A Woman, in Her Own Right

Why does anyone ever use the phrase, “in her own right”? It means, actually, in keeping with what is right or just, conforming to some principle or that which is due. But it never seems to me that users mean exactly that.

Elinor Burkett, author of Golda, writes, “Golda Meir acted like a man [she peed standing up?] and wanted to be treated like a man. There is no question that she was a very strong, intelligent leader in her own right.” I did not know Golda Meir personally, so I don’t know if she was transgender, but I’d be willing to bet she wanted to be treated as equal to men. And I am pretty sure that qualities of strength and intelligent leadership aren’t limited to men. So how does Burkett mean “in her own right” in this case?

When Barbara Bush died, writer Karen Belz posted a small article online about the former first lady in which she writes, “And while most people know Barbara Bush for her first lady status, many don’t know that she was considered a strong, determined, and witty woman in her own right.” This line suggests, first, that her husband had these qualities, and I am not sure everyone would agree with that, though it isn’t friendly to speak ill of the dead. But why wouldn’t a first lady have these qualities? Why not assume she does until it is proven otherwise? I won’t even say anything about Melania Trump’s intellect or wit, because she is determined that the American public will not know her. So we can certainly say she’s determined, if nothing else.

The BBC, reporting on the militancy of Winnie Mandela’s activism, posted an article that argued, “Mrs [sic] Madikizela-Mandela was a politician in her own right, and opposed her husband’s [Nelson Mandela’s] move to negotiate an end to apartheid, claiming it would lead to a ‘sell-out’ of black people.” Because her husband was a politician, Winnie can’t be one, too, she is one in her own right. To use a term coined by my husband, this is the height of “ensmallening.” One must be able to describe what a woman does without comparing it to the roles of the men around her. To add “in her own right” forces a comparison where none is necessary.

In each of these examples, of course, it is proper or just and in accordance with principles of equality that the women are who they are claimed to be; they do indeed have those qualities, so it could be argued that the phrase is used correctly. But is that what the writers are implying?

Perhaps an example from the life of an average Jo(sephine) would be useful. Many years ago, when I was young and cute and newly engaged, I met some of my husband’s future colleagues at the university where he was teaching. It was a small social group that met for coffee and some talk in the morning. During this first meeting, I was referred to several times as a sort of prize he had won. I was nervous and probably more sensitive than usual. No harm was meant; they were all older than he and happy for him. He wasn’t lonely anymore, and here was this pretty young thing coming to the small town where nothing ever happened. They were trying to be nice, in their older, sexist, unthinking way. The worst culprit was the woman in the group, but her motivation is the subject of some other essay.

My now-husband of close to twenty years was sensitive to what was happening, bless him. Yes, he thought I was a babe, but he also thought I was interesting, funny, articulate, curious about the world—you know, all those qualities that make a person a tolerable spouse. He wanted to stand up for me. “You know,” he said, “Claudia is a writer in her own right.” So then I answered a few questions about writing and whether I was published. I held back until he and I were alone, and then I told him what I thought of the expression he’d used.

First, I pointed out how rarely we hear “in his own right.” If we’re using the phrase properly, there is no reason not to say it with regard to men as well as women. The example I found of its use to describe a man is guilty of the same crime I’ve already described. About his own son, the great musician and poet Leonard Cohen said, “Adam [Cohen] is a great singer-songwriter in his own right.” The comparison implied in the effort to (supposedly) avoid comparison is demeaning. It reduces the subject to something less than adult, and has the effect on its audience of, “aww, isn’t he/she cute? Trying to be just like _________.”

I was reminded of this the other day when my kid was accusing someone of microaggressions. He was wrong; the person was actually guilty of passive-aggressive actions, but it got me thinking about microaggressions and what they are, exactly. However subtle or even unintentional they are, they show discrimination against some already marginalized group, which is why I’d already learned about them with regard to race and ethnicity. I hadn’t yet given thought to the ways in which microaggressions are built right into our language. There are plenty of languages that have sexist constructions, which is why we now have words such as Latinx to address such inequalities. But in English, where we don’t have masculine and feminine nouns, we’ve had to figure other ways to make women not just “other” but less. Every time someone wants to attach “-ette” or “-ess” to the end of a word, women are infantilized. At my kids’ school, the mascot is a dolphin. The girls’ teams? The “Lady Dolphins,” who wear pink jerseys, even though the school colors are blue and white. In 2019.

Even the word “lady,” in certain contexts, places demands on women that don’t fit with the lives most of us live and suggests demure behavior never asked of men. How can “lady” dolphins possibly play volleyball? They’ll ruin their manicures. Growing up, I read books with characters who were ladies’ maids and ladies-in-waiting. Employment for the politely poor. When I was a child, my father always admonished me to act like a young lady; given his upbringing (in England, by people from Poland), that meant that I needed to be quiet, not boisterous; gentle, not rough; polite and never rude—always please, thank you, excuse me and so on—no elbows on the table or reaching across for something, always tip your bowl away from you (except on Passover), no slurping, or any eating sounds, mouth closed while chewing. Hair tidy and out of the face, dresses are always best for family events of any kind. I am grateful for my good manners every time I eat with a slob, but these are manners that men ought to have, too. My brothers got the same table manners lessons, by the way. And women should never be taught these “rules” as the keys to their happiness, or worse yet, the only way to be female.

