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Monday, December 17, 2012


On Friday morning I wrote a post on the killing of Najia Seddiqi, yet another women’s rights activist and official who was murdered last week in Afghanistan, only five months after the assassination of her predecessor, Hanifa Safi. Then I heard the news about the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

At first I combined both atrocious events, but I could not post that piece even though the events shared a common thread, that of senseless violence. I decided that my post on Najia should wait, for I had to respond to the colossal tragedy that happened in Newtown separately. How could I not? 

But what could I write? That it is imperative that this country should have an honest debate about its violent nature? That the time has come for both the Federal Government and civil society to finally debate in earnest America’s gun culture, the power of lobbying groups, especially the gun lobby that is one of the most powerful influencing groups in American politics? That we should talk about the politics of mental health and the bureaucratic hurdles families of mental patients have to go through to get the help they need before they give up?

Yes, I should discuss these issues, but so have many others.

What else could I write? That like most people in the US and abroad who saw the news, I was shocked, saddened, dismayed, petrified, and angry? That I hope that these sentiments will remain with the American public long enough to prompt these debates, which will hopefully result in necessary changes, from safer built schools to political and cultural change?

I could write about these issues, but many pundits and politicians have debated them this past weekend. 

I could tell you -- though that will not be original either -- that as a grandmother of two children ages five and seven I could imagine in my darkest fantasy the faces of the beautiful twenty murdered young children to be the faces of my grandchildren, because in the prevailing environment the Sandy Hook massacre could happen in any suburban town in America. But that vision was too horrific to bear. 

I could tell you that I could imagine my daughter and son in law being in that firehouse, awaiting news about their children. But I could not bear that thought either.

I too am a teacher, though my college students are much older than those who attended Sandy Hook elementary school.  At least once I had a seemingly threatening situation with a disturbed student. My school and I took the necessary measures immediately. But sometimes, especially after a school shooting, I visualize a situation when a distraught student enters my classroom with a gun.  Would I act as bravely as the six slaughtered Sandy Hook officials and teachers did? I should never have to find out. 


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Sunday, December 2, 2012

Tyranny Defeated; Cruelty that Goes on

Initially I wanted this post to be about my visit on Thanksgiving Day to the beaches of Normandy, where Allied forces attacked German positions from June 6, 1944, to May 8, 1945.  It was a whole-day journey that included the Omaha, Juno and Gold Beaches, where tens of thousands of Allied troops were killed defeating Nazi Germany. We participated in a short yet dignified commemorating ceremony at the impressive memorial in the American military cemetery, which sits on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach. We ended the day with too short a run in the nearby museum. 

I am used to visit military cemeteries: Since my first husband was killed in war, I have been visiting his grave annually during my trips to Israel.While my visits there are very personal and are naturally moving, there was nothing personal on my visit to the Normandy cemetery. But it was touching nonetheless. With thanks and gratitude my husband and I moved among the graves of soldiers of different ages, some as young as seventeen or eighteen, some killed on the first day of battle. Among the 9,387 graves there are thirty-three pairs of brothers and one pair of a father and his son. 149 graves are of Jewish soldiers.

I meant to write about that day a week ago, as soon as I returned home from our Normandy trip. Being caught with schoolwork I kept procrastinating until today. Then, just before I got ready to write my post I read about Gul Meena, the young Afghan “honor” victim who survived a brutal attack, presumably by her brother, who wanted to avenge her for seemingly being an adulterer, bringing shame on her family. I decided to write about her instead.

According to rumors , Gul, an eighteen year old married woman, ran away with another young man. When her family caught the two, they struck her with an ax 15 times, deeply slashing her face and head; the boy killed. Reportedly, in the hospital, where she is recovering against all odds, no one comes to visit or question her. Not her mother or father, not her tribe members, not the police, not anyone from the Ministry of Women's Affairs. 

Islam does not call for honor killing. Yet most if not all honor killings are committed by Muslims in Middle Eastern, African and Asian countries, and increasingly so in Western countries, including the US. The reason for the murders committed under this cultural custom vary: from killing girls who dress in western style to killing girls who run away from forced marriage or killing  rape victim, often due to incest. And while the majority of these killings are done by the male members of the women’s or girls’ families--most often the fathers or brothers of these female victims--recently in Pakistan fifteen-year old Anusha Zafar was killed by her mother for looking at a boy. The girl's pleas for mercy did not help. 

While there is no accurate statistics about honor killing, in 2011 The United Nations Population Fund estimated that over 5000 women are killed annually worldwide. Experts, however, believe that number to be too low. Tragically, this barbaric practice continues with minimal consequences even in countries where honor killing has been outlawed. And while civil society in some countries try to help potential victims, many times the hand of NGOs are tied because of cultural relativism. It is therefore  up to all governments to protect women against this practice. 

