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Watching the U.S. and the Holocaust, or, Thank You, Ken Burns


            Watching the Ken Burns documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust, the week before Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) was hard. The three night, six-hour documentary was advertised as being about America’s reaction to the treatment of Jews in Germany leading up to and during the Holocaust, and the ways our own prejudices and the resulting immigration restrictions we set up at the time, kept the United States from being a haven for those escaping Hitler. I felt myself shaking with rage and pain and frustration, and I started to yell at the TV (similar to the way I felt when Trump took that first trip down the escalator onto the world stage). But however difficult it was for me to sit with the pain and horror of the documentary, it was even more validating. The timeline of the film, and the clarity it brought to the questions of when people in the United States knew what was happening op the Jews in Germany, and how they chose to respond to that information, was edifying; some failed to act because of their ingrained anti-Semitism, but others were afraid that if they took action to help the Jews of Europe it would set off even more (!!!!!) antisemitism around the world, and especially at home. It’s painful, but important, to remember how prevalent anti-Semitism was at the time.

            Antisemitism has come racing back in the last decade, but it’s still not seen as much of a problem by the wider world, maybe because Jews are perceived as powerful and white and part of the majority, rather than as a very small minority with an outsized place in history. Jews have been blamed for things like the black plague, failed governments, and poverty, whenever a convenient scapegoat has been needed. Maybe the Jews are easy to blame because we are a small enough group that people think we can be easily removed, like a tumor, but even after expelling the Jews, converting the Jews, or killing the Jews, it has always become clear, again and again, that the Jews weren’t the problem in the first place.

            I felt strongly that I needed to watch this documentary as it aired, rather than recording it and watching it later, because I wanted to feel like I was watching it with other people. I needed that feeling of support. So when the second night of the documentary was postponed in favor of a recap of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, for anyone who may have missed more than a week’s coverage of every detail leading up to and through the funeral on multiple channels, I felt minimized and pushed aside. I definitely took it personally.

“Me too.”

            There are around 7.6 million Jews in the United States today (according to Google), less than there were in Europe before World War Two, and we are only about 2.4 percent of the U.S. population, and yet, when the White Supremacists marched in Charlottesville they shouted “Jews will not replace us,” as if we are a threat to their place in the world.

            So when PBS aired the second episode, a day later than expected, I sat down in front of the television with my mom and crossed my fingers, hoping a crowd would be watching with us and that something would come of it.

“We’re watching with you, Mommy.”

            There were times when the documentary seemed to equivocate, trying very hard to soften its criticism of America, and especially of president Roosevelt. And there wasn’t much reference to the way the British actively kept Jewish refugees out of Palestine, leading up to and during the Holocaust, despite knowing full well that they were sending boats full of refugees back to Germany to die. But I appreciated the way the filmmakers bookended the documentary with the Anne Frank story, which is so familiar to the American audience, and then delved deeper into her real life than we usually see in discussions of her edited diary. Her former classmate, who went through very similar circumstances as Anne but survived the Holocaust, talked about the famous line in the diary where Anne says that she still believes people are essentially good, but she pointed out that it was written before the Franks were captured by the Gestapo, and before Anne was taken to Auschwitz, and before she and her mother and her sister died there. The optimism of that line has captured American hearts for generations but it has always bothered me, because many people are NOT essentially good, and Anne Frank’s life and death are proof of that. But the sugar coating of her story is very American, where we don’t just need a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down, but a cup, or five.

“I love sweet things!”

            The thing the documentary did best was to address the tendency of majorities to blame their problems on powerless minorities, and it made a clear connection between how the United States dealt with African Americans and Native Americans, and how the Nazis treated the Jews. Hitler is so often portrayed as an outlier in his hatred for Jews, and the disabled, and homosexuals, and the Romany, and on and on and on, but he was following models he’d seen in other countries, including ours, and the fact that most countries in the world refused to take in refugees from Hitler, allowing them no safe place to escape to, was a secondary cause of so many deaths.

