Contradictions

Note: Some of the material in this blog appeared in a previous post, but I have added content, edited it and, hopefully those who have been reading all along will find it compelling. For newer readers, I hope you enjoy. This is part of a series of pieces I have written about searching for my identity as an adolescent.

Of course, being Jewish was only one part of me. Being a girl presented its own challenges. The Women’s Liberation Movement was just beginning and was quite controversial. On television women were burning their bras outside the Miss America Pageant, at the same time I watched Barbara Eden as Jeannie, in her skimpy harem costume, flirting with Tony the astronaut. She actually called him ‘Master!” Something I didn’t even notice at the time. I wanted to be Barbara Eden. It was confusing.

I wanted to behave like a boy: playing and talking sports. I watched football, basketball, and baseball games with my brothers and uncles. On occasion they let me play touch football with them. I kept the scorecard at their softball games. Title IX was enacted as I was arriving in high school – a bit too late for me.

I wanted to be petite, with long straight hair.  Instead I was built like a peasant; stocky and sturdy, with wiry curly hair. Girls were supposed to be demure and defer to males. I had strong opinions about things. My opinions flew out of my mouth before I could edit them. I wanted to please people which didn’t mesh too well with my headstrong ideas. My impulses were pulling me in opposite directions. It felt like a war inside.

I was full of contradictions. I wasn’t interested in clothes or make-up, but I wanted to look stylish and attractive. I had neither the patience nor the desire to read fashion magazines or talk to other girls about that stuff. I struggled with two competing thoughts: it is important to be attractive (and the only way to get a guy); it is shallow to want to be attractive. In my heart I didn’t believe I could be pretty, and it was easier to dismiss it as uninteresting than to try and fail or be laughed at for the unsuccessful effort.

I knew that girls were supposed to have Barbie-like figures. Even when I was old enough to realize that the Barbie standard was ridiculous, I wasn’t able to make peace with my body.

It didn’t help that I had several experiences being mistaken for a boy. One time was particularly awkward. I was 11 or 12, but well into puberty, and I was in Star Value City, the five and dime in the shopping center near my house. I had been sent by my mom to buy sanitary napkins. I hated being sent on that particular errand. In those days, boxes of sanitary napkins were the size of a large microwave oven. There was no way to disguise the package – they didn’t make a bag big enough to cover it. It was so embarrassing – I thought everyone would see the monster box of Kotex and think they were for me. I don’t know why that possibility was so humiliating, but it was.

I wandered the aisles, gathering the courage to go the feminine products section, when a girl who looked a little older than me approached and smiled. She said, “You’re cute,” in a flirty way. I was attired in my usual uniform: jeans, sneakers and an oversize sweatshirt. I was totally taken aback. I didn’t know how to respond. I couldn’t bring myself to say, “You know, I’m a girl.” Or anything else for that matter. I was speechless. I just tried to move on. She was persistent and followed me, commenting on my curls and freckles. I was dying. Eventually she got the idea that I wasn’t going to speak, and she left me alone. And, then I had to go buy the sanitary napkins and walk home with them!

I imagine that other girls got mistaken for boys and vice versa, but I couldn’t handle it. For me it played into my worst feelings about myself. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it either, it was just too embarrassing.

This was the source of another deep ambivalence. On the one hand I understood that the substance of a person is far more important than their looks. I knew friendships were based on laughter, shared interests and kindness, not appearances. Yet, I weighed my looks heavily when I took stock of myself.

I would assess myself – I got these qualities from my mom (my smile and large rib cage) and other qualities from my dad (short legs and strong opinions) – both physical characteristics and personality traits. My Mom and Dad were so different from each other but they were each part of me. My Dad was a manly man – decisive, logical, authoritative, short-tempered, athletic, and strong. I thought I was a lot like him. My mom wasn’t exactly a girly-girl, but she certainly put on make-up every day when she was getting ready for work. She appeared to defer to my father on most subjects. Mom was intuitive; she didn’t think in logical steps (at least not a logic I recognized). She was also preoccupied with physical appearances and commented on that all the time– my eyebrows were a regular source of concern.