In 2009 UN Women, launched the UNiTE to End Violence against Women campaign, which aims to prevent and eliminate violence against women and girls in all parts of the world. During its first phase over five million people signed on to the campaign. But less than 80 government added their names to that platform.  In 2011, under this drive UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon directed attention to honor killing. He should lead the way to end it. 


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Friday, November 16, 2012

Savita Halappanavar

In a couple of hours I will be leaving for a cruise on the Seine that will take me from Paris to Normandy and back. I am still unpacked. But I wanted to quickly write this entry. 

I am worried about the hundreds of rockets that have been flying between Israel and Gaza, killing fifteen Palestinians and three Israelis by the time of this writing. I am distressed about the violence and its potential ramification on the Egyptian-Israeli and Israeli-Jordanian peace, and on the rest of the volatile Middle East. I am distressed about the range of Hamas’s rockets that have landed in central Israel, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. But I question the wisdom of the assassination of Ahmed Jabari, though I agree that Israel had to respond to the continuous shelling of its civilian population by extremist Islamic groups in Gaza and to Hamas’s unwillingness or inability to stop it. 

But the events in the Middle East, though close to my heart, are not what I wanted to write about so hastily. What I want to address as a woman is the death of Savita Halappanavar, the 31-year-old Indian woman whose life was sacrificed in the middle of a miscarriage in the name of the right of the unborn.
It happened in Ireland, a member of the European Union, which together with UN Women is actively involved in protecting and promoting women's rights.

Her doctors’ refusal to perform an abortion because her fetus’s heart was still beating even though it could not survive in its mother’s womb was irrational because it endangered her life unnecessarily. Savita’s grieving mother and husband adequately and painfully expressed the absurdity of that decision, which was based on a 1983 amendment to the Irish constitution, guaranteeing the right to life of the unborn. 

While it is not surprising that the “right to life” groups in Ireland rushed to deny that an abortion might have saved Savita’s life, it is encouraging to see the many demonstrators, man and women alike, who demand the immediate legalization of abortion in Ireland, reopening the abortion debate in that Catholic country. 
Savita’s unnecessary and tragic death should not only do the same in post election America, but it the rest of the world. The United Nations Population Division and UN Women could lead the way.  This women’s rights matter is a human rights issue. 


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Sunday, November 4, 2012


Though I had recognized it could be viewed tactless, initially I supported Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to hold the NY's Marathon as scheduled, believing it would imitate a return to normalcy after the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy. 

Living on the seventeenth floor in a building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and hardly affected by the storm (though my neighborhood was flooded by the East River) I could afford such thinking. But as the suffering faces of those who were less fortunate than I kept appearing on TV, especially residents of Staten Island (from where the Marathon was to start), I became increasingly ambivalent about holding the race this weekend. 

But then I walked in Central Park today, as I had done yesterday and the day before, and I made up my mind, siding with those who demanded that the Marathon be canceled or postponed. 

Deviating from my regular path, I found myself at the finishing line of the canceled Marathon, where one could hardly recognize that the event was canceled: Amid cheering crowds there were hundreds of registered runners who refused to let the canceled race spoil their plans.  Many wore their orange shirts, some with their bibs attached. Their resilience was not what bothered me. On the contrary.

Before calling off the race the mayor had assured Staten Islanders and residents of other devastated communities, who were both angered and offended by the Mayor’s original decision, that the resources they needed for recovery would not be channeled toward the Marathon.  But it could hardly be the truth. When I looked today at the completed preparations for the race, including the park cleanup after the storm, the installed bleachers and the portable toilets, I knew the preparations 
required many working hands that should have been cleaning Sandy’s aftermath in those destroyed communities. 

As for the storm, first I watched it through my windows. The East River promenade and the FDR were immersed in water, transformed into one big river. I dared to go out onto my terrace, seeing nature in its mighty grandeur. The sight was fierce but awesome. Standing on the 17th floor feeling the strong winds and seeing the gushing river was a powerful experience. Then, like a few other crazies from the neighborhood I went down to the water to take pictures. The wind was ferocious, knocking down trees, the water mad. It was truly unforgettable.

My daughter, her husband, and my two grandchildren, who live in Long Island, have been staying with my husband and me since last Sunday. They have had no power in their home and it may not return for another week. Cousins who live in downtown Manhattan had no power till Friday. They came to our home daily to bath and charge their electronic devices. I have been cooking and cleaning round the clock, playing with and reading to my grandchildren, feeling extremely lucky in the aftermath of Sandy. 


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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Malala Yousafzai

The good new is that Malala Yousafzai, the fourteen-year-old Pakistani girl who on October 9th was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen is recovering. To recall, Malala was shot because she courageously promoted girls’ education. Encouraging, too, was the anger with which many Pakistanis reacted to the shooting.

The bad news is that less than two weeks after the incident Pakistanis are reported to feel less rage over the shooting of the young high school student. Instead, true to the widely spread conspiracy theories in the Muslim world, they are now becoming suspicious of the United States being involved in the shooting of Malala in order to further tarnish the Taliban’s reputation of extremism, intolerance and cruelty, while Islamists infer that she was an American agent.