            In the film, Freda Kirchway, who wrote for the Nation magazine in 1943, was quoted as saying, “We had it in our power to rescue this doomed people and we did not lift a hand to do it, or perhaps it would be fairer to say that we lifted one cautious hand encased in a tight-fitting glove of quotas and visas and affidavits, and a thick layer of prejudice.”

Even after Americans knew what had happened to the Jews in the Holocaust, and saw the concentration camps and their survivors, only 5% of Americans were willing to let in more Jews.

            I don’t know why this documentary aired in September, instead of around Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day, in the spring), but a week later, a far right leader, with direct connections to Mussolini’s fascist party, won the election in Italy, so it turned out to be very timely after all.

            There are people who, endlessly, deny that the Holocaust happened, despite all of the evidence. Right now, we’re watching the Ukrainians fight a war and at the same time have to document the atrocities done to them in granular detail, because they know they will need this evidence to prove what really happened, and even then, the people who don’t want to know will continue to deny it; believing what their minds can tolerate instead of what is demonstrably true.

            This phenomenon of disbelief haunts us. Most Jews had the same trouble believing that such a thing could happen, because no one wants to believe things that make them feel uncomfortable, or frightened, or guilty, or any of the other emotions we hate to sit with. Humans are great at forgetting or minimizing or compartmentalizing the knowledge we can’t deal with.

            People can’t take in a number like six million people killed. And when they can, they often choose to believe that the Jews were to blame for their own killings; that they were complicit, or weak, or evil, and that’s why they were targeted and killed in such large numbers. There were something like nine million Jews in Europe before World War Two, and six million of them were killed. Most of the rest left Europe, to escape Hitler, or to escape their neighbors who didn’t want them around even after the war.

            It’s a painful thing to look at all of that hatred and horror, but it’s necessary, and I’m grateful to Ken Burns and his colleagues for making an attempt to bring this history back to the forefront, and to remind America of the dangers we face when we refuse to believe the evidence in front of us. And in the aftermath of watching the documentary, I hoped to hear that everyone in the world, or at least in America, had been watching with me, but I only saw a few responses, and those mostly from within the Jewish community. I hope that when the documentary airs again, and again, more people will choose to see it. But even with the lack of public response, what I still feel most deeply is gratitude, to Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, Sarah Botstein and the rest of their team, and to all of the people who participated in the documentary, and to the people who chose to air it.

Thank you for being willing to see what really happened. Thank you for making it feel real instead of like it’s a bad dream or an exaggeration or so long in the past as to be irrelevant. Thank you for seeing the parallels in the world today. Thank you for saying that these horrifying things have to be looked at and acknowledged, over and over again, to combat the natural human desire to forget.

To Stream the U.S. and the Holocaust from PBS –

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?

Be a Mensch

            This past week in the United States has been stressful, for everyone, and because my synagogue school students are part of that everyone, I wanted to focus on teaching a lesson that would reassure them, somewhat, that there are areas of their lives where they really do have some control. And, because I love teaching Yiddish words, the lesson for this week was: what does it mean to be a mensch?

Mensch is a Yiddish word, from German, meaning “human being,” or a person of integrity and honor. The opposite of a mensch is an unmensch, a person treating others cruelly and without compassion, as opposed to the word ubermensch (Nietzsche alert) which is usually translated as “the superman,” someone who is superior to other humans. The word Mensch has gathered a lot of associations in American culture (bearded, male, Jewish) but it really means a person who is striving to be good every day, and doing what is right, even when it’s hard. We already have Yiddish words for the most righteous among us (a Tzaddik), or the smartest (a Chacham or a Maven) or the most powerful (a Macher). But being a mensch isn’t about being the best or the most, it’s about being human.

“I’ll take Maven and Macher.”

            There’s something wonderful about a compliment that can be given to everyone, instead of just to an elite few. Someone with a physical or intellectual disability has just as good a chance of being a mensch as someone who is born privileged in every way, because it’s not about your talents or your circumstances or your luck, it’s about how you choose to navigate the world you happen to live in. Oh, and mensch is not a gendered word, and it’s not limited to Jewish people, so it really can apply to anyone.