The mix of personalities worked for them in their marriage, they complemented each other, but those characteristics didn’t coexist easily in me. I wanted to be decisive and passive at the same time! I simultaneously cared deeply about how I looked and thought it was a shallow conceit. Trying to integrate the competing aspects of myself made for a very confusing journey to womanhood.

My journey did include one successful rebellion against stereotypes. As I became more conscious of the Women’s Liberation movement, I brought it home. After years of feeling that there was an uneven distribution of chores in our house, I exercised my decisiveness when I was in sixth grade – I complained….loudly. My brothers didn’t have to do the dishes after dinner, I did them. It seemed to me their only chores were to take out the garbage, sweep the driveway and mow the lawn. Given that our lawn was the size of a postage stamp, it didn’t require much effort. And there were two of them, and only one of me! Their tasks weren’t required on a daily basis. I made my case to Mom and Dad. Lo and behold, much to my brothers’ dismay, I was successful. Mark made a huge deal about putting his hands in the dirty dishwater, but his argument held no sway. Poor boy! I was only sorry I hadn’t thought to make my case sooner!

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Me – at the age I staged my rebellion. Notice the huge lawn that needed attention!

 

An Idea

I participate in a few writing groups. One of the groups is specifically for memoir. Last Thursday I shared a piece with that group which may be the introduction to my book. I say ‘may be’ because the project is still so raw, I can imagine that it might change. That aside, the essay I brought explored my identity as a secular Jew – a person who identifies with the culture (the values, humor, food and history) but not the faith in God. I was gratified to receive positive feedback from the group. One person in particular commented that I got it exactly right – it resonated with his own experience. It was encouraging.

Friday night I went to Sabbath services at a local reform synagogue because a friend was celebrating her bat mitzvah. It is quite an undertaking to achieve one’s bat mitzvah, especially as an adult, since it involves learning to read Hebrew and chanting in front of the congregation. My friend had been studying for a solid year. I was very pleased for her and know it was quite meaningful for her and her family.

Over the years I have flirted with the idea of studying for my bat mitzvah. When I was growing up it was not common for girls to go through the process. The first time I seriously considered it was when my children were getting further along in their Hebrew School education and I wanted to be supportive. I was the only one of the four of us who didn’t read Hebrew. We were going to services regularly at that point and I thought I would get more out of it if I studied. So, I took some classes with our rabbi. The classes had an unfortunate effect of reinforcing my lack of belief. Though I appreciated learning to read Hebrew (which I didn’t keep up so I no longer can), the discussions we had focused on the meaning of rituals and how they related to God. It left me cold. After trying a few different classes, I stopped.

I would not go so far as to claim that I am an atheist. I am in doubt as to the existence of a higher power. I am not in doubt, though, about the emptiness I feel when saying the prayers that are part of the liturgy of synagogue services. The God of those prayers, the God described in the Torah, doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t worship that God. But I like the feeling of gathering in community for common purpose.

Sitting in the sanctuary Friday night, I thought once again about becoming a bat mitzvah. And, once again, I rejected it. I keep running into the same wall – how can I go through the motions of professing a faith I simply don’t have. I do have faith, but it isn’t in that God. My faith is in the potential of humanity. (I can write about how that belief is currently being tested, but that is a subject for another time.)

I feel a kinship with other Jews – we often share a sensibility, as well as all the things I mentioned above that are part of our culture. I would like to nurture that connection.

While sitting through the service on Friday night, on the heels of my experience at Thursday night’s memoir group, I had an idea. Could there be a place for secular Jews? I started imagining a center of study (of our history), a place to explore and develop our shared values, to share food and humor. I could imagine celebrating holidays there, but without all the praying to God.

We are coming up on the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement. This period of time doesn’t need God to be meaningful to me. I have always appreciated it as a time of reflection, an opportunity for growth and to make amends with people who I have wronged. I would welcome the opportunity to gather with people to observe the holiday, to discuss the challenges that introspection brings. We could still blow the shofar as the symbolic reawakening that it is intended to be.