Female, I understand. But I’m not sure what it means to be a girl or a woman. These days, we understand that it goes beyond whatever equipment our bodies have. Having a vagina doesn’t guarantee that I will feel like a girl or identify as one. When I was quite young, perhaps a tween, I told my mother that I thought my chromosomes weren’t quite right. Instead of the XX girl formula, I was sure mine looked like this: Xx/y. Why did I think so? Because when I was little, I liked Matchbox cars and GI Joe dolls. I didn’t like wearing dresses (maybe because I was made to), I was hairy, I liked playing rough with my brothers. I have three older brothers, no sisters, and a mother who had no interest in teaching me girly stuff. As little and shy and anxious as I was, I also pushed myself to be what I imagined was a kind of a daredevil on the playground. I was crazily proud of my accomplishments on the swing set. I never doubted that I was a girl; I suppose I felt that I was not a traditional or “girly” girl. And I never have been.

I love pretty things. I like to put on some makeup, and I like to get dressed up for special occasions. But when I am all dolled up, I don’t feel like me, and I don’t feel comfortable; I spend the time thinking about how great it will feel to go home and slip into some sweatpants.

My older child, declared a girl at birth (and before), says he doesn’t feel like a girl, and has therefore determined he’s a boy. To me, this doesn’t quite make sense, or perhaps I don’t understand it because I can’t imagine how that feels. I wonder what he thinks it means to be a girl. He doesn’t seem able to articulate it. I’m not able to, either. And what does it mean to be a boy? How could he possibly know what that feels like? And why this binary? I don’t feel like a girl; therefore, I am a boy. To me, this is not a logical argument coming out of a generation that has done such an amazing job of teaching us that gender and sexuality exist on a spectrum. But humans are full of contradiction, all of us. And my kid, who always picked out the shiny clothes, the flowy stuff, the hats and shirts that said things like “Girls Rule!”, this kid teaches me every day.

Maybe, like me, he noticed that things he accomplished might get dressed in pink, might have an “-ess” stuck on the end. Maybe he noticed that the world is still not a safe place for women and resented it as much as I do. Maybe I made womanhood look undesirable.

What I do understand is this.

Just as long hair and makeup don’t define women any more than does a vagina, supposed feminine word endings and pink shirts don’t do much to say who we are, either. And even if a person belongs to a community that sees men and women as equal but playing different roles, there is still no reason to use language that makes women less than they are—fully human.

Memoir Workshop

What’s Your Story?

If you follow me here, you may know that I have taught writing classes for — let’s just say a lot of — years. This fall, I am offering a six-week memoir workshop in the Hampton Roads area, so if you live in Southeastern Virginia, I hope you’ll sign up. In this workshop we’re going to write about ourselves; not our life stories, but about snapshots of our lived experience. A pivotal moment, a day, an hour, an encounter. The way in which we remember and perceive, and what we might understand about ourselves and the world as a result–that is memoir. All you need is a life and the desire to look more closely at any part of it that you can share with others; memoir seeks to share our experience. Diaries and journals are where we keep our experiences to ourselves. You’ll write, read, discuss. What could be better?

Classes meet for six Thursdays, beginning October 5, from 1:00 to 3:00 pm. We have the beautiful, peaceful, and inspiring space of the Yoga Nook to call our own.

The Yoga Nook
927 Battlefield Blvd N Suite 100-1
Chesapeake, Virginia
The cost for six weeks, which includes reading materials, is $100. You can register by making your payment here.
If you have questions, ask away! islerinkc@gmail.com

My Child, Also Known As…

When our kids change their names, they are deciding who they are, or trying to figure out who they are. When our kids change their names, it hurts. We chose the name they were given; it was a gift from us to them, usually carefully considered, agonized over, possibly even argued about.

We have traditions and rituals to bestow on our children the name we chose —christenings, baptisms, brit milot, naming ceremonies of all sorts. We invite friends and family, we might even cater a party. Children get named after important relatives, living or dead, depending on tradition and culture. Their names mean something to us.

After we name them, we spend the next ten years watching the tiny person grow into the name we chose. And somehow, they always seem to do just that — grow into the name. When I think about the other names that were on the table for me, according to my parents, it makes me laugh to think of myself as a Jennifer or an Angelica. These names simply do not, could not, fit me.

Maybe we spend a lot of time correcting people’s pronunciation of our kids’ names; maybe we tell people what it means in this language or that, or tell stories about the person for whom the kids were named. The child’s name is part of the family’s unique history and culture.

When kids change their names, they are rejecting all of those things. They are not saying they don’t want to be part of the family; they are saying that those traditions and history and culture are not as important as being true to themselves. They value all that came before them, maybe, but they did not choose the name they’ve been living with. And now they have grown and feel that it doesn’t fit them — the name has become a too-small hat, exerting all kinds of pressure on the brain.

When kids change their names, they are rejecting their parents or their upbringing or “family values” the same way they are doing so when they leave the religious/racial/ethnic fold in which we expected or hoped them to stay. That’s how it feels. But they aren’t doing that, not all of them, anyway; they are establishing their identity for themselves within the family but separate from the identity we defined for them.

Perhaps we did this for ourselves by buying entirely new brands of groceries when we first moved out of our parents’ home, eating sugary cereal or moving to another city. Maybe we accomplished it by taking what we consider to be a more critical and nuanced view of religion and politics. Our children feel a freedom to explore their identities in ways we never dreamed of, and maybe we have to let them do that even if it feels personal, feels like rejection, feels insulting and painful.

When some kids change their names, they consult their parents, discussing the name’s meaning, the person they were named for, including parents in the process and showing respect for all that went into the name given at birth. But some kids don’t consult family at all. It doesn’t occur to them until it’s too late. And that may hurt parents even more.