Only four months before Malala’s shooting, in July of this year, twenty-five year-old Farida Afridi was also shot, most likely by the Taliban. Farida, however, did not survive the attack. Her "crime" was creating, three years before her murder, the Society for Appraisal and Woman Empowerment in Rural Areas (SAWERA), providing women information about their rights. Though Afridi had been repeatedly warned by extremists about her activity, she continued her activism till her death.

Like Malala and Farida, other female activists have been accused by militants
of corrupting the minds of non-suspecting innocent women. These activists have complained of the erosion of women’s rights and lawlessness against women in Pakistan, especially in the Swat Valley, in the north-western part of the country. Despite these conditions some Pakistani women are becoming braver.
Among them is the filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, whose film Saving Face won an Oscar this year. In it Sharmeen bravely exposes the practice of acid attacks on women in her country by abusive men, and the lack of accountability for these crimes.

And let’s not forget Mukhtaran Bibi, who in 2002 was sentence by a Mastoni tribal council for gang rape because her teenage brother was accused of having sexual relations with an unmarried woman of that tribe. Rather than committing suicide after being raped as custom dictated, Mukhtaran spoke up and legally pursued the case. Though six men (including her four rapists) were sentenced that year to death, in 2005 a high court acquitted five of the six men and commuted the punishment for the sixth man to a life sentence. In 2011 the Supreme Court acquitted the accused.
While American women are rightfully concerned with domestic women’s issues this elections season, we ought to remember the plight of Pakistani and other Asian women, as President Obama and Mitt Romney discuss foreign policy issues on their last debate before the upcoming elections.

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Sunday, October 7, 2012

A Bad Week

On women’s issues this past week disappointed me. It began in my senior seminar on ethnic conflict, with a discussion of Samuel Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilization and ended with the presidential debate.

First I had a disappointing session in my class, when Huntington’s book provoked a discussion on American foreign policy. Some of the young men and women in this small class have been so angered by American intervention in Iraq, its killing of civilians in Afghanistan, and its continued support of oil-rich authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, that they failed to recognize what constitutes an outrageous abuse of women’s rights.

In his book Huntington theorized that because human beings are divided along cultural lines, in the post Cold War era, conflicts would erupt not between nation-states (or countries), but among civilizations, defined by him as the largest cultural groupings of the human species. He then identified seven or so civilizations, including a Western, Islamic, Hindu, Latin and so forth.  Of these, the most wearisome for him was the Islamic one.

At the time of its publication in the early to mid 1990s, Huntington’s work was both praised and criticized. The criticism that made the most sense to me was the argument that the world could not be neatly divided into different civilizations, none of which was homogenous anyhow.

But then came 9/11, and many of Huntington’s followers evoked his work, arguing that the attack on the Twin Towers and what ensued was proof that his thesis was correct. His opponents maintained that one could not artificially identify a standardized Muslims culture.

That in turn provoked a discussion in my class on the recent video that insulted the prophet Muhammad and the violence that it incited in Muslim countries, and the debate on free speech it triggered in the West, providing the context for the exchange that upset me.

As we became engaged in a discussion on cultural and moral relativism, some students argued that the West in general and the US in particular have no right to criticize any customs or behavior in societies that are culturally different from them.

And what if such customs or behavior violate universal human rights? I asked.
Those practices are domestic matters that no outsider should criticize, the same students insisted.

What about honor killing or female genital mutilation, to mention but two examples that grossly violate the right of young girls and women, mostly in Islamic societies? I asked.

Just the same, the students argued. If that’s the local custom, and law does not protect them, let the women die—they actually said that--or be mutilated. Protest from other students, including females, was disappointedly muted.

The following day I was looking forward to the first presidential debate, hoping that the candidates will touch upon women’s issues. And what a disillusionment that was. That neither candidate mentioned women within the context of the economy or healthcare, disheartened me still more.  Perhaps the coming week will see an improvement.

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Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Good Day

I had a rewarding day today.

Weeks ago my cousin Arlene asked me if I could join her to the New Montefiore Cemetery in Long Island for a memorial ceremony for Radom Jews who perished in the Holocaust. This ceremony takes place every year on the Sunday that falls between the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Radom is the Polish town where my father and his siblings and her parents lived (my father and Arlene’s mother were first cousins). But my father left Radom with his family in 1926 when he was fifteen, immigrating to Palestine, whereas Arlene’s parents remained there until after World War II, heroically and miraculously surviving the Holocaust. 

30,000 of the 280,000 Jews who lived in Radom perished in the Holocaust. Among them was my great- grandfather Samuel Bakman, who owned a flour mill, which stood on the shore of the Radomka River that runs through town. He died of hunger either in the large ghetto in the center of Radom, or in the small ghetto in its Glinice suburb, in 1941-1942.  His two sisters were sent with their families to the Auschwitz death camp where they were murdered. 