Does such a thing exist? One could argue that the Jewish Community Center (JCC) plays some of that role. But, it doesn’t really. Maybe it could, but so much of the emphasis there is on recreation and servicing specific populations (children and seniors) – as it should. Other programming is offered, but not what I am imagining.

The great fear of Jewish organizations is that the religion will die. After surviving centuries of persecution, it may die of neglect. The only areas of growth are among the Hasidic and Modern Orthodox. Conservative and Reform Judaism are shrinking and struggling. My future, as a Jew, will not be with Hasidism or Orthodoxy. I’m pretty sure my children won’t go that route either. Is there a viable alternative? Is it possible to create a movement of secular Jews?

 

Patriotism

All through elementary school we began our day by reciting the pledge of allegiance. I recall standing, facing the flag, hand over my heart, earnestly saying the words with my classmates.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,

And to the Republic for which it stands,

One nation, under God, indivisible,

With liberty and justice for all.”

I said those words with pride. As I got older, it became a rote exercise. By the time I was in high school, in the early 1970s, it was hard to hear the words over the general din in homeroom.

The process of it losing my attention, and apparently my classmates’, too, might have been a function of our age. Or it may have reflected something else – a change in our country as a whole.

Two things made me think about this. First was the controversy over Megan Rapinoe, the women’s soccer player who got called out by President Trump for not singing the national anthem. The second thing is that the 4th of July is upon us, a good time to reflect on patriotism.

Over the years a lot of athletes have stirred controversy by their behavior during the national anthem. The first roiling I recall was when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their gloved fists in Black Power salutes at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. That touched off a firestorm. I was only 8 at the time, but I remember being upset by it. I think what disturbed me most was that it was detracting from the competition. I loved the Olympics, I loved it when Americans won an event, and I felt pride hearing our anthem played in the stadium. It reinforced that we were the good guys – and it was the Cold War, after all. I didn’t want Carlos and Smith to upset the applecart.

But, even at 8 years of age, I stopped to think about why they were doing it. They were making a statement and I felt it was important to try to understand it. They were calling attention to the fact that Black Americans were not being treated equally at home. It was hard to deny that truth. The athletes felt they had to use their platform literally and figuratively. They paid for their actions – they were kicked out of the Olympic Village and banned from the rest of the games. They also received death threats. One can only imagine what might have happened if this occurred in the age of the 24/7 news cycle and social media frenzies.

The idea that our country was falling short of its foundational values became more evident to me as the years rolled on. The Vietnam War and Watergate took their toll on my faith; they were stains on our nation’s history.

I don’t want to suggest that I didn’t feel pride in being an American – I did and do. But it is tempered by an awareness that we haven’t always met our own standards. We need people like Megan Rapinoe and Colin Kaepernick to keep us accountable. They raise legitimate issues. We can disagree with them. We can think that they are wrong. But they should be seen and heard.

I came to my own conclusion about the pledge of allegiance. When I became a school board member in 1997, I took an oath of office. It was simple and said the following:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of New York, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of office of school board member of the Guilderland Central School District according to the best of my ability.”

I recited and signed that statement with honor and seriousness of purpose. I thought about my responsibility to the U.S. and New York State Constitutions, and to the students and members of my school community. I kept that in the forefront of my mind during the nine years I served. But, I stopped saying the pledge of allegiance.

It was our practice, and I believe it is the custom of most school boards, to begin meetings with the pledge. I stood up out of respect for my colleagues and the audience, but I didn’t put my hand over my heart, and I didn’t repeat the words. I had two reasons. First, I felt uncomfortable pledging allegiance to the flag. The flag is a symbol. I wouldn’t desecrate it, but I didn’t want to take an oath to it. I think it is beautiful waving against a clear blue sky, but my allegiance isn’t to the flag itself. If the pledge only said, “I pledge allegiance to the United States of America,” that would be fine. I recognize the value of symbols, but we shouldn’t confuse a representation with the actual thing that we venerate. Sometimes I think the flag itself becomes more important than the values it represents.