Some of us are convinced that this name change is temporary, that the kid is just exploring and will come out on the other side of this adolescent experience all the wiser. Some just hope that’s true. Some of us are wrong, and some are right. As long as we are allowed our own feelings about the change, we should be able to make room for our child to experiment. This is what I tell myself as I try, day after day, to call my child by a name I did not choose. I think about how I insisted on being called “Annie” for a small part of my youth, because I did not appreciate my first name as I do now. I remember that one of my brothers wanted to be called “Herman” because he loved The Munsters. I don’t think my parents felt a sting from these passing fancies. Because that’s what they were. We were still very much their children. It is the sense of impending separation and loss created by the change that is so hard to handle. It is the anxiety about what the child’s life will be, factoring in all the issues associated with the name change — gender identification, possibly sexuality, and stupidity, prejudice, and discrimination on the part of others.

I also tell myself to celebrate having raised a child who feels strong enough to explore their identity publicly, to be insistent about their name and what it means to them, to demand acceptance. These are wonderful qualities.

The truth is, none of this is about me. My sense of loss or resentment or sadness is just that — mine.

A Much Harder Place

“We just booked a trip to France!” people-mother-family-father

“Here I am with my bestie, looking out over the San Francisco Bay.”

“Nothing better than drinks with girlfriends in Porto, Portugal!”

Facebook is killing me.

For years now I have looked at people’s photos, at their family outings, travel adventures, even just fun times at home. And I have envied all of it. Not because I believe that every minute of their lives must be happy and perfect, based on the pictures they post. I know that no one’s life is perfect, whatever that means, no matter what it looks like on the outside. You can’t ever know what goes on between two partnered people, and you can’t ever know what it is really like to be in someone else’s family.

I spend a lot of time wishing people knew what it was like to be in my family. It is challenging, to put it mildly. I have two, maybe three nice pictures of the four of us. When we attempt to do typical American family things, it doesn’t usually work out. Someone will always be miserable and ruin it for everyone else. And who wants to take a picture of that? It isn’t possible to explain my family life properly, and any attempt to do so would probably sound whiny and ungrateful. Claudia and her first-world problems. But I am exhausted.

It used to be that my envy also came from a certain financial unease; we couldn’t do some of the things we saw our peers doing, because we simply didn’t have the money. Now the money is a bit less of an issue, though we still need to be careful (I am unemployed).  These days my envy comes from a much harder place. It cannot be fixed by earning more money, establishing financial security.

When I see families plan or go on trips with their young kids or even their adult kids, I know that will never be us. I think how great it would be, when my kids are young adults, to go abroad with them and sit in a bar or cafe somewhere we’ve never been, toasting the joy of discovery and togetherness. But it isn’t going to happen. When you have a child on the autism spectrum, your life can be seriously curtailed. I am sure this isn’t true for everyone, but it is true for us. My son’s diet is so limited, so inflexible, we really could never visit a foreign country. Certain places would be easier than others, of course. If there’s plain pasta, or white rice, or french fries. If not, he won’t eat.  When he is older, he will expand his repertoire somewhat, I’m sure. I can already see hints that his Bread and Jam for Frances lifestyle is wearing. But other things may never change.

My beautiful boy is fascinated by the great wide world and visits all of it regularly on Google Earth. He digs into people’s customs and holidays and traditions with great pleasure. He learns their languages and practices writing some very complicated characters. He watches opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games (almost all are available online) to see the athletes from around the world and to hear whatever tidbits the commentators share about the people and the countries they’re from. He shares newfound information with us and sometimes gets frustrated that we can’t bank all those facts the way he can. He is terrified to board a plane or a boat, and sometimes still gets quite carsick. It has to do with his vestibular system, the body’s sensory system that contributes to spatial orientation and a sense of balance. Sometimes when I try to imagine him on an airplane, I can only picture that disgusting puke scene from The Exorcist. exorcist

Speaking of barf, it’s not just his diet that is resistant to change. Taken out of his safe spaces, without the items he uses daily, he is thrown off and unable to enjoy himself. Last summer we foolishly planned a long road trip, never thinking about how difficult it would be for him to “play it by ear,” to not know where and when the next meal would be and what it would consist of.  On all journeys, staying in the hotel room to watch TV and order (Papa John’s) pizza or going to the hotel’s pool are his favorite things. He is a creature of habit or even ritual. He engages in the same activities day after day, and does them in the same way, at the same time. And he likes it that way; he has no desire to do things differently. Most people, including medical professionals, will tell us that he needs to learn to get out of his comfort zone, and I agree, but only to a certain extent. I push him to do things independently. The smallest things present big challenges. Last night he argued for ten minutes that he would not be able to adjust the water temperature for his shower to his liking. He was positive he wasn’t capable. But he made a loaf of bread all by himself last week. It was delicious.

I also want him to learn the social skills that will allow him to be happy in a neurotypical world. And we push that, too, even though it’s painful, even though “normal” children say terrible things to him or are judgmental or stay away because they think he’s weird.  Taking him out of the spaces where he feels good—good about himself and comfortable—does not seem anything but cruel. It has taken nearly twelve years of raising this child to understand this. And that cruelty extends to the rest of the family, because when my son is unhappy, so is everyone else. There’s no way around it. The older he gets, the more difficult it becomes to deal with these moments. He’s a sweet and sensitive kid, so he cries, but he also shouts profanities at us, threatens suicide, destroys his own belongings and often things that belong to us, damages the house in some way, slams doors, tries to hurt himself, and gives us the finger. He also threatens to become a Republican or a Christian, and he likens his parents to Hitler and Trump, because he knows how insulted we’ll be.