In 2010 I traveled with my Israeli cousin Anat, to Radom to trace our family history, and to the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps, where part of our family perished. Nothing that I have studied, read, or seen in films, documentaries or photos; none of the interviews I had watched and the Holocaust museums I had visited, including Yad Vashem; not even my previous visit to the Terezienstadt concentration camp near Prague, had prepared me for Birkenau and Auschwitz. What socked me most was the efficiency with which the Nazis ran their oiled death machine and industry. They left nothing, not even the minutest detail to chance: they carefully calculated where the trains carrying their Jewish human transport would first stop, where their victims would initially be selected for immediate death or for forced labor, often by young SS soldiers; where their victims first undressed, where they were first disinfected and shaved, their hair used by the Nazis to manufacture fabric, and where they were disinfected for the second time if they had not been immediately selected for the gas chambers; where their clothing was first fumigated, where their clothing was fumigated for the second time; where their clothing and other belongings were collected, sorted and stored; where they would die by the Zyclon B poisoning gas, and where and how their corpses would be burned. It took merely twenty-five minutes from the time the human cargo arrived to the camps selected to die and turned into ash.
Yet since my arrival in the United States in 1969 I have never been part of the Radom community here, hence I have never participated in the ceremony commemorating Radom Jews, till today.

Since the time I told Arlene that I would join her, both my schedule and my logistics have changed. But because she depended on my driving I had to really maneuver to be able to drive.  And I was glad I did.

There, under the bluest of skies, for the first time I saw the two impressive monuments that commemorate Radom Jews. More importantly, I saw three generations of Holocaust survivors: The first who barely makes it to the cemetery but still comes, aided by their children, some of whom are themselves elderly, and their grandchildren. There were tears and there was laughter, and there was hope that nothing like the Holocaust will never happen again to any minority wherever it lives, and the hope that the gatherers will all be there at the same time next year.

Among the other gatherers I met Millie Werber, whose story was eloquently told by the writer Eve Keller in her recently published book Two Rings, and Millie’s sons, who accompanied her.

After the ceremony I visited my dearest friend Amy, who is buried in the same cemetery after succumbing to cancer eighteen months ago. Then I rushed to Brooklyn to catch what was left of the Brooklyn Book Festival, capturing two panels on subjects that interested me.

A good day indeed.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

On the High Holidays

Lately I have been engulfed with a feeling I could not define. Emptiness. I thought, concerned. But I have a life too full and rich to feel empty. I have a job I love; the new semester began with a bang, with my students arguing passionately about Iran, Israel, terrorism, war, peace, the world. And yes, that I still have no publisher for my memoir—a book in which I put my heart and soul, not to mention the time I dedicated to write and rewrite it--is a source of gloom. But after taking most of the summer off I am back contacting literary agents. Besides I have begun writing a new women’s fiction, an activity that has given me new energy and much enthusiasm. I deeply love and I am loved in return. Above and beyond, my seven-and-a-half year old granddaughter wants me to live to be a hundred and work until she can be my student and my four-and-a-half year old grandson wants to marry me. I feel no apathy or loneliness, which are associated with emptiness at least in the western philosophy to which I adhere. 

Depressed?  I question myself. After all I am the daughter of a woman who suffered clinical depressions and relished in her misery. Admittedly, the older I get the more preoccupied I am with the passage of time, sometimes grieving for those moments that will never return. But no. I am not a depressed person. If anything, my life story is testimony to my fervent optimism. 

It’s the Holidays, stupid, I suddenly realized. I feel unsettled every year at the end of the month of Elul, the last month of the Hebrew calendar (which usually corresponds with the month of September). 

For Jews it is a time of self-reflection, individually and collectively. It is also a time Jews think of departed loved ones and their legacies.  But mostly, believing Jews acknowledge it is the period they are being judges by God before God inscribes their fate for the coming year. 

Growing up fearing God I didn’t worry so much about God’s decision, since on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, my mother would stay all day in our neighborhood Shull, or small synagogue, crying and praying to God to inscribe her and her family in the book of life, keeping us safe, I believed. I was certain, too, that my paternal Hasidic grandparents would take care of us in their prayers. My father, I should mention, was not part of that safety net. Averse to religion because it was forced upon him by his father, for him--and for my sister and me --going to Shull during the High Holidays was a social thing. 

The harshest testimony of my father’s antipathy to religion that I can recall was his bringing chspeck (fresh bacon) to our kosher home one day. What made his deed even worse than contaminating our kitchen with forbidden food, was the fact that he did that on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar next to the Sabbath that precedes it. Wrapped in white paper, he hid it in the back of our refrigerator till the following day, when my mother was in the synagogue; my sister probably with her friends, and I at home alone with my father. Frying the chspeck on Yom Kippur, the day of fasting, he made two sandwiches on challah bread, one for him, the other for me, making me promise that I would not tell anyone, particularly my mother, what had occurred in our kitchen. It was a hell of a good sandwich. I was seven or eight.