“Can I be a Mensch?

            We are so often looking for ways to be better than others, or to be the best, or to earn our place, and it’s exhausting, but the opportunity to be a mensch is always there, and there’s always something you can do that will fit you and your skills and interests.

            You can still have your foibles and be a mensch. You can fail a test, or lose your job, or struggle with substance abuse, or struggle to finish a Sunday crossword puzzle and still be a mensch. What you can’t do, is intentionally cause harm to other people. You can’t be a liar, or a bully, or be arrogant, or prejudiced and still be a mensch.

“I always tell the truth, whether you like it or not.”

            I’m a big fan of menschlichkeit, or mensch-iness. It’s like a pass fail course, where as long as you do the work, you’re golden. And we need things like that in a world that is so driven by competition and achievement and striving to be in the top one percent of everything.

            Being a mensch is about valuing other human beings for themselves, instead of for what they can do for you. And this, more than anything, is what I want to encourage in my students. Yes, I will be thrilled for them when they learn to write Hebrew words, or lead the prayers at their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I will cheer them on when they swim or dance or act in a school play, and I will celebrate with them when they get into the college of their dreams, or find a cure for a rare disease, or create calorie-free chocolate frosting that tastes like the real thing (!). But all of that is secondary to how proud I am of them, right now, when they notice that a fellow student is struggling and needs help, or when they realize that they’ve hurt someone’s feelings and they are willing to take the risk of offering an apology that may not be accepted. Each time they re-learn the lesson that it’s more important to be good than to be great, I puff up with happiness, because that’s what’s going to get them through their lives; not being the best at anything, but being a mensch through everything.

            It can be hard, when we are thinking in such enormous terms as national politics and life and death, to remember that our real lives, and our real impact, comes locally – in our towns, communities, schools, and families.

            May we all make it through this election, and the pandemic, with our appreciation for mensch-iness intact.

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?

The Trump Effect

I haven’t been writing about politics much in here, for a while, partly because I know that I have bloggy friends with very different views from mine and I don’t want to make them feel unwelcome, and partly because I need a place to escape from politics. But I realized recently that I’ve been leaving out a big part of why I feel the way I feel every day. I tell you about school, and religion, and dogs, and grief, all of which are huge parts of my life, but I also watch the news every day, and I am deeply affected by what I see and hear there.

grumpy cricket

“I never watch the news.”

My brother once said to me that, of everyone he knows, I am the least tolerant of liars, as if I have a block against it (which makes the whole writing novels thing pretty hysterical!). So watching a president who is this comfortable with lying really gets to me. The fact is, my father was a liar. He lied so well that he wasn’t sure, eventually, what was true and what was false. He lied to me about me. He used the “lie three times and they’ll believe the lie” rule. He made it so that I could tell the truth a hundred times, and no one would believe me, because his lie sounded better.

Having a president who triggers so many memories of my childhood has been difficult for me, separate from all of the actual, real world consequences of having this man as the president of my country. I grew up living in a reality war, where what I saw in front of me was regularly denied, muted, minimized, or altered completely. It’s hard to hold on to the truth when you feel like you’re the only one seeing it and believing it.


I know that there are good people who think that this president is worth the trouble, maybe because they see his overall goals as worth the methods he uses to reach them, or because they feel that he is laying bare the underbelly of politics, and showing us the real calculations involved, or maybe it’s all about the Supreme Court. I don’t know.

