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Monthly Archives: September 2020

Israel Story

            As part of my search for alternative sources of entertainment this summer, I went looking for more podcasts. I loved the Duolingo French and Spanish podcasts so much that I ran through them too quickly, and I was hoping to find something like them, both educational and fun to listen to at the same time. I started by searching for more French and Spanish language learning podcasts, but while most of them offered plenty of opportunities for learning, they weren’t quite as entertaining as the Duolingo stories. I also tried a series of podcasts recommended for people who liked the ones I already listened to, without much success, and then I put in every other search term I could think of that might spark my interest. In among the avalanche of new podcasts to try, I found one in Hebrew called Israel Story but I quickly found myself out of my depth. My Hebrew is improving, but it’s not Israeli level yet. It took only a few seconds of squinting to realize that there was an English version of the podcast, with just enough Hebrew in it to make me feel like I was challenging myself, but not so much that my brain would explode. I found that I could listen in on conversations in Hebrew, while focusing on the almost simultaneous English translations, and meet all kinds of people I would never hear about on the news.

“Any dog stories?”

            I started by listening to the present day episodes, set during the early weeks of the Covid shutdown in Israel. The podcast made a point of interviewing members of the Ultra-orthodox community to try to understand why they didn’t seem to take Covid seriously at first, and to hear about how they had been struggling since then, both from backlash and because they often live in very crowded, multigenerational apartments, without the ability to use Zoom on the Sabbath to join communal prayer services. I found their stories compelling, and irritating, and complicated, and heart breaking. And I was hooked. So I went back to the beginning of the show, four or five seasons earlier, and I’ve been binging ever since. I didn’t know how much I’d been missing that ground level point of view until I started hearing stories that could fill in the empty spaces.

            The original model for Israel Story, unabashedly, was Ira Glass’s This American Life on NPR, and the host of Israel Story, Mishy Harmon, even had a clip of Ira Glass on the first English episode of the show, giving his, sort of, blessing. The Point of view of the podcast is liberal, both religiously and politically, but it has respect for people across the spectrum. They didn’t shy away from telling the story of an Israeli Jew, originally from the Ukraine, in love with a Palestinian from the territories, even following the couple to a tent in the desert, because there was nowhere else where they could live safely together. But the show also takes the time to meet Orthodox and Ultra-orthodox Jews and explore their lives in a way that respects their beliefs and their individual lives. And there’s no attempt to offer answers, or to simplify moral quandaries, even when the host himself is desperate for some hope. He thought that one story they were following would turn out to be a beautiful, generous, multicultural story, but he learned that he had to accept people for who they are, even when it means you won’t get the story you were hoping for. If you follow the real story, you’ll learn instead the truth of someone’s real life and feel richer for it.

“No, I won’t.”

Of course, the host and his fellow producers are Jewish and Israeli, so their choices about which stories to tell, and how to tell them, are inevitably biased towards their own experiences, beliefs, and hopes. Any attempts to suggest otherwise would be silly.

            My long term hope is that once I catch up on all of the English episodes, I’ll be able to go back and try the Hebrew version again. Maybe when I’m more familiar with the stories, I’ll have a better chance of understanding the Hebrew narration. But in the meantime, I feel like my view of Israel is growing in complexity. I’ve listened to serious and not so serious stories of Israeli lives: learning about silly songs sung at the Eurovision competition, and Ultra-orthodox Jews living covertly secular lives, and a random campaign for one man to get his picture on the wall of a tiny Humus restaurant in Jerusalem.

            Maybe, someday, when I can finally get to Israel, I will feel like I’ve been there before; like I’ve been in that restaurant, or heard that voice, or met that tour guide telling stories on the streets of Jerusalem. People say that the best way to travel is to meet the locals, so maybe, for now, I can get the best part of travelling to Israel without having to leave my apartment. That works for me, and it works for Cricket and Ellie too.

I want to wish everyone a Happy and Sweet New Year, Jewish or Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, human or canine or feline or bird. May we all be healthy and safe and have reasons to celebrate our good fortune in the year to come!