When I grew older and read in the prayer book the horrible ways in which condemned Jews were inscribed to die in the coming year, I would shiver wondering who would write such horrific descriptions. That no one is presumed innocent made my anxiety worse. To feel safe, I would tell myself that God had no time to follow every person on earth, determining his or her fate. Wait! I would then tremble. God has helpers. Besides He, as we learned, was omnipotent. There was nothing He couldn’t do. 

As a secular yet cultural Jew I still go to temple on the High Holidays, though I do that for shorter periods. Mostly I marvel at the fact that around the world my fellow Jews do the same thing at the same time, bonded by our common tradition. I shudder less when I read those frightening passages, still trying to decide for myself the nature of God. Besides, I am more angered than frightened by those passages, rejecting the notion that religion should instill fear in its followers, while acknowledging that many religious leaders and their adherents would argue that it is the love rather than the fear of God that is intended in the teaching of Judaism, and that my interpretation of the Holiday Prayer Book is distorted. Perhaps. 

Yet still tormented by my childhood fear of God, I am a true follower: In the Book of Leviticus (23:27) God tells Moses that on Yom Kippur Jews must torture their souls. For whoever is not afflicted on that very day shall be cut off from his people (23:29). 

Have a joyful and peaceful New Year. 

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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Legitimate Rape?

           Though you have asked for forgiveness I would not pardon you Todd Akin for your appalling, shocking, insulting, disturbing, ignorant and arrogant remarks on rape, including your surmising—before your forced retraction—that rape is unlikely to result in pregnancy. I wish I knew that fact over four decades ago, when my dead husband’s best friend who was my friend too raped me. That information would have saved me an unnecessary worry on top of my agony. I am certain too that many infertile women would love to know that they are actually in control of their reproductive organs, a knowledge that may give them hope.
           And what exactly did you mean by “legitimate rape?” Is it the right of a husband to forcefully demand that his wife fulfills her marital duties to him? Is it a sexual act forced upon a woman who was dressed provocatively? Is it a sexual act forced upon a woman because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time? Is it a sexual act forced upon a woman because she did not yell "NO" loud enough? Is it a sexual act forced upon a woman too small to fight off a man twice her size or a man holding a gun over her head? Men too are rape victims, but here you assumption is right: the likelihood of pregnancy does not exist.
           Let me enact for you the scene of my own rape Mr. Akin, perhaps you’d learn something about that devastating experience.
           By choice I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, in a room at a well known, well respected New York City hotel, where a close friend whom I viewed as a brother was a guest.
          This is not happening, I thought alarmingly when Aaron began to force himself on me. Aaron, who held a high position in the Israeli military establishment, was on an official visit to NY and we planned ahead to meet upon his arrival. We were good friends since my boyfriend Yigal, later my husband, introduced me to Aaron, his wife Rachel, and their two young kids. Except for my sister and her husband, Aaron and Rachel were the closest people to me, especially after Yigal was brutally killed in war two years before the rape.
           Stay calm, I told myself terrified. Perhaps he is drunk; I’ll order some coffee for him. But he forcefully pushed me onto a bed and started to kiss me.
           “Stop it!” I screamed, trying to get away. But he kept at it.
           “I want you,” he exclaimed in a voice I never heard before.
           Please God, answer my prayers now. Don’t let this happen. You owe me! But God had nothing to do with what followed.
          “Get off me,” I shrieked, while trying to fight him with all the strength I had, but he was a tall, strong man, who must have weighed close to two hundred pounds, and I, the hundred-and-ten pounds that I weighed, had little chance. My physical struggle must have roused him even more, for he was fighting back excitedly, his pants off.
           “No,” I screamed repeatedly from the top of my lungs, but he was brutal. Change strategy; plead with him, perhaps he will come to his senses.
           “Rachel, what about Rachel?” I cried frantically.
           “She said that with you it was all right,” he said lying.
           “Yigal, what about Yigal? He was your best friend!” I screamed desperately.
           “He is dead,” I heard the devil say. 
           At that moment, the reality of Yigal’s death was crueler than ever, but I continued fighting till he let go of me after he had reached his sexual climax, only partially penetrated inside of me, for I managed to fight him off, however incompletely.
          Sickened, I ran to the bathroom to wash. More than anything else I felt dirty, but I was also afraid of getting pregnant. As I got out of the bathroom only minutes later, he was peacefully sleeping; while I, his prey, was shattered into pieces. I dressed and left the hotel. My world had crumbled.
           When I arrived at my apartment Yigal’s framed photograph was glancing at me. I hated him with all my heart for leaving me and for having the friends that he did. With anger and pain I smashed his picture into the wall with as much force as that with which I had fought Aaron a short while earlier. The glass on the frame shattered into as many pieces as my broken heart, but that was insufficient, for I also tore the photo into small pieces. I then fell on my bed and began to cry, sounding like a wounded animal.
           For the following two weeks I isolated myself at home.
           “I lost hope in mankind,” I told my boss as he was trying to console me.
           “You must remember that men are not all like that. You must repeat it as a mantra, everyday. We are not all like that. But Aaron should not get away with what he did. You should press criminal charges against him.” 
           “No one would believe me,” I said in panic. “What was I doing in his hotel room to begin with?”
           Like other rape survivors I feared that I would be accused of provoking my own rape. I was also certain that Aaron, holding the high position in the military and defense establishments that he did, would abuse his power even further. Nothing was beneath him, I assumed, my mind running wild imagining an army of false witnesses he would be able to recruit, who would assassinate my character.
           Nearly thirty years after the rape, able at last to openly and publicly talk about that experience, I began to inquire whether I could still press criminal charges against Aaron. But he soon died a dreadful death. I will not share with you my reaction when I learned about his suffering and passing.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