I appreciate the people on TV who try to make it all more bearable and understandable, explaining each time the norms, that I assumed were laws, are being trampled. But they have their limits too. I get very frustrated when people I usually like think it’s funny to laugh at Eric Trump, and his presumed status as the unloved son. If true, it’s nothing to laugh at, and if it’s not true, it’s cruel to suggest such a thing. Criticize him for what he says and does, not for something that is out of his control. The worst thing, recently, was hidden by the hullabaloo around Sam Bee using the C word about Ivanka Trump. When I watched her show, the night before, I was very angry because she said that Ivanka should dress up in her sexiest outfit, and go to her father, to convince him to change his policies. There have been many signs that Ivanka’s father has sexualized his relationship with her: in modeling photos, in interviews, and in how he touches her in public. I don’t know if there’s more to it than that, but all of that is what HE has done to HER. Implying that she is complicit in his abuse of her, and should actively take advantage of it, is cruel, and, fundamentally, unnecessary. Criticize Ivanka for her own moral lapses, and for excusing so much of her father’s behavior in public venues, but don’t use her possible status as a child sexual abuse victim against her. That’s the line that Sam Bee crossed in my mind. I don’t care about an epithet.

Given all of that, I still watch Sam Bee, and John Oliver, and Trevor Noah, and Steven Colbert. I watch Rachel Maddow regularly, because she lets me breathe for a few minutes every night. She’s a storyteller and a historian, and she’s able to put things in context for me in a way that headlines and screaming panels of experts generally can’t do. Though I wish she would stop telling me to “hold that thought” before commercial breaks, because usually it’s a thought I really don’t want to hold onto.

And then I watch Steven Colbert, and he lets me know that I’m not the only one who sees what I’m seeing and knows what I know, and he goes a step further and makes fun of it, making it just a little bit less overwhelming. I live for those moments. I could have used a Steven Colbert narrating my childhood, summarizing the crazy of each day with sympathy and understanding. It wouldn’t have changed the reality, but it could have made it more bearable.

butterfly front feet on floor copy

Company always makes things more bearable.

I believe that there is great power in holding people responsible for their actions, and making the truth visible, so that we can reckon with it. And humor is a great tool for pointing these truths out, and poking holes in the nonsense, and giving people a release valve for all of the anger and fear and stress that has been created. But, please, make fun of people for the things they do, and the things they can control, or choose not to control; don’t make fun of them for things they can’t change. And really, Trump provides plenty of material to choose from.

Cricket, thank god, has no idea what the people on the TV are saying. As long as she has her safe home and good food, she’s pretty sure everything’s going to be okay. I try hard to believe her.


“If you hold a stick in your mouth it makes a smile, Mommy. You should try it.”

Hillary is Hermione


Sometime over the past few weeks, after the twentieth or twenty-first media expert complained about how careful and studied Hillary Clinton is, how she plans and researches everything, and she’s so boring compared to Trump’s constant impulsiveness, I started to think that Hillary is Hermione, from the Harry Potter books, all grown up.

I was a Hermione as a kid: the smartest girl in the class, asking for extra homework, and hated for it. We have a lot of nasty, derogatory terms for kids who study a lot: grind, swot, egghead, drudge, etc. My classmates wanted less homework and more recess. I found recess, and the freedom to make endless social mistakes, unbearable. Even J.K. Rowling, clearly a Hermione herself, did not believe the world was ready for a smart girl as a protagonist. She guessed, and she was right, that people would prefer to believe that Harry, a boy, and an average student who never tried very hard, was the ultimate hero.

Even when Bill Clinton told their love story, on Tuesday night at the Democratic National Convention, he focused on Hillary’s oversized glasses and too-big hair, her intelligence and her off putting attitude, instead of her beauty. He was the cool kid, and she was the swot. He didn’t want to work any harder than he had to, and she spent summers volunteering to help those less fortunate. He was more Ron Weasley than Harry Potter, the way he tells it, just without the red hair.

On Monday night, on The Late Show, Steven Colbert finally trotted out a cartoon version of Hillary Clinton to match the cartoon Trump he’s had on staff for months. And his team’s guiding principle in how to create that character seemed to be to assume that she was on the autism spectrum. They may have meant to say that she was two-faced and out of touch, but they managed to portray her as unable to read other people’s emotions, and robotic in her portrayal of her own emotions. It’s an interesting idea. Hillary clearly has had issues fitting in with her peers. She never quite gets the joke. She tries very hard to get social things right and always gets something wrong.