My second objection was the phrase “under God,” which was added in 1954. I’m not an atheist exactly, I’ll call myself a doubter. Given that I grew up believing that one of the great pillars of our country was the separation of church and state, I don’t think those words belong. So, I simply stopped reciting it.

Funny thing is that for all the years that I didn’t say the pledge, no one noticed! The meetings were televised locally. We were covered by a local reporter. No one ever asked. I wasn’t interested in calling attention to myself, so I didn’t make a point of it. I made a personal choice. I wonder if it had been noticed, if it would have become a “thing.”

I wish people wouldn’t get so angry when celebrities or regular people make these kinds of gestures. Why can’t they be noted, and then people make their own determination as to whether they agree or not. If you don’t like Megan Rapinoe because of her behavior or her values, that’s fine. But we don’t need the vitriol – how did we get to death threats so quickly? We have enough real problems to deal with, we don’t need to dwell on whether someone didn’t sing or if they knelt during the national anthem.

As we celebrate the 4th of July, I hope we think about the values that are the foundation of this country as expressed in that pledge: liberty and justice for all. These are still aspirational goals that I readily embrace and work towards achieving. We can and should enjoy the symbols: our majestic flag, the fireworks, the patriotic music, the hot dogs and beer. But let’s keep our eyes on the prize.

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A house in my neighborhood – ready to celebrate the Fourth of July

Consequences of Hate

The panel discussion sparked so many questions and reflections. After some preliminary remarks by the moderator, Monifa Edwards, the valedictorian from the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Junior High School, began the session by talking about her journey. Ms. Edwards, who is in her 60s now, held herself like a dancer, lean and elegant. She spoke with assurance. She gave some background, noting that her family, originally from the Caribbean, valued education. Her parents were distressed that the neighborhood schools had such a poor reputation. As a result, they enrolled her in a public elementary school in Sheepshead Bay, across the borough, an opportunity offered by New York City to desegregate the schools.

She described a harrowing experience on one particular trip. The bus was surrounded by angry white parents. The driver and bus monitor vanished, and the parents started rocking the bus and yelling epithets. Monifa recounted that she could still see, in her mind’s eye, the face of one of the mothers – her hair in curlers, her face twisted in hate. Monifa was terrified and traumatized by the experience. She came home and told her parents that she was going to go to a neighborhood school next year, no matter what, even if the education offered was inferior.

I heard Monifa’s story and it broke my heart. I could imagine her fear as the bus threatened to tip over.  Monifa continued, explaining how based on this, and other painful experiences, she was ‘primed to be radicalized’ (her phrase). Radicalized meant adopting the beliefs of the Black Panthers. When she asked adults around her, how could that white mother hate her so much and want to do her harm, she was told that white people were the devil. This made sense to her young self. It explained what she had experienced.  In the context of the time, I could understand how a child would receive and accept that message. She joined the Black Panthers, who became involved in the controversy over the schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

Hearing the idea that white people were the devil reminded me of another time I heard that sentiment. As I have written before, I facilitate workshops for school boards across New York State. The goal of the sessions is to educate board members about their roles and responsibilities and to do team building. I had worked for the Anti-Defamation League before coming to NYSSBA and been trained to facilitate workshops on multiculturalism. So, when a school board was experiencing conflict due to charges of racism, I was asked to conduct a retreat to help them through it.

The nine-member Board had only one person of color, an African-American woman. As the session progressed, after opening exercises and a discussion of identity, we got to the heart of the matter: the racism allegation. In the course of the dialogue, the African-American woman expressed her frustration that she was not being heard by her fellow board members. She explained that she grew up in a southern state and shared that her grandmother told her white people were the devil – it was a message she heard repeatedly. She wanted us to understand how hard she worked to let go of that thought; she wanted her colleagues to understand how difficult it was for her to trust them.

It took courage and self-awareness for her to admit that. The other board members at the table had not acknowledged any racist impulses or messages that they had grown up with (or may have still held).

As the discussion at that workshop continued, it emerged that all of the first-and second -year Board members (there were three of them, all of them women), shared the feeling of not being heard. It was possible that the source of the problem was in not effectively orienting new members and not explaining how to get items on the agenda, or it could have been sexism (the Board president was male), rather than racism directed at one member.