On the Wonders of America

This past week, when I stood on the rim of the majestic Grand Canyon, I couldn’t but marvel at the forces of nature that had created the awe-inspiring ravine some 1.7 billion years ago. On a group tour out west my husband and I were to continue to Powell, Brice, and Zion canyons, ending our trip in Las Vegas, from where we’d return to New York after eleven days of traveling.

But a disturbing phone call, and a heat wave combined with high altitude, made my husband felt momentarily ill. Because we were to continue to even warmer weather, higher altitudes and places with no medical facilities, we ended up at the park’s clinic. After a thorough checkup by the attending physician and a consultation with our cardiologist in New York, we all agreed that under the circumstances we should cut our trip short and go home. I would return another time to visit these nature’s wonders which I so anticipated seeing.

 The concierge in the park hotel where we stayed booked us flights back to New York and arranged for a taxi that took take us on a ninety minute drive to the nearest airport at the town of Flagstaff, from where we were to continue to Phoenix, then to Vegas to get home. But because of what amounted to the antithesis of America’s wonders, namely the inefficiency of misinformed airline employees, we missed the flight to Phoenix that evening, ending up spending the night in Flagstaff, a town we would probably never see if it were not for the saga of our trip back home.

 The next morning we arrived from Phoenix in Las Vegas only to find that we missed the connecting flight to NY. Having to stay six hours at the airport to get on the next flight, we decided to spend the following two nights in Vegas.

 I was in this wondrous city forty four years ago after arriving in the States, on a trip I took with three guy friends to the West Coast’s National Parks, San Francisco and Vegas (I almost killed us all when I nearly drove off a cliff), and I had no intention of visiting Vegas again, in spite of or because of what I heard about the new hotels that has been built there in the last few decades at the cost of billions of dollars.

 My husband and I checked in a quiet, elegant hotel away from the tumult of the Vegas Strip. How colonial I thought, when an East Asian member of the hotel’s pool staff offered to spray us with a cool mist of Evian water as we sat comfortably on fancy beach lounges covered with lush terry sheets. Like four decades ago, I balked at the ostentatious nature of Vegas, though living in Manhattan I am exposed to expensive stores and restaurants where two can spend $500 on dinner; and may be, in New York, the two men dinning at a table next to us in Vegas with two young attractive Brazilian women, girls really, would be more discrete fondling these women while talking about their wives back home.

 The following morning my husband and I explored some of the newer hotels . Within a matter of half a day we visited Rome, Venice, Bellagio and Paris. Where else could we do that other than in the grandiose Las Vegas hotels?

 On arrival at the Venetian Hotel with its canals and singing gondoliers, I burst out laughing at the site of instant Venice and the unmistakable kitsch. But then I looked up and saw the replica of St. Mark’s Square with its grand architecture, and I found creativity, ingenuity, entrepreneurialism and even beauty.

 Hopping from Venice to Paris via Rome and Bellagio, one can’t help noticing the diversity of the tourist body that visits Vegas. In a matter of two days I heard a multitude of languages, including Assyrian, French, German, Hebrew, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and more; and there was an apparent class differentiation as well. All sharing the dream of escapism however they define it. Here in Vegas, one can hardly recognize that a war is still raging in Afghanistan, or Syria, and that women and children still suffer the consequences of conflict and war.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

On Women's Sexuality

    This post is about women’s sexuality: one denied, the other explored. What caught my attention this past week was a small news item printed on July 21, in the New York Times’ “World Briefing” section, which summarizes events that have occurred in various parts of the world. In one short update the paper informed its readers that in Ivory Coast, nine women were sentenced to two years in prison each for carrying out Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) over an extended period, a practice that has been banned in that West African country since 1998.