“Shana Tova!!!!!!!!”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

I Miss Going to the Library

            I used to go to the library at least once a week, to browse the videos, or check out new books, or pick up a few crossword puzzles from the research librarian’s desk. There was usually a book or two that had to go back to the library, or a book someone told me I had to read, and, once there, I could always find something on the recommended-book cart, or in the seasonal display where they set out books on different themes, like biographies of athletes for the Olympics, or scary stories for Halloween, or beach reads for the summer, or political thrillers for election day.

            But I haven’t been to the library since the world shut down in March. Sometime early in the summer, I think, my local library began to allow pick up and drop off of books: you could order a book online and they’d call when it was ready and schedule a time for you to pick it up. But I haven’t done that. At first I didn’t need any books, because I still had a pile of paperbacks that I had, coincidentally, ordered right before the shutdown (there was a mysteries series I was binging and I couldn’t find the earliest books in our local library system). But when those books ran out, I still didn’t think of browsing for library books online.

            I can’t seem to browse for fiction online. Non-fiction is easier, because I either know which author I want to read, or I’m looking for research books on a specific topic and my expectations for great art or entertainment are limited, especially because I read non-fiction a few pages at a time rather than in a binge, the way I tend to read fiction.

“Is fiction another word for chicken?”

            The other reason I didn’t go looking for books at the library is because I’ve been re-reading a lot of the books on my shelves for a while now, in an attempt to see which ones I don’t really need anymore, so that I can make room for new books. A project I thought would take a few months has turned into years, because to do the project justice, of course, I’ve had to re-read each book from beginning to end before deciding to let it go.

            Most of the fiction in my life lately comes in the form of movies and television, and that’s been fine, but at some point, I really will need my local library to open back up. I’ll need to wander past the shelves of books and let a cover catch my eye, or trigger my memory of an author I read years ago and lost track of. I’ll need to see a pile of books waiting to be shelved and remember a book I’ve long wanted to read and never got around to. I’ll need to see cover art to give me a hint about what kind of book the author, or her publisher, thinks she’s written. Is it a cozy mystery? An intellectual tome? A romance? A fantasy? Or maybe I’ll just be in a blue mood, and any book with a blue cover will suddenly glow at me and call out for my attention (I’ve found some really good surprises that way over the years, and a lot of crap too. It’s not a perfect system).

“Can I eat your book now?”

            There’s something to be said for having a book with a time limit. A two-week book has to be read right away, even if you have a lot of work to do, which gives the reading more urgency and importance. A pile of three- or four-week books feels like a luxury at first, but then starts to cause anxiety and turns into an emergency by the end of the second week of leisurely meandering through the first book on the pile.

            I wonder, now that I think of it, if it’s only my local library that’s still closed. Maybe in other parts of the country, or other parts of Long Island, they left their libraries open the whole time, or opened them sooner than in my town. I think bookstores must have reopened by now, but I rarely go, because a new hard-cover book is way too expensive for me, unless I’m absolutely sure I will love it.

            Luckily, the dogs haven’t been lacking for “reading” material. They get their stories by sniffing the grass in the backyard, and that local library never closed, even in the early days of the Covid shutdown when people were afraid to go outside. The girls have never had to wear a mask that could block their ability to sniff, and they’ve never had to avoid familiar places in order to practice social distancing. Their lives have been pretty idyllic, actually. The only activity that’s been delayed, for them, is a yearly visit to the vet.

“When I say run, we run!”

            It’s probably a good thing for me that the library is still closed, though. The temptation to wander, and touch all of the books, would be too strong. I would forget about Covid and meander too close to someone without a mask, or, even more dangerous, I’d find a pile of books and fall into a wormhole and forget to come back out in time to teach my students, or walk the dogs. And I know two dogs who just wouldn’t stand for that. They don’t understand why I can’t sniff the grass for stories the way they do, and I have to say, it’s one of the many disappointments of being born human.