I left that Board retreat somewhat optimistic that we had made some progress. Maybe they had a better understanding of each other. Perhaps the Board President, having heard the frustration of three of the female new members, would be more inclusive. I was disappointed that the white board members hadn’t acknowledged any stereotypes or preconceived notions they had about African-Americans, but I was hopeful that they had food for thought. Perhaps as they had time to process the session, in the privacy of their own thoughts, they would examine their beliefs.

Sitting in the audience listening to the panel discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society, I was reminded that the messages we receive as children are powerful. It takes work and awareness to overcome them. Many people are not introspective, some may not want to make the effort, and others may not be willing to be honest with themselves. But if we are ever going to progress, we need to do the work.

Ms. Edwards said she had long since moved beyond her radical phase, she was able to overcome the hateful message.  Unfortunately, time was limited and there were other issues to discuss so we didn’t learn how that process occurred or how long it took. I wanted to understand more (I plan to return to this subject in my next blog post).

I also wonder how many people in the world, who are currently traumatized by violence and/or abuse, are ‘primed to be radicalized.’

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The largely white teachers’ union thought they were the target of racists. It was a complicated story, with layers of hate and mistrust.

 

Next week: More on the teachers’ strike and the charges of anti-Semitism.

 

The Ocean Hill-Brownsville Teachers’ Strike: What is its legacy?

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A notice (see above) came across my Facebook feed that caught my eye. The Brooklyn Historical Society was hosting a panel discussion about the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville Teachers’ Strike (a school district in Brooklyn). Memories were sparked of a very controversial place and time. The topic touched on issues that have interested and motivated me my entire life: education and race relations. To add to my curiosity, the strike touched my family. Though I was a child at the time, I knew my father had been involved, he was an early union organizer for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). I remembered that he walked that picket line. I clicked on the link to look at the details.

The program featured three speakers and a moderator. One was a teacher from the junior high school at the center of the controversy who crossed the picket line, the second was a student who was the valedictorian of that junior high school’s graduating class in 1969, and the final presenter was a scholar who wrote a book that took a fresh look at the conflict and its legacy. The moderator was a current resident and activist in that Brooklyn neighborhood who had family that taught in the district at that time. The teacher, Charles Isaacs, was noted as also having written a book (Inside Ocean Hill-Brownsville: A Teacher’s Education 1968-69). Conspicuously absent was anyone representing the union. Though I was a bit concerned that the presentation might be skewed, I wanted to hear what they had to say.

I bought a ticket. I found a parking spot nearby, no mean feat in downtown Brooklyn. I got there early; the room was already filling up.  One might think that events from 50 years ago might be long forgotten, but clearly others were equally interested in revisiting this time and place. There was a palpable energy in the room. The space wasn’t very large, I think the capacity was 200. Every seat was taken, with some folks standing along the perimeter. The audience was very diverse: young, old and in between; white, black, and brown; men and women. I didn’t know a soul.

Before going to the session, I did a little research to remind myself what the issues were that surrounded the strike. I read some New York Times accounts and looked at a summary of the book written by Mr. Isaacs.

The strike was spurred by a decentralization experiment in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district.  In 1967 the New York City Board of Education, with funding from the Ford Foundation, authorized the creation of three experimental school districts; one in Harlem, one on the Lower East Side and one in Brooklyn (Ocean Hill-Brownsville). The idea was to give decision-making power (in hiring, firing, budgeting, curriculum approval, etc.) to the local community, rather than the central bureaucracy.  The hope was that, as a result, the staff in the district would begin to look more like the community around it and that parents would be more invested in their children’s education if they had a say in it. Each of the demonstration districts was poor and student achievement was abysmal.

