then what is the impact on people’s beliefs about the police? I think the ideas we have about our world are shaped to some degree by the entertainment we consume. Attention, though not enough, has been given to stereotypes of women, African-Americans, and other minorities. Studies have been done on the impact of violent content. But, I’m not aware of discussion of this – is the depiction of the way the police do their work done responsibly on television and in movies? And, if it isn’t, what is the cost of that misrepresentation?
By the way, She’s Come Undone, where I started this blog post, doesn’t get into this question at all. But like all good books, it spurred lots of thought.
I’ve been feeling unsettled and I think it’s connected to a book I just finished reading, Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. It is a novel about a Palestinian family that spans generations, beginning in 1948 through the present day. The author is a Palestinian woman, who according to her bio has lived in a number of different countries, including Kuwait, Jordan and the United States. The book provoked a lot of thought about identity, a subject I am endlessly interested in.
The family at the center of the story moves around the Middle East quite a bit – they had homes in Nablus, Kuwait City, Amman and Beirut. They also spent time in Paris and Boston. Their moves are most often the result of war, but sometimes it is in pursuit of opportunity or a different life. Some of the issues they face resonated with me. Many of the characters struggle to understand their identity. Is it tied to the land from which they are exiled? Is it their religion? Is it about language, food, and culture? And, if it is about all of these things, then what does it mean when you live in a country that speaks a different language, eats different foods, practices religion in a different way or not at all? How do you navigate the different values and customs, preserving your own but adapting to the society you live in?
These questions, these tensions, are very much at the heart of the Jewish-American experience. I was surprised to find that the themes that the book explores were so familiar. I find it ironic that there is so much commonality when the situation in the Middle East might lead us to believe that there is little common ground.
I have to admit that the book made for uncomfortable reading at times. The story begins with a Palestinian family in Jaffa being displaced from their beloved home on the Mediterranean by the 1948 war – the war for Israeli independence. The story takes as a given that the displacement was wrong, no context is offered. I understand why this is the case, both from the perspective of these characters and in the interest of telling the story. It is actually instructive to understand that this is the perspective. The “need” to establish Israel as a safe haven for Jews is not part of this narrative. I suspect this is true not just for this novel, but that it represents a widely held view.
In the book, as more is revealed, we learn that the family wasn’t just displaced, but was subjected to barbarous acts. Though it isn’t stated explicitly, it is clear that sexual violence was perpetrated by Israeli soldiers. This is a very painful chapter. I don’t doubt that Israeli soldiers, in 1948 and in subsequent actions, did horrible things. I don’t believe the author included this episode to be provocative, it must be rooted in real events. Every army since the beginning of time has been guilty of those crimes. That is not an excuse. No doubt when you have been the victim of such treatment your view of the ‘invaders’ is shaped by that forever. Whether instances of these crimes were more or less common in that war is not known to me. The question becomes, what do we do with that? History is full of pain and degradation being inflicted on oppressed peoples. How do we acknowledge that and, yet, move on?
There are parallels between the Jewish and Palestinian experience. Jews have been subjected to violence, cruelty and unspeakable acts of brutality. We have been exiled many times throughout history. Each year, at the Passover Seder, we tell the story of our enslavement and exodus from Egypt. I have always found great meaning in this ritual, reminding ourselves of our history and to not take freedom for granted. In our family, my in-laws are Holocaust survivors (I have written a number of blog posts about their experience), we tell their stories to the generations that follow. I believe it is essential that we do so. Anti-Semitism surely isn’t dead and we must be vigilant. There may be another side to it, though. In telling and retelling the story, do we keep the wounds fresh? Having heard these stories, do we approach the world defensively, ready to be attacked?
While reading this book, I thought about the story being told to generations of Palestinians. What is the message and what are the implications for relationships, with Jews, with Israelis, with the rest of the world?
In education, there is discussion about creating trauma-sensitive classrooms, in recognition that many students come to school bearing the burdens of traumatic life experiences. I wonder if there is a broader issue: how do we, as a society, deal with traumatized cultures (if there is such a thing)?
In Salt Houses, there are no Jews or Israelis who interact in any positive ways with the protagonists. I wondered if this reflected the fact that most Palestinians would not have occasion to have a positive interaction with a Jewish or Israeli person, or if this was just the particular story of these particular characters. If it is the experience of most Palestinians, then it is a sad commentary. The only interactions depicted in the book are those between the characters and Israeli soldiers and then an incident at airport security in Tel Aviv post 9/11. Suffice it to say, neither the soldiers nor the airport security officers come off well. It left me wondering if there are more ordinary opportunities for exchanges, not fraught because of the power imbalance or the pervasive fear of terrorism.
I purposely chose to read this novel to push myself out of my comfort zone. Authors from other cultures, who write stories informed by their experience, have much to tell us. It is easier to read those stories when the oppressors are generationally very distant or culturally unrelated to me. Salt Houses presented more of a challenge. This book is certainly not the full story. I can’t read one book by a Palestinian woman and think I have the full picture any more than I can read one by an African-American man and think I understand their broad and varied experiences. But, my understanding has been expanded. It was unsettling, but I believe it is worth the discomfort inherent in thinking about hard questions.