“Being a dog IS better, Mommy.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Before and After #MeToo

            I’ve been thinking about the #MeToo movement a lot, especially in the shadow of the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement, which has led to both protests and intensive discussions over the past months. The parallels in how discrimination functions are so clear, no matter which group is being put down. The literature on microaggressions and systemic racism gives language to what women face too, especially women who have been sexually abused by men and then have to function in a world that is inherently prejudiced against women’s voices. It is incomplete to talk about sexism in the workplace without acknowledging the deeper wounds many women carry with them into adulthood, because they were born female.

Ellie says, “Me too.”

Violence against women and children is part and parcel with a culture that keeps women from advancement in the workplace, and allows the workplace to be hostile to women in a sexual way, as well as in the form of gender discrimination. We talk as if women experience sexism for the first time as adults, in the work place, as if sexism hasn’t been impacting us throughout our development, creating their expectations and self-perceptions and opportunities. Even though we are more aware of the prejudices women face today, we are barely scratching the surface.

            I grew up in the eighties, when women were supposed to be able to accomplish anything men could, while still being held to many of the older expectations of womanhood. My lived experience as a child wasn’t just about my abusive home life, or my religious Jewish education, but was also deeply impacted by the fact that I watched A Lot of television, where it was clear that women could be anything, yes, as long as they were beautiful or skinny or sexy (or all three!) and willing to work at the pleasure of a man.

There was a show called Three’s Company in syndication when I came home from school each day. It was a sex farce (no, really, that’s what they called it), and the local New York station aired it at Five o’clock on weekdays. It was a sitcom about a man who had to pretend to be gay in order to live with two women, because, you know, they might both be having sex with him all the time if he were straight. The innuendo and misunderstandings centered on the man supposedly being gay and also on one of the women’s “blonde moments.” The women were ALWAYS being groped and demeaned, and while I remember that the man was an aspiring chef, I have no memory of what the girls did for a living.

I didn’t feel like I could turn off the television, because when the TV was off I felt the fear and loneliness of my real life too vividly. I kept it on while I did my homework, or played with my dog, or even read through piles of library books. TV was my constant companion, but it was also my teacher. TV was my way of finding out about the world and learning how I was supposed to think and act in order to fit in.

“Who needs to fit in?!”

Out of desperation, I often watched a show called The Honeymooners at eleven o’clock at night, while I waited for Johnny Carson’s monologue to start. I cringed at all of the screaming from Jackie Gleason who played Ralph Kramden, a New York City bus driver living with his long suffering wife in a gritty Brooklyn apartment building. He was always getting into trouble and blaming other people for his problems, especially his wife. He would scream at her, “One of these days, POW!!! Right in the kisser!” He didn’t actually hit her, and he would eventually apologize, saying, “Baby you’re the greatest,” and give her a kiss and a hug. The excuse for his behavior seemed to be that they were working class and struggling to get by. A comment I read online said that there had been arguments about whether or not the show depicted domestic violence, since the threats were always “comical,” and he never followed up. But even back then, for me, the show was very clearly about man’s right to threaten and blame and demean women and call it funny. I’d been trained for The Honeymooners by watching my father’s behavior, which was very similar. He always praised himself for not actually hitting us. I’d actually watched The Flintstones first (basically an animated version of the Honeymooners, set in the Stone Age, appropriately enough), and found that disturbing too.

My other option at eleven o’clock, when The Honeymooners got to be too much, was MASH, a dark comedy about the Korean War, made during the Vietnam and cold war era. It was lauded for its nuance and political commentary, and when I watched it in syndication in the eighties it was only a few years out of date, but for me, MASH was just another show obsessed with women as sex objects and men as the drivers of all action, thought, humor, and pathos.

            I took some, brief, solace in shows like The Facts of life, which, especially early on, showcased a wide range of girls with different body types and personalities and interests. But it was a rarity. Most shows starred men, or boys, and presented women as sex objects, or money hungry, or both.