What happened next is a complicated story and depends on which account of events you read. I can’t do justice to all of the details in this space (whole books have been written about it!). The agreed upon facts are these: A new superintendent, Rody McCoy, who was African-American, was brought into the newly created district, Ocean Hill-Brownsville. A locally elected school board was seated. Changes to curriculum and pedagogical approach were instituted. After a year in charge, McCoy believed that the effort to implement change was being stymied by some administrators and teachers. As a result, during the summer of 1968 a letter was sent to 19 staff members advising them that they were terminated, and they should report to the central Board of Education at 110 Livingston Street in Brooklyn. All 19 were white, many were Jewish (this becomes relevant as events unfold).

The teachers’ union interpreted this personnel action as a threat to their authority and a breach of the contract that they had with the New York City central Board of Education. According to their agreement, termination could only occur after due process, and this action had been taken without the necessary administrative steps. The union, led by its president Al Shanker, protested and called for a strike.

All of this was occurring in the context of heightened racial tension in the country as a whole. Though the civil rights movement had resulted in new laws, poverty, discrimination, police brutality and the perception that the Vietnam War was exacting more pain from African-Americans were still troubling realities. During the summer of 1967, called the ‘long, hot summer’ for a reason, there were multiple riots in urban areas (159 of them). Detroit and Newark experienced some of the worst violence, resulting in 43 and 26 dead in each city respectively. Hundreds of others were injured, and swaths of city blocks were burned. Mixed into this violence was a call for African-Americans to forcefully claim their rights, rather than taking the path of nonviolence charted by Martin Luther King, Jr.

The decentralization of schools in New York City was seen as part of a response to the call for Black Power. The conflict over the termination (which became a subject of dispute because some said it was a reassignment, not a firing) of the teachers/administrators was taking place against this backdrop. It became impossible to disentangle the contractual issues from the racial and power politics of the time. Though I was a child, I was aware of the tension. I was aware of the strain on my father. He supported the union’s position.

I think the most common interpretation of events would suggest that the union ‘won’ and that the decentralization experiment failed. Hearing the panelists, a different picture emerged. Their interpretation emphasized that the 19 teachers/administrators were racists and weren’t actually fired but were to be reassigned; and that children were being harmed in the union’s quest for power. They blamed Al Shanker for stoking racial tensions (alleging that he fueled charges of Black Anti-Semitism) and for letting the strike stretch to 36 days (the longest in American history). They highlighted the successes of the experiment in improved self-esteem among the students and empowerment of parents and community.

While I have no vested interest in Shanker’s legacy, my father did walk that picket line. I was troubled by the allegations because it could implicate my father, a man I admired (and still admire) for his moral compass. I listened to their presentations and wondered what my father would have thought. If only he was still alive, so I could ask him. I would have to do more research to see if I could come to my own conclusions.

Next week: More on the panel discussion and the legacy of Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

Flexible or Adrift?

The room is dark, but I hear Gary rolling out of bed. I open my eyes to see him slowly standing, unplugging his phone, and walking stiffly to the bathroom. “Is it time to get up already?” I ask. I squint at the clock, which reads 6:04 a.m. “Yup, but you don’t have to,” he reminds me. “I know,” I say as I turn over and settle back under the blankets, “it just seems too early. Sorry….” I don’t finish the thought.

Gary will go off to work, I will drift back to sleep. I am lucky. Most mornings I don’t have to be up at a specific time. My schedule is my own, except when it isn’t. I find it to be an odd existence. I retired three and a half years ago and I still don’t have a routine. I have a love/hate relationship with this reality.

My life is made up of:

Home-making – I take care of (almost) all the things that go into supporting Gary and my life together. Maintenance of the house, our two cars, paying the bills, shopping, gift-buying, planning travel, preparing meals, laundry, etc. Full disclosure:  I admit that we have a cleaning person come every other week and we do order food in pretty frequently (but I do cook at least 3 times a week). I take care of our cats. It surprises me how much time this all takes. In fairness to Gary, he takes care of outdoor things, and, importantly, makes the coffee every morning.

Consulting – I facilitate school board workshops for NYSSBA and sometimes I do policy projects for them (which involves reviewing and writing policies for school districts). This work is inconsistent. I can have a number of assignments in a row, particularly in the summer and fall, and then there can be dry periods. It is unpredictable. When I conduct a workshop, it involves several hours of preparation and discussions with the district, and then travel (usually a couple of hours), and the session itself is no less than 3.5 hours. The policy projects are more time consuming, usually taking the equivalent of a week of full time work.