Bill Clinton could be forgiven for having affairs, but Hillary could not be forgiven for having thick ankles, or “cankles.” And then when she wore pants suits to cover those offending ankles, she was criticized for her outfits. She could never find the right hair-do to avoid criticism, or the right clothes, or the right words. And people wonder why she is so private. No, they call it secretive, not private. A man could be private and reserved, but Hillary is secretive and suspicious. A man who thinks he’s qualified to be president is called ambitious and confident. Hillary, for the sin of thinking that she can be a good president, is considered power hungry and out for herself.

Bill Clinton is Teflon. He has had real, proven, character issues and yet people still love him and believe in him. And yet all of his flaws and mistakes stick to Hillary like she’s fly paper. Instead of believing that Hillary loves her husband despite his flaws, people believe that she married him for political gain, and remains married to him for political gain, despite the fact that she would have actually gotten a lot more public praise for divorcing him instead of sticking with him through the Lewinsky scandal. And by the way, why do we call it the Monica Lewinsky scandal and not the Bill Clinton’s penis scandal?

My sense is that, with her awkward social skills, someone like Bill Clinton offers a relief. He does the reaching out. He teaches her how to fit in better; he helps her to relax. No wonder she chose Tim Kaine as a running mate – he does the exact same thing.         But if I had any doubts about Hillary Clinton’s heart, watching Chelsea Clinton’s speech on Thursday night at the Democratic National Convention squashed them. Chelsea loves her Mom, and she is, clearly, deeply loved by her mother.

The question is, can we as a country tolerate a president who is smarter than she is cool? Can we tolerate having a president who has to work at being socially confident? Because there’s no question that she will work her ass off to get things done, and that she has the brain power to do the job. But she’s not Obama, with his soaring rhetoric and self-confidence, and she’s not folksy like Bill or like George W. Bush. Hillary is more like the female version of George H.W. Bush: very serious, studied, hardworking and bright, stiff and careful.

Cricket and Butterfly have not been thrilled with all of the television coverage of the conventions, if only because it keeps them up too late at night. Though, Cricket seemed to be intrigued by Barack Obama’s speech on Wednesday night. She was certain she heard him say “go,” or “out,” or “pee.” She can pick these sounds out of any speech, or just imagine them. But he was talking during prime pee trip time, so that could explain her confusion. Butterfly slept through all of it. She has no interest in speeches or elections or conflict, unless the stress leads me into the kitchen for snacks, and then she’s wide awake and eager to participate. We all have our priorities.


“Did he say ‘pee’?”


Butterfly didn’t hear a thing.


Until there were snacks.

By the way, Butterfly, if she had a chance would be a loyal Hufflepuff, through and through, and Cricket would feel comfortable in Ravenclaw, because she’s very bright, but not especially brave. I’d like to believe that I could be in Gryffindor, like Hermione, and like Hillary, being brave even when it’s the hardest thing to do.

I’m working on it.


Loyal Butterfly likes to keep Platypus company when he’s on edge.


“I do have claws, Mommy. You will see them very soon.”

The Sweet Relief of Jon Stewart


This has been a rough year for me. Just when Donald Trump took over my television set last summer, Jon Stewart left The Daily Show for parts unknown (or to help his wife rescue animals on their family farm, whatever). I’ve tried to take comfort in Samantha Bee (Full Frontal), Larry Wilmore (The Nightly Show), and Trevor Noah (The Daily Show). I’ve come the closest to finding sustenance with the one-two punch of Rachel Maddow’s comprehensive historical take on the news on MSNBC, and Steven Colbert’s giddy musical review of the news on The Late Show. But no one filled that Jon Stewart void.


Butterfly sought comfort from Duckie.


Cricket went for the food.

I’ve watched this year as the Republicans moved from disbelief, to disgust, to acceptance, to an embrace of the post-factual Trumpian world view that we witnessed at the Republican National Convention this past week. Jon Stewart showed up Monday night on The Late Show, as promised, but only to do spit takes and reintroduce Colbert’s alter ego from The Colbert Report. It was not enough.