This is terribly unfair to my daughter, who would love to travel, and would have a wonderful time seeing new places, trying new foods, and flying. I feel guilt about denying her things because of her brother, but how do we plan a family trip that excludes one of our kids? The answer is that we don’t. In recent years, my spouse and I have managed two international trips without the kids–both because they were work trips for him. We can’t afford to pay all that for both of us, and we certainly couldn’t afford to bring the kids. And if I didn’t have a sister-in-law within reasonable proximity who was willing to take them, I wouldn’t be going anywhere. I imagine my daughter’s first trip out of the country will happen when she’s in college–I hope she will want to study abroad. And then maybe she’ll make a birthright trip to Israel.

I have wondered before about posting things on social media, and if it is reasonable to think that people should take care not to brag. Who am I to say what anyone should post? I hate negative posts, too–we all have one “friend” whose life seems to be a complete misery, whose every ill, mishap, and misfortune is right there for us to read. I know people who like to post photos of grotesque injuries–not a bruise or a scrape, but swollen, suppurating things that belong nowhere but a medical text. Stitches, bits ripped off. I have blocked such people from my wall.

Years ago, an orthodox rabbi explained some rules of modesty to me in a way that at the time I considered ridiculous. He said a good reason not to hold hands with or (God forbid) kiss your partner in public is that you don’t know how very lonely that might make someone else feel, a passing stranger who is longing for a similar relationship. Now I see that differently. I don’t believe we can expect that people won’t hold hands out of sensitivity to the possible lonely-hearts around them; but it might not hurt, before we post our excitement on Facebook, to consider ways to share it that will hurt just a little less those who don’t have anything to counter it. Because some of us are running out of BandAids.

What a World


So little has changed, yet I feel devastated.  In my personal life and in the concerns outside my small house, the scales have dropped from my eyes.

And they keep dropping.

A friend of mine recently tried to buck me up, telling me that I would find my tribe. But my hope for this grows dimmer each day. Each time I commit to an ism, I find, eventually, that a huge percentage of its members hold a belief I consider reprehensible.

As the new president prepared to take office in the US, and things got uglier and uglier, I began to read. A lot of the pieces I read were editorials and essays by African American women explaining various things such as why they wouldn’t participate in the Women’s March, or why they distrusted mainstream feminism, or why they were frustrated by their participation in online feminist discussion groups. Initially, my reaction to these was just as they predicted, a kind of hey-but-I’m-nice-why-do-you-feel-that-way progressive liberal position. But as I read the knee-jerk ugly responses of white women, I began to see.

And then the Christmas season began, and it was worse for me than usual, probably because of the hateful climate. And I wanted to scream, “please, please leave me alone! I don’t celebrate that holiday, I don’t care about that holiday, and I’m tired of having that holiday shoved down my throat, up my nose, and forced into all my senses!” As a Jew, I know better. I would never, ever do that. Suddenly, I got it. I heard where the African American writers I’d read were coming from when they asked that we just listen instead of responding automatically. And I decided right then that I would become a listener, even if I would never get the chance to have the shoe on my foot, so to speak.

My work seeks to give voice to and raise up those whose opportunities have been limited. (For details on this, check out the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/islerink/). I believe wholeheartedly in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. I am an intersectional feminist. I am a bisexual married mother of two, and one of my kids is gender fluid. I am the sister, aunt, and cousin of people of color. Everyone in my home with the exception of me and the dogs is on the autism spectrum. My husband and I have discussed “whiteness” at length. We don’t really consider ourselves so. We’re not foolish; we know what we look like, and we are fully aware of our privilege. But we also know where our privilege ends. And we  know the difference between our world and that of someone who is a gentile.

I wake up every day to news of bomb threats and swastikas. I wake up to news of attacks on gay people, murders of trans women, police brutality of African Americans. Each story is a personal affront; each one cuts me down and makes the day feel just a little more like dragging my feet in loose shoes through mud. I go to synagogue, mostly for the peace of it, and there is always a police officer there for our safety. When I drop kids off for Hebrew school, there is always a police officer there for their safety. I wonder how most people would feel if they had to have the cops at church just to worship freely.


In Norfolk, Virginia

Up until now, I have been able to ignore BLM’s position on Palestine. I never really understood why the movement’s leaders felt they needed to take a position on that issue at all, given the urgency of the issues right here at home, but I could pretty easily wrap my head around why they took a side with the people they see an underdog. Besides, BLM is not my movement; it is one I respect and would like to assist, but it is not one I imagine I have a say in. The other day, though, everything changed for me.

If you’ve read my blog before, you know that my feelings about Israel are mixed. To me, Zionism is simply the belief that Israel has the right to exist. Therefore, I suppose I am a Zionist. I don’t believe anyone anywhere has the right to exist at the expense of anyone else, and I would like everyone to live in peace. It turns out, friends, that there is little room in the current feminist movement for the likes of me. The very belief that Israel should be allowed to be gets me labeled oppressor. If the bomb threats and swastikas weren’t enough to open my eyes to the level of antisemitism that’s been simmering away in America, the comment threads on articles regarding this issue took care of it. I was near tears yesterday, reading the poisonous, openly Jew-hating posts from my sisters-in-arms. It was so awful, truly.

And so I have only one ism left me, and it’s the one I’ll stick with. I’m going to call it Claudiaism, because I know what I believe to be right, and I know what I believe to be worth working for. Do not join me.