    That barbaric cultural practice has been performed on young girls between infancy and age 15, usually by elder village midwives, who use rusty razors, scissors or broken glass to cut out the females’ clitoris and the labia, to permanently eradicate the women’s ability to enjoy intercourse, thereby ensuring fidelity to their husbands. The procedure, which is often performed without any type of anesthetics, is excruciatingly painful and dangerous. Occasionally it causes death as a result of bleeding or infection, but also infertility and life-long pain, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn mortality. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM.

    Some observers believe FGM to be a case of cultural relativism, for many young girls in the countries where the practice is either legal or banned, choose the procedure, believing that unless they go through with it their chances to get married in their communities lessens dramatically. But that’s hardly a choice.

    While the United Nations and some Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are doing important work on FGM, and while some African and Middle Eastern countries have banned it, the practice still continues, violating the human rights of women on many levels, among them their ability to discover and enjoying their sexuality.

    While the subject of women’s sexuality is by no means new, it gained a renewed interest in the United States with the publication in 2011 of E. L. James’s erotic trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey. The books, which sketch the relationship between a young college student and a rich businessman, are notable for their explicitly erotic scenes involving bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism, and more. Taking America by storm, it sold tens of million of copies, becoming the fastest growing best seller ever, granting its author over $1,000,000 a week, or $160,000 a day, according to some statistics. Because of its unprecedented popularity it’s been the subject of numerous debates on television and the printed media; women have organized special events, occasionally with the author as a guest speaker, to discuss the book and the effects it has had on their lives.

    I have not read any of the books and I don’t know if I will. But as a writer who is experimenting with a new Women’s fiction, I was curious at the lasting effect, if any, the book might have on publishers’ choices. On Wednesday evening I therefore joined a large crowd at McNally and Jackson Book store in Soho, to hear what a panel of authors and other experts had to say on the book and its effect on American culture.

    The panel included the writers Erica Jong, author of Fear of Flying and twenty-one other books, Daniel Bergner, whose book The Other Side of Desire was described by the sponsors as "an open-minded exploration of fringe sexual cultures," Melissa Febos, former dominatrix and author of the Memoir Whip Smart, Ian Kerner, sex counselor and author of She Comes First, and Roxane Gay, a writer for Salon and The Rumpus.

    There was disagreement within the panel as well as between panelists and members of the audience concerning how poorly the book was written, though the consensus was that its writing style was insulting to the lovers of literature. Almost everyone present agreed that the book discovered nothing new. Erica Jong made the point that there were excellent books, which have been written on the subject long ago, such as Lady Chatterley’s Lovers by D.H. Lawrence.

    There was also disagreement between feminists, who thought the book was a poor example for young female readers, who may accept the abuse the young heroine suffered as a new threshold unacceptable to feminists, and those who argued that because the mistreatment was consensual and even enjoyable, it was not abusive. And, there were those who thought that the book had empowered women, who after reading the book, have begun to fantasize and to explore their sexuality. There were those who objected to the class difference of the protagonists, and those who thought nothing of it. But by and large, the agreement was that contrary to popular belief Fifty Shades of Gray did not change the lives of women, single or those who have mates, and that it definitely has not change the American culture, literary or other. I was glad to hear that.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

On Writing

          In Israel, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was acquitted of corruption charges this past Tuesday, creating a media storm there, thereby overshadowing a disturbing government commission report which stipulates that the West Bank—or Judea and Samaria, is not occupied territory, and therefore Jewish settlements there do not violate international law. In Egypt the struggle of power between the Military and the Muslim Brotherhood continues with Parliament being a tossing ball, while in Libya early election results indicate that the Islamists lost.  In Jordan, a member of parliament threw a shoe and pointed a weapon at a political rival in a live talk show dispute over Syria, drawing millions around the world to watch the brawl on YouTube. In Syria top military and diplomatic officials are still defecting as the killing there continues, and Iran is as defiant as it has been regarding its nuclear ambitions.  In Spain, the government is raising taxes and cutting the national budget as part of a deal with Euro zone leaders to help rescue the country’s banks.  And it goes on and on.
 Yes, I am passionate about news from Israel, the Middle East and the rest of the world. But my new passion these days is the main character of the women’s fiction I have just begun to write. She is a woman in her late sixties who refuses to age gracefully.
The news of my new project has been received with mixed reactions: My grown daughter, who felt abandoned when I wrote my memoir, looked at me approvingly and even supportive, while my husband wondered how much time I am going to spend writing my new book. My seven year old granddaughter, who loves writing her own stories, and who believes that she is “just like” me, was clearly impressed. She wondered if I could come to her new school to talk about writing a book, as I did in her kindergarten, when I had been invited by her teachers to do so, and she was the star of her class.
    Some friends were enthusiastic, others were surprised. One of my best friends strongly disapproved, protecting me from what she thought was unnecessary torture I am putting myself through, after spending a considerable time interviewing Israeli and Palestinian women affected by war, writing their stories, then postponing the completion of that book perhaps indefinitely, but speaking about that important issue publically, and then writing my own story; not to mention my book on the Israeli Palestinian peace process, which was published sixteen years ago. Some friends wonder for how long I’d “disappear” this time.
Only a few months ago I pledged to never ever write another book, not wanting to go once more through the grueling process of trying to publish one, as I have been doing with my memoir,  and the disappointment that comes with each rejection letter. But writing is too strong a passion. As I explain to my friends, “my fingers truly itch.” It is especially exciting for me to experiment with a new genre, and to get into my new character, whose identity I assume as I imagine her.
I was going to return to painting this summer, but that will have to wait, unless my new protagonist will want to do just that.    