I watched this week as the media refused to blame Melania Trump for plagiarizing Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech, as if she is a child. But, she speaks, what, five languages, became successful on her own long before meeting Trump, and is, in fact, a forty-six year old adult woman. If Michelle Obama had been caught plagiarizing, would her speechwriter have been blamed? Or would we assume that she is an intelligent human being who can tell the difference between her own words and someone else’s? I wonder if the media think that Melania is a moron because she was a professional model, or because she’s a non-native English speaker, or if it’s because she chose to marry Donald Trump, and they assume that any truly intelligent woman would know better.

Then I watched the media fawn over Trump’s odd waxwork children, none of whom seem to be able to breathe outside of Trump’s sphere. All three of the older children work for their father, and Tiffany seems to be on her way into the organization too, now that she has been indoctrinated and proven her loyalty. How many families do you know where all of the children go into the family business, and no one goes off in another direction? Is it not allowed in this family?

But I almost lost my mind when, after Ivanka gave a lovely speech on Thursday night, seemingly advocating for Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’ policies and pretending that her father is just a lovely man, Trump came out and patted her butt with both hands. That just broke me.

People have been joking about his inappropriately sexual relationship with Ivanka for a long time, ever since some disturbing pictures surfaced of her as a very young model sitting in seductive poses on her father’s lap. Trevor Noah on The Daily Show, has been making jokes all year about Trump wanting to have sex with Ivanka. There are interview clips where he talks about her sexy body, and how he would date her if she weren’t his daughter. Ivanka sits there awkwardly in these interviews, as if she isn’t taking it seriously and is just embarrassed by the silly things her father says. I took her lead and didn’t take it very seriously, either. I thought the jokes were in bad taste, actually, and that the things Trump said were just more evidence of his “word salad” problem. But when, on National television, in front of the world, in response to the air kisses she gave him from what looked like a foot away, he grabbed her ass, it all came together. This is an incest family.

In her speech, Ivanka presented her idealized father – who bears very little similarity to her actual father – and she made it clear that she advocates political beliefs that are not in concert with the Republican Party. Either she is delusional about who her father is (which would be a sign of a deeply dissociative state, common among incest survivors), and/or, she was giving a public, lady-like fuck you to that man.

People have talked about how Trump is a dictator and a narcissist and a sociopath, but all week the media have been saying that he can’t be such a bad guy with such wonderful children. Ivanka is his “closest ally and confidant,” and she is the “princess,” (according to one of her brothers), and she is going to be the “real first lady.” But Trump reminded her, in front of everyone, that he can do whatever he wants to her and no one will stop him. He owns her.

How is this man being lauded and supported by a political party that supposedly believes in Christian values? I can’t imagine what kind of moral convolutions Paul Ryan (Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives) must be going through to make this seem okay.

I did not watch the seventy-five minute speech Donald Trump went on to give at the Republican convention that night. I took the dogs out for as long a walk as possible, checked Facebook and Twitter, and then twiddled my thumbs waiting for the after shows to offer some perspective. Alex Wagner, a guest on The Daily Show, commented on the “inappropriate touching.” Larry Wilmore talked about his discomfort in finding that, for one strange moment, he found himself, eek, agreeing with Ted Cruz (“Vote your conscience.”). And then, finally, Steven Colbert came on, live, after Midnight. He looked like he’d slept in his iridescent blue suit, but he was still awake and giddy and dancing, which gave me some energy and some hope.


“Did Donald Trump pee here?”

And then, Jon Stewart popped up from under the desk, and gave me the rant I’d been waiting a year for. There’s something about his mix of outrage and earnestness and humor that digs deep into my sternum and makes room for me to breathe again. I have missed him more than I ever thought possible. I have needed his no-bullshit voice all year long and it was such a relief to breathe deeply again. But it’s not enough. It was over too soon.