December Reboot

It’s that time of year, when I admire both tasteful and completely insane Christmas decorations, sniff people’s Christmas trees, hope for cookies, plan Chanukah gifts for my kids, nieces and nephews, and think about moving to Israel. This year, as we plan for Donald Trump’s America (maybe–this whole Russia-interfered-with-our-electoral-process thing is getting interesting), I am feeling the sting just a tad more. Not even that. I misspoke. I am feeling impatient. I am feeling Grinchy. I am in no mood. Why? Because I keep seeing stuff like this: http://davidduke.com/jewish-war-christmas-christmas-traditions-banned-jewish-symbols-erected/

Also, because of these:

And so, I am re-posting this piece from one year ago, in the hope that maybe more people will read it. Or maybe someone will re-read it, and see it in a new way. Or someone will read it and choose to leave me be. Because as I mentioned earlier, I am feeling Grinchy.

Happy Holidays!

Jews Are Ruining Christmas, Again


Monday was a great day; in the morning I went with my work partner and friend to look at a senior center where we might offer memoir writing classes. Afterward, we went to a pleasant coffee shop to have a drink and talk. Then my friend showed me a great used book store–the kind I like, a real rabbit warren of a place. The only thing missing were creaky, wood floors and bookish tweed-wearing clientele in dark corners. We asked for art books, and the woman running the place, a short, plump woman with grizzled gray hair and an open face, showed us where they were. When I was paying for my books, I got into a conversation with the bookseller that I wish had never happened.

The Roosevelt Field Mall on Long Island had changed up its traditional mall Santa photo area, and instead of trees and elves and icicles and candy canes, there was nothing but Santa and a futuristic sort of clam shell, intended to be a glacier, to block out all the shops from the photos.

The comment thread on the article I read was full of angry customers talking about how ridiculous this was, and they were all suggesting in indirect and direct ways that “people” had complained about the traditional set-up, and that’s why this horrific change had taken place. As someone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, I’m well aware of who these “people” are they’re talking about. One guy just went ahead and typed, “Keep the Jews out of Christmas!” Clearly, this man does not know too much about his messiah. And that’s really the part of the story I wanted to talk about, because it was funny–about the guy who doesn’t know Jesus was Jewish.

The bookstore woman, who is actively trying to restore a Santa tradition that’s outside her local mall said, “Oh, yes, I read that story too! Just ridiculous.”

We agreed; if you’re going to have a mall Santa, you might as well have the decorations that go with it. But that wasn’t all the bookseller had to say. “People complained,” she said, “you know, people, from…from other religions.”


“Actually, I don’t think so,” I said. “It was just some odd corporate decision to have this sleek, modern Santa setup.” I hoped I was right.

If Christmas weren’t an important holiday economically, I’d be a big fan of getting the whole thing out of the mall, out of my kids’ schools, out of public spaces generally. It’s hard for December revelers to know what it’s like to be so inundated and overwhelmed with a religious holiday not their own. And so very many people don’t treat Christmas as the religious holiday it is, so they don’t know why their nativity scene is a bother. Because they see it as an American holiday rather than a Christian one, they are frustrated by anyone’s no-Christmas-in-public-spaces stance. And if it’s an American holiday, where does that leave American Jews, American Muslims, American Hindus, American Buddhists, and all the rest of us? I like many things about the holiday; some of the music is lovely. I like that it makes my Christian friends happy. I like looking at over-decorated houses. In New York, I always enjoyed walking past the tree sellers and deeply inhaling the sweet pine scent. It always felt even more special somehow if there was snow on the ground. People were cheerful; my office was full of treats homemade and mailed in, and I was invited to parties. I also like to pick special gifts for the Christmas-celebrating folks I love. But at no point do I forget that the holiday celebrates the birth of the Christ child. And that’s why “Merry Christmas” is annoying, even if it’s well-meant.

Try to imagine how you might feel if it seemed the entire world was celebrating a Middle Eastern-style Muslim holiday; everywhere you went, from Target to the drug store, even the vacuum repair shop, the library, school, the office, the walls were decked with Middle Eastern decorations. America is Muslim, and you are the Christian minority. Every time you went shopping for anything, you would have Middle Eastern holiday music in your ears. This music would burst forth from loudspeakers on mosques and masjids all over your city, on the hour. Everywhere you went, people would wish you “Eid e Milad un Nabi!” Sounds interesting, actually. Year after year, though, as you waded through this tsunami of exclusion, you would begin to resent it. You might even say, “what about my holiday?” And then you might inflate a minor holiday on your calendar in an effort to combat your sense of drowning. You could get decorations for your holiday from niche market internet stores and be the lone house on your street decked out in the wrong colors. You would try to make this minor event exciting for your kids so that they felt less excluded, so they could feel good about the traditions from which they come, so they would not feel crappy about not being a part of the culture of their country.

But back to the bookstore. After I suggested that the new mall décor was a corporate decision, the woman behind the counter said, “Probably the Jews.”

I said nothing. What could I have said? “Uh, I’m Jewish”? I took the books I had already paid for (I dropped $47 in that goddam place) and walked out, saying nothing.

I got back into my car, and as I moved down the road, I realized I was in shock. I felt as though a stranger had walked up to me on the street and slapped me in the face hard enough to bring stinging tears to my eyes. I am used to reading anti-Jewish sentiment online, particularly as December approaches. But as much as I am aware of antisemitism, I have rarely had anyone say something so directly hostile to me about Jews. I’ve had people make stupid jokes and comments, and ask poorly worded, ignorant questions. But that is nothing to having someone look right at you and blame you for something–in a voice full of derision.