            Star Wars, one of my mainstays, was also filled with sexism. Princess Leia, who should have been powerful and in charge, always had to be dressed in skimpy clothes. The whole first act of Return of the Jedi was Princess Leia in a push up bra, locked in chains as Jabba the Hut’s sex slave. It didn’t escape me that, of the twins, only the male had the powers of the force.

            And then there was the music, especially the videos on MTV, where Heavy Metal and Hard Rock and Rap videos all featured scantily clad women draped suggestively over cars, for some reason. Madonna was a huge star back then too, in large part because she was willing to exploit her own sexuality instead of leaving it to the men. Neither of those options were going to work for me.

            Things started to change on TV when I was a teenager, I think. Oprah Winfrey revamped her talk show and started to discuss issues like sexual abuse more openly. And China Beach showed that the skinny, sexy, tipsy nurses on shows like MASH had a lot more going on behind the scenes, even if the men refused to see it.

            But change was slow, and inconsistent, and often, like Madonna, moved from the exploitation of women by men to the exploitation of women by women, to show that women could be powerful too. Even now, we still accept an extraordinary amount of misogyny as normal in our movies and on TV, in our books and certainly in our politicians. And we still seem to accept the trope that men can’t be expected to control their desires, but girls as young as ten (no, younger) are held responsible for choosing to wear outfits that men consider provocative, and are assumed to know exactly what impact they are having on men. But girls and women are also judged for being too plain or prudish in the way they dress. A sixteen year old girl who dresses in baggy clothes, or skips makeup, is clearly just not trying to be successful, and she should be ignored, or hated (just take a look at the backlash against Billie Eilish), whereas a sixteen year old boy can wear whatever he had on for soccer practice and become a superstar.

            The backlash against Billie Eilish, by the way, for dressing in baggy clothes, is constant and virulent, as if she’s a thing rather than a person, because she won’t let us judge her breast size. The fact that girls generally hide under so many layers when they have been sexually assaulted barely gets discussed in favor of how freakin’ weird that girl is; so moody.

“I’m moody too. You wanna make something of it?”

Even this past year, post #MeToo, with half a dozen pre-eminently qualified, charming, accomplished, intelligent, and hard working women running in the presidential race, we still ended up with two old white men, in the DEMOCRATIC primary. (And yes, a woman of color has been chosen as Joe Biden’s running mate, but that’s one man’s choice, not the choice of our whole society.)

            And now, during the pandemic, we’re experiencing what media figures are calling a Shecession, because it’s most often women who have had to quit their jobs, or reduce their hours, to take care of the kids. And since women are more likely to work in hospitality and education, where so many of the jobs have been lost due to Covid 19, more women are losing their jobs than men and a decade of employment gains made by women has been eroded. On top of that, the jobs were low paying to begin with, so those women didn’t have the benefit of savings to make it through the recession safely until their jobs can return, if they ever return.

            I’m tired of being told that we solved sexism with #MeToo, just like we solved racism back in 1965, and we should just get over it. The assumption behind both statements is that if women or people of color are still achieving less, or earning less, it must be because they are as inferior as we thought they were, and not because there is still something wrong with the system.

            I’m not sure #MeToo changed much, actually, other than a few men with egregiously long resumes of abusive behavior being fired from their high profile jobs. As a society, we’re not even reading long lists of books exploring systemic prejudice against women, or discussing what it means to try to pull yourself up by bootstraps that don’t exist, because they’ve been ripped off by force.        

            One of the more startling realities of the Black Lives Matter movement is that even though most of the originators of the movement were women, the movement overall barely addresses women’s issues. Women were also at the heart of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, and then too the issues specific to black women were barely discussed.

            I don’t have a solution to this. And watching the backlash against Black Lives Matter protests, including the killing of protesters in the streets, is demoralizing. I’m tired of the ways manipulation of reality has continued, and worsened, in our current environment. I’m tired of all of the ways being female makes me less likely to be believed or even heard, than the average white man. Maybe having Kamala Harris on the big stage will have an impact on our society’s willingness to listen to and respect women. I hope so. Get your ballots in early if you can.

“I’m ready!”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?