I know that animal rescue is important, and I understand that Jon Stewart’s kids need his attention, and that the daily grind of the show was getting to be too much for him. But I need rescuing too, Jon. Please, come back soon!


Cricket & Butterfly waiting for Mommy

Cricket and Butterfly are waiting.

Color War

When I went to sleepaway camp as a kid (for five summers, eight weeks at a time) the worst thing that I had to endure was color war. Each bunk, and each age group in the entire camp, was split down the middle. Even the counselors in my own bunk could be on the opposing team. We were either white or blue, and almost all of the competitions that made up the war were fought against the kids we saw every day. There were swim competitions and foot races and trivia contests and ultimate Frisbee. We had to learn songs to cheer for our side, and wear t-shirts with our team colors. And at the end of the war there was a huge tug of war with the whole camp pulling on one or the other side of the rope.

I’m not sure what the purpose of color war was meant to be, maybe a team building exercise, or a chance to compete at the activities we’d just been doing carelessly each day before that, but the unintended consequence, or at least I hope it was unintended, was that we got to feel what it would be like to have to fight with our friends and neighbors, and it was awful.

By my last summer, I actively campaigned against not only my own involvement in color war, but its existence altogether. At thirteen, I could finally articulate the pain in the fact that my counselor, my mommy-substitute for two months, would be actively rooting against me for at least 24 hours. It was shattering.

It would be like splitting my family in half, with Grandma and Butterfly on one team and Cricket and I on the other, and every meal we ate, every TV show we watched, would be a battleground. Cricket would lose her mind.



This is what I’ve been thinking about lately, with the American presidential election in its long swing through hell. There are two teams, that’s it, and it’s a fight to the death to see who gets to represent each team, even if no one, really, can represent 50% of the country to anyone’s satisfaction.

In a multiparty system like Britain’s parliamentary system, smaller parties can win seats in the parliament and have influence in governing. A party that wins 20% of the votes in a multi-party system, will get 20% of the seats in the legislature, and a voice in parliament. In a two party system like we have in the United States, we can still have third parties, and have had many of them, but they rarely gain traction. Why? Because in winner-takes-all elections, the 20% a third party may be able to muster doesn’t win them any power. This is why Bernie Sanders is running as a Democrat, despite being an Independent, as well as a Democratic Socialist.

Americans seem to be comfortable with our two party split, our black and white dichotomies, not to put too fine a point on it. There are many people who’d like to make the next division Christian versus Moslem, as if everyone in the world is either one or the other. But that assumes that all Christians are one, and all Moslems are one, and that everyone else doesn’t exist. That’s what you have to do to create this two team system. You have to whitewash, or blackwash, everything.

The dichotomy between Republican and Democrat has never been more extreme in my lifetime than it is right now. During the Bill Clinton era, the constant complaint was that both parties were so centrist that choosing one over the other was just about brand loyalty and nothing deeper than that. Today, it’s a deep divide.

I think I’d be more comfortable with proportional representation, just because it fits my world view better. Let me fight with the people I’m actually in disagreement with, instead of a whole team of people who have to be loyal to each other no matter what they actually believe in.

Except, at least with the two party system, Trump has to won a majority (or if there’s a third party candidate by November, a plurality) of the votes in order to get into power. In a multiparty system he could win just 20% of the vote and at least have some power – and I would have to deal with that. Though it’s hard to imagine someone like Trump being interested in that kind of power. He’s an all or nothing kind of guy.

Another benefit of the two party system is that outliers like the Ku Klux Klan, who may still be a presence in certain states, cannot elbow their way into either of the big parties and get to power in the country overall. But, maybe that’s also part of the problem – most of the country had no idea these outliers were there. We didn’t know that there were going to be so many Trump supporters bubbling up, because until they reached a critical mass they were invisible in our winner-takes-all system.