I have talked to my kids about white privilege, about the issues African American (and other non-white) parents worry about while their children are out and about, things that we do not think about. I have talked about the injustice of that, have tried to make them understand that encountering the world is different for different people. And I think they get it. But only as much as one person can understand someone else’s experience.

There’s no denying that this country has been far better to my people than most other places around the world; one might argue that it is still the safest place on earth for a Jew to live. The time when people put signs in the window telling Jews, Irish, and Blacks not to apply (for the job or apartment) has passed. There’s no sign in the window. Now it’s a secret.

Jewish people live with the secret every day. It doesn’t compare to the experience of a brown-skinned person in America, though. Most Jews (except Jews of color) live safely cradled by their white privilege. They don’t fear that their sons will be shot by the police for no reason. They don’t get followed around stores as though they were criminals. Getting a taxi isn’t a big deal, except at rush hour. They aren’t hypersexualized by the media. They don’t feel a need to live up to some notion of their existence imposed upon them by other people. They aren’t considered lazy or freeloaders or welfare queens or drug addicts. Mostly, Jewish people are ignored, except in December, when American Jews insist on playing up that pesky little festival, Chanukah. We are invisible.

And that’s where the trouble is. Because someone who has a problem with African Americans, or Latinos, or Asians, or Arabs, for instance, will always have a problem with us, too. We are on “the list.”

My husband used to find it very funny that I didn’t think of myself as white. But it is this list that makes me say so. Reasons to hate us are about the same as the reasons to hate the other groups; stereotypes, fears, ignorance, and intolerance are layered on top of one another so that such people walk around in a shell of their own stupidity so thick that knowledge actually just bounces off it. And of course, our presence means lots of annoying and hypocritical “holiday” parties and “holiday” trees and the like. Sometimes someone will mistake me for a white person and say something derogatory about blacks. They think I’m in on the joke, but the truth is, I am the joke.

I have thought before that I would write about being a member of an “invisible minority.” A man wearing a kippah is a man showing the world to what group he belongs. But for most American Jews, there are no outward signs. Unless you believe we all have big noses and bad hair. So people disparage us right to our faces; most would probably not say anything hateful if they knew who they were talking to. This kind of racism scares me because it is in hiding. And it’s terribly hard to fight what you cannot see.

Touch Me, Please.

Two things have been occupying my thoughts lately, and at first I thought they were unrelated. First is the murder of so many people in Orlando, Florida, and the social media storm that followed. Rainbows are everywhere. I am happy that so many people see themselves as allies, or at least, lacking the prejudice that many Americans, as well as people all over the world, still harbor. (And of course, Senate Republicans did everything they could to make sure there would be no change to gun laws, even though no one has a good reason for ordinary citizens to own an assault rifle.) After a while, though, the digital sentiments seem shallow and unconsidered, like so many things one sees on Facebook and Twitter. Clicking “Like” or ♥ is not exactly taking action. Well meant, for sure, but lacking tangibility.

Also on my mind is touch. I think about this a lot for my own reasons that do not belong in a blog post, but recently some women in my yoga class and I were talking about the voice in our heads that shows up when the teacher walks around the room–“Pick me! Step on my feet! Press on my back!” Do we want to feel special? Singled out? Maybe. I  didn’t think that was my issue, because all my teachers at the studio have a way of making me feel that I matter, that my practice matters. I think we are all hoping to be touched for the sake of that human connection, for whatever chemicals that touch releases in our brains. We know it’s important for babies, so much so that hospitals have volunteers whose job it is to cuddle the newborns. Does that need ever end?

Ray Williams of Psychology Today writes  in his post, “8 Reasons Why We Need Human Touch More Than Ever,” that more touch leads to less violence, more trust between individuals, stronger team dynamics, (non-sexual) emotional intimacy, and overall well-being, along with some health benefits. There is even a study by a French psychologist that shows students who got a slight tap on their upper arm from the professor when they volunteered to work at something on the board were much more likely to volunteer to do so again compared to students who received only words of praise.

Dacher Kerchner of UC Berkeley writes, “We … know that touch builds up cooperative relationships—it reinforces reciprocity between our primate relatives, who use grooming to build up cooperative alliances. There are studies showing that touch signals safety and trust, it soothes. Basic warm touch calms cardiovascular stress. It activates the body’s vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassionate response, and a simple touch can trigger release of oxytocin, aka ‘the love hormone.’” That’s it–oxytocin!

This neurochemical is released by the brain during childbirth to increase the motility of the uterus, and is also released when a mother’s nipples are stimulated, to help in breastfeeding. But, researchers say, its release into specific regions of the brain also affects emotional, cognitive, and social behaviors. It contributes to relaxation, trust, and psychological stability. Some researchers have found that it can reduce stress responses, such as anxiety.

I don’t mean to suggest that if the sick person who killed club-goers in Orlando had been hugged more as a child, this would not have happened. That is simplistic, and I know nothing of his childhood other than his religious upbringing and his homophobic father. Also, there are some perfectly nice people who don’t want to be touched–don’t want to give and receive hugs, for instance, or don’t like casual touches from people to whom they are not emotionally attached.

Those of us who do like that sort of contact, though, are deeply  and positively affected by it, I believe. There is comfort in it, as long as it isn’t in some way inappropriate. It offers reassurance, acknowledges that we are present and that others are aware of our presence and like it. It makes us feel safer and cared for. In some contexts, it helps us feel attractive and desirable.