Babysitting – Sometimes I am asked to watch our granddaughter, which is no hardship! I love spending time with that cutie pie, who is now almost 8 months old. Sometimes the request has come at the last minute, other times it is planned well in advance. I want to be flexible so that I can be there when they need me. Occasionally I help out with my cousin’s child who is now three years old.

Writing/Reading/Researching – I try to spend time writing most days, but this is the first thing to get pushed aside when other things get in the way. I participate in three writing groups which each meet once a month. I also spend time doing research on the things I write about in my blog. I’ve spent a lot of time researching Brooklyn in the 1960s and ‘70s, public education and the Holocaust. I can get lost in the rabbit hole of research. I’m also a devoted reader, both for pleasure and in order to develop my writing.

Visiting/overseeing my mother’s health care – My mom now lives in an independent senior community in New Jersey. I don’t visit as often as I’d like (or as often as she would like). Sometimes this involves only making phone calls and reviewing lab results. Other times I accompany her on doctor’s visits. I make it a priority to go to appointments that aren’t strictly routine.

Working out/jogging/biking – I try to maintain some level of physical activity. Three or four days a week, depending on the weather, I go to the Jewish Community Center to use the treadmill or if it isn’t brutally cold or raining/sleeting/snowing, I walk or jog at the nearby SUNY campus or take a ride on my bike.

Other stuff – Occasionally I play tennis or have lunch with a friend. Sometimes there are other family things that need attention. Gary and I aren’t hugely active socially, but we do make plans with friends and family and I make those arrangements. I’ve also been known to go out to protest or march in support of Planned Parenthood or other causes near and dear to my heart.

Looking at this list, it seems simple enough, and not terribly demanding. As long as everyone is healthy, it isn’t stressful. But, it doesn’t lend itself to creating a structure for my day. Some days I love that – the freedom of it, that I don’t have to report to anyone. Other days, though, I feel lost, adrift.  I wonder: is this enough? Am I being productive?

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day. I spent some time reading a speech he gave in 1965 at Oberlin College’s commencement. [I vicariously take pride in crediting Oberlin as the site of the speech because our daughter went there.] It was so inspiring! I also finished John Kerry’s memoir, Every Day is Extra. They lived big lives, momentous lives. I’m not comparing the two, just pointing out that each, in their own way, tried to accomplish so much. They participated in large movements working for change. Not everyone leads such a big life. I wonder, though, if I have done enough. Have I tried hard enough to make a difference?

As I think about it, maybe these are two separate issues. Am I doing enough? vs. Do I need more structure in my life? But they feel related. When I’m feeling lost or stuck, I can’t sort out the source.

How would I go about adding more structure? If I take on more responsibilities, let’s say a commitment to volunteer certain hours each week, then I lose the flexibility I wanted when I retired. I want to be available to help my kids, family or friends when they need it. I want to be a writer, which doesn’t require structure (unless you’re getting paid for it, which I am not, though there is always hope!). Of course, I could create my own structure. But that requires a discipline I don’t seem to have. Argghhh!

As far as the question, am I doing enough? I struggle with that. When I was a child I imagined a bigger life. My dreams, and I’ve written about this before, were to be Barbara Walters (at the time a prominent broadcast journalist) or someone who solves world problems. I was even voted ‘most likely to succeed’ in high school which gave credence to those dreams. Things haven’t played out that way, though, I have more success than I could have hoped for. I’ve been married to the same great guy for over 35 years. I am blessed with healthy, happy children. I have a wonderful extended family and good friends. We have a standard of living that I didn’t think was a possibility. I think my work has contributed positively. But have I done enough? Can I make peace with the size of my life? Anyone else out there think about that? Or, maybe it’s hubris on my part.

I can go round and round on this, so I’ll just stop now. If you have any insights or suggestions, feel free to share! Meanwhile, I’ll keep muddling through.

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One of the places I like to go when I feel adrift – Central Park.

Hard Questions

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.

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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.