But, I like the idea that in a family, even if there are certain people with more power, the minority voices – like Cricket’s and Butterfly’s – still get heard and still have a vote. They may not have the final vote, or the most heavily weighted vote, but they still count in the delegate math. Maybe Butterfly would be in the “food, glorious food” party, advocating for extra meals and extra treats. And Cricket would be in the “I want to play” party, advocating for extra outings and more interactive time with her people. They could work together on certain tasks, helping each other reach their goals, as long as they are both satisfied by the outcome. And on other issues they wouldn’t work together, but might find common cause with Grandma (“let’s go to the beach”), or with me (“snacks in front of the TV would be nice”). It’s a more flexible system, and allows people to be more honest about their beliefs and motivations.


“Grandma! It’s time for gardening!”


45 - and salty

“Grandma, aren’t you thirsty?”



American Politics


Cricket would make a wonderful politician, in the current mold. She has tons to say and repeats it all day long with the same passion and outrage. I’d love to be able to harness that power for good, but she would like to use it to outlaw grooming and vet visits. No more bath time! Stay away from my eye goop! She would wear a Bernie for President Sticker, if he promised her she’d never again have to get her poopy butt washed.


“Help me, Bernie!”

Cricket’s only difficulty would be the length of the run up to the presidential elections in the United States. Her ideas of argument and persuasion are much faster. You make your spiel, and you get a no. You up the ante, you bark, cry, sing, bite, and you get a no again. You give it one more shot, but that’s it. You need your damn rest.






“That was exhausting.”

Watching the news recently, I’ve been wishing, often out loud and using bad words, that our country invested more time and energy in educating us in our history and our form of participatory democracy. My mother used to talk about taking civics class in high school, rather than social studies, and I never realized that she meant something completely different than the vague pass over American history that I’d been given.

Donald Trump says he loves the poorly educated – but why are there any poorly educated people in a country that supposedly has a free public education system through the secondary level? How can he be so glib about the failure of American education?

I resent that it took an endless run of young black men being shot by police for me to even hear about the modern history of black lives in America. Why weren’t lynchings in the South and Red Lining in the North part of my basic education? It’s not like I was protected from images of graphic violence in school – we studied the Old Testament in yeshiva every single day, for God’s sake! I was supposed to be okay with learning about rape and incest and beheadings and whole towns being shmiced by god, but I couldn’t be told about horrors that happened in my own country, in my own century?

We haven’t invested enough time in reinvestigating our history and coming up with ways to improve our democracy. Just imagine what we could accomplish as a society if we were already steeped in our full history before we even entered college. Imagine how many ideas our kids could generate for how to make our country a better place?

It also wouldn’t hurt to throw in a few lessons in empathy, here and there.

I think it’s interesting that so many presidents have pets, often dogs, and even the Clinton cat, way back when, but political candidates do not bring their dogs along with them on the road, or put them in commercials. Obama even had to wait until he was in the white house before he could get his daughters the puppy they’d been begging for. Would Jeb Bush have had better luck on the campaign trail if he’d, say, brought a chocolate lab up on to the stage with him? Maybe if Donald Trump had to carry a long-haired white cat in his arms, people would be able to see him more clearly for what he is.


(not my picture)

Butterfly would not make a good politician, because she wouldn’t last two seconds on the debate stage. As soon as the screaming and insults started, she would scamper off to hide behind a curtain. Like me.


“Is it over yet?”

The current election cycle reminds me of when we used to play Dodge Ball in elementary school. The whole class, boys and girls, would be split into two teams and given red kick-balls to throw at the other team. Some kids really seemed to enjoy taking aim at their classmates and hitting them with as much force as possible. They don’t allow this game at most elementary schools anymore, because it is too brutal, and too mean. But it would fit right in at the Republican presidential debates.

I still feel intimidated by people who are certain that they know what’s best. I am overwhelmed by the amount of confidence politicians must have, to talk constantly to crowds and reporters and believe that what they are saying is all useful and good. My social anxiety, though it is much better than it used to be, will never be down at politician levels.

And I have to wonder if just a little bit of self-doubt might be a good thing in a leader; just a little bit of room to question the heinous things that might come out of your mouth. Even Cricket knows when she’s gone too far.