There are memories tied to touch. I remember clearly what my mother’s cool, soft hand felt like on my forehead when I was a child sick in bed, and she soothed me and smoothed my hair back from my face. I remember exactly how it felt at a family event when she sat next to me and patted me on the back while we talked with everyone. I remember my father’s hugs as all-encompassing. I also remember exactly what it felt like when either of my parents hit me. Not just the physical memory–the feelings associated with it: fear and anger.

Touch, welcome touch, matters. Usually when someone touches us in a positive way, other things come along for the ride–a pleasant tone of voice, a smile, a sympathetic or empathetic word, laughter, congenial words. As a package deal, I have to believe this makes a difference in how we feel about ourselves and others and affects who we become. Maybe we ought to consider this  in our daily interactions. Our tone, the look on our face, the hand on a shoulder, might keep us more aware of the role we play in others’ lives and how interconnected we are.

It might save us all.


What I Learned in 2015


I’ve lost a number of friends in my life; most in the “normal” way–years pass, our lives change, we grow apart. No pain. In my adult life, however, I have suffered some big losses in terms of friendship, and sometimes it takes years of perspective to see my part in the demise of the relationship or to see that the relationship was not a good one to begin with. Over time, as these endings have added up, I am convinced that I must be doing something terrible to my friends, or that I am just a very difficult person, or that I am so totally unaware of my self-presentation that I make the same mistakes repeatedly. I need to figure out what it is and work on myself, I say. I talk to my spouse about this all the time. He disagrees; he points out the differences in communication style (New Yorkers have a way about them–what can I say?), he highlights what he calls a lack of stability in the people I choose. “You’re an artist,” he says, “and your friends are artists.” “Artist” is non-artist code for crazy.

He loves me.

As “tough” as I pretend to be, I am really not. I hate confrontation. That is, I hate confrontation with people who are in my life—taxi drivers who refuse to be paid in coins, customers who cut in line at the store are a different story. I have been grateful to have friends who demand face time, who believe our relationship is worth that, and I have been learning to ask for that myself, even though I can feel every cell of my body urging me in the other direction. To my surprise, though, I haven’t been as quick to let go, cut people off, as I would think; I do ask for an audience or a chance to listen.

The first big loss that comes to mind is B.K., a woman with whom I traveled across the U.S., settling in Seattle. We were both at a time of upheaval in our lives and could think of nothing better than chucking it all and heading west. To this day, I believe all people in their 20s ought to do this (not the direction we chose, necessarily, but the trip, the distance, the dive into the unknown). After two years there as roommates, the tension between us was heavy. I was terribly immature and unhappy. B. had made friends in our new city because there were plenty of young people at her job; I had made almost none (I worked at an all-male securities firm). B. had even dated a guy; the one man I thought had shown interest in me actually called me to ask for someone else’s number. I was dependent on B. for companionship. I had no plans, no view of a future me, so I packed up again, headed back to New York. I tried to keep my friendship with B., but she wasn’t having it. To this day, I’m not sure what happened, except for the enmity in our relationship over our respective experiences in Seattle. The last time I heard from her was just after I’d gotten married, more than fifteen years ago. My fiance and I agreed we’d pay for her ticket to come to the wedding. At one point, before my Judaism took over, I thought of having her perform the ceremony. She never responded to the wedding invitation. For years afterward I felt sad and confounded. I knew I had hurt her, I must have hurt her, but I didn’t know how, and she wasn’t talking. She lives across the country from me, so except for noticing when it’s her birthday, I rarely think of her.

Then there was W.D. We had become very close during graduate school, so much so that she had become part of my family–my kids expected her to be at our table for Friday night dinner. She was funny as hell, smart, sarcastic, maybe somewhat lacking in self-awareness, or maybe incredibly self-aware. Honestly, I’m not sure. I loved her, loved hanging out with her. I was the only one of our mutual friends to help her move, I made her a birthday cake, I made her a bed in my living room when she was too drunk to go home, I took care of her rodent when she went away. Then one day we went off to a professional conference together, and that was it. She got a cold (it must have been a bad one, though she looked okay), and the conference became a misery for her. Unfortunately, from my point of view, it seemed she thought it should then be a misery for me and our other hotel roommate, too. In a plot line that would become familiar to me, I became the target of her wrath, the one who didn’t seem to care about her. I have tried to apologize (I don’t even remember what for) a number of times, and my attempts at reconciliation or even just détente have all been rejected, or seemingly purposely misunderstood. She lives a continent away, and so it is easier to figure out how to move on, which, finally, I have.

D.S.’s relationship with me was short-lived. She and her girlfriend are very smart, well-read, interesting people who are devoted to social justice. I loved being around them, because I always learned something from them and they made me laugh—a lot. D. and I got into an argument on social media about something very, very stupid, and she broke up with me in a text. I was sad, but only for about as long as the relationship had lasted. And I have given thought to her perspective since; I still don’t think she’s right, but it matters a whole lot less to me now. I assume the problem began before this particular argument, but I don’t know what it was. Someone who can’t tell me to my face what the problem is doesn’t need to be in my life. She lives nearby, but as I have removed myself from many of the circles we have in common, I rarely see her.

But now there’s M.I. She is a mother, a leader, a poet. She has been a teacher, a journalist, a boss lady, a fundraiser, a stay-at-home mom, and probably other roles I’ve forgotten or haven’t learned yet. She is a loving person who seems to have endless room in her heart for everyone, even people the rest of us might think were lost causes because of the evil they perpetrate. In solidarity with her, I quit a job at a place she’d been mistreated. I was in fact the only one to do so. Together we made a plan to help others doing what we love. We gathered around us like-minded women, but I was the one who continued to be her rock (and she mine), to actually perform the task we set out to perform, while everyone else did nothing. Our vision and motivation may have been slightly different, but only enough to give our goal needed energy.

Now that I am outside the great circle of warmth and friendship she creates, I can see the persona she has quite carefully constructed, built and fortified over time such that she has lost sight of the fact that it is just a construct. Her heart bleeds blue upon her sleeve. Her clothes are a costume; she embodies the word “poet,” she is earth-mother-warrior, she is a victim. Everything that happens or is said is about her. She has decided that I am an angry person. In some ways, it reminds me of the roles I always felt my parents had constructed for their four children–nothing we ever did or said was going to change us in their eyes. This is actually not quite true, but it is how I felt. I know there is nothing I can do to change her mind about how she has characterized me. My frustration at that is eating me, and I need to let it go for my own sake. Anger is not my state of being, but I am angry at her, for sure.

Shortly after M.’s father died, we went out for drinks, and were eventually joined by a mutual friend. M. got very drunk. And while she was drunk, she proceeded to verbally attack me in ways that were both ludicrous and prejudiced. It was crazy. I felt unable to defend myself against the wall of nonsense before me. The friend that was with us tried to get M. to see that what she was saying was out of line, but drinks plus grief had won the night. The next day, I made a fatal error. I wrote a lot of what I could not get across to her the night before in a Facebook post. No one knew what I was talking about except M. and my husband, but it was too much for her. It was the second time in our friendship that I had been bluntly honest about her privilege (a word she uses readily with others but doesn’t like to hear applied to herself). And I had done it “publicly.” Faced with reality, embarrassed by her own flaws and hypocrisy, she rejected the source of that truth. Does it matter that our mutual friend made the same arguments to her? No, the bile and venom is all for me because I put it on Facebook. There have been other times she has “forgotten” things she said to me when she was drinking. I have learned that she cannot be wrong. I have learned that my friendship is not worth much to her, that even though, in her mind, murderers and rapists deserve our sympathy and understanding, I do not. She has been so cold to me, I’d actually be impressed by it if it didn’t hurt so much. And so I feel I’ve been on the losing end of a great injustice, that I’m calling out my pain, only no one hears me, no one is listening. I have been sad ever since, though the direction of my sadness has been all over the place. My social life has taken an enormous hit, that’s for sure.

So, you could say I’ve learned some important things. I need to use social media differently; that is to say, I must use it cautiously. The temptation these days is to do all our communicating with a keyboard, and even as I yell at the kids to put down the phone or the tablet or the laptop, I have become utterly devoted to the fluidity, speed, and immediacy of typing and clicking. Bad idea*. Some things don’t belong on social media, and among them are personal conversations between friends, whether those talks are full of love or full of anger.

I’ve also learned that you can’t change someone’s opinion of you, and more importantly, you shouldn’t try. What people think and feel is not under my control. I don’t get to have a say, so allowing myself to be so upset and wrapped up in it is a waste of my time, my energy, my health. This is easy to say, less easy to do, but I am trying. I can only be responsible for my own crazy.

The common thread in these losses? Not one of these women would talk to me. They refused to tell me what I had done or said, or what their own issues were that required an end to the friendship. Upon reflection, I see that is very odd indeed. Schoolyard-level behavior, in fact.

Now that I am nearing 50, I am also learning what a friend is. A true friend. I am not as good a reader of people as I have always liked to believe. Because I can be used and abused for quite a while before I realize what’s up. I’m so pleased to have someone around who seems to like me, you see. The key to avoiding that pitfall is to learn that I am deserving of people’s admiration and affection just as I am. I don’t have to do things for people, nor do I need to hide what I think. If someone is my friend, she will love me because I’m me, and not because I can be manipulated or because I keep my mouth shut. Not because I fill a quota. Not because I embody something envied or something pitied. I think if I keep those things in mind, I can be a better friend, as well.

*I am aware of the irony that I am posting this essay on my blog.



The door is gone; all is blackness inside. A cardinal darts across the porch, a bold contrast of life and color. The dogs have stopped to smell everything around a nearby tree, so I stand looking, from across the street, at the devastation of the house. There is a tarp on one part of the roof which lifts gently and rattles a bit in the cold wind. There are boards where the windows were, and the only view inside, at least from where I am, is the black hole of the front entrance. I see that there are burned items inside the house, but I don’t know what they are–furniture, perhaps. The rocking chair and its cushion still sit on the porch. There is still the small table with a brightly colored cloth.

And now I know–there is something about a burned house, one I am familiar with. I think of the retriever puppy who played under the tree in the front yard in warmer weather, now an adult dog who was carried out amid the flames by firefighters. I have seen things like this on the news, have heard before, “they lost everything,” but I have never seen what that means. This is physical, tangible. More than a loss of things, this is somehow a violation. To lose everything means so much more than stuff, money, mementos–it is to lose one’s sense of place, of safety, of home. A deep breath. The dogs are ready to move on.

Inside my own little house, I hang up the leashes, put my coat on the hook by the door. One dog curls up on the couch for a nap; the other runs to his favorite sun-drenched spot in the backyard. Their habits. My things and their places. I am away from the cold weather, safe from any harm that could come to me out in the wide world. I am enveloped in the sense of ownership, selfhood, belonging. What a terrible feeling to lose.