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A Response to "On Fear and Complacency."

       I would like to share with my readers a response to my last blog which I received from an Israeli relative.
       He read my blog with mixed emotions.  On the one hand he viewed me as an insider:  a citizen who had paid a heavy price when I lost my husband to war, and a person who is familiar with the culture, language, and the nuances of life in Israel, including the daily security and economic hurdles Israelis face and the difficult choices they have to make. 
        On the other hand he viewed me as an outsider:  a visitor who arrives to Israel every year from a relatively safe and comfortable place [the US].  While it is true, he said, that US policies toward the Middle East may influence the region, with the exception of Iran, a country both Israel and the US fear, Americans do not face the risks Israelis do from other entities in the region, like Egypt, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank. Yet, he continued,  in spite of these threats, especially in this tumultuous times in the region, Israelis strive to live a normal life, a task that is not easy, compared to paralleled efforts in the US, Canada, or Western Europe. 
       The turning point for Israelis, he pointed out, occurred with their 2005 evacuation from Gaza, and Hamas’s political and military victories over the Palestinian Authority there in 2006-2007. Since then, southern communities in Israel have lived under the threat of missiles attacks; since the fall of Mubarak the Sinai has become lawless, resulting in rocket attacks on southern Israeli cities.  He asked me to try to imagine such a reality in remote American communities, assuring me that there would be zero tolerance to such threats.  These opinions are not his alone, he wrote, but views that are shared around the country.
        He believed there is no quick or magical solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Occupation corrupts, and Israel’s remaining in the territories does not improve matters. In an ideal world, according to him, Israel should return to the '67 borders, Palestinians should give up the right of return, and a Palestinian state should be formed side by side with Israel. But it takes two to tango, and it seems to him that not only is the dance floor called the Middle East unstable, there's no one to dance with anyway. Maybe the right thing is to stall, and wait for a more stable reality.
       Perhaps, he wrote, in my position as a teacher and a writer I should consider taking a step back. He disagrees that complacency and fear exist in Israel. What does exist, he thinks, is the heavy burden of personal safety combined with a difficult socio-economic reality. Under such conditions, Israel is trying to make decisions that often minimize risks rather than maximize opportunities.
       I understand the resentment of Israelis who are offended by the opinions of outsiders who do not share the anxieties of living in Israel in spite of caring deeply about the country. But sometimes an outsider, especially one who has been part of the Israeli milieu and understands it, may see things clearer than the insider, who is deeply immersed in his own reality. I liken it to a family who needs outside intervention to improve its complex relationship. As for a solution, though I didn’t attempt to offer any in my post, I too support the existence of two states. But the longer the wait, the less likely it would remain on option.  

A note to my readers:  I do get responses in my e-mail, which I rather see in the “comment” box at the end of my posts.

Friday, June 22, 2012

On Fear and Complacency

             For my last blog from Israel I wanted to write about the French tourists who dominate the beaches of Tel Aviv (as well as other beaches), and how their presence there constantly reminded me of my shock and despair when a month before our wedding the man I ended up marrying forty-eight years ago cheated on me with a French tourist who he had met on the beach.  But I never got to write that blog. Like other things I write about, the story is part of my memoir War Widow, which my followers can read once the book will be published.          
            Since I was approached by some of my readers who were waiting for my promised blog on my conversations in Israel about the political situation there, I chose to write about the complacency I detected there, in spite of the regression in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the growing likelihood of another Palestinian uprising if meaningful negotiations are not resumed.      
           I sensed that complacency everywhere: in social gatherings, on the beaches, in cafes and restaurants, in concert halls, and in the theatre.  Most of my friends agreed with me. Others who live elsewhere referred to Tel Aviv as another state that is removed from the Israeli reality. But when during supper in a charming Tel Aviv restaurant I discussed with my cousin the apparent contentment I sensed, she got terribly upset.        
         “How can you talk about complacency,” she asked me angrily, “when we send out children to the military, worrying to death during their service?”    
         “How can you talk about complacency when everything we read in the daily newspapers affects us? Aside from the headlines about the Euro crisis, there is hardly an issue that does not distress us, whether it is Iran, Egypt, or Syria. The uncertainty about whether Israel will attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, what kind of governments will emerge in Egypt or Syria and how those governments are going to relate to us causes me extreme anxiety, and I am not alone.”    
           I proceeded with an analysis of Iran’s rationality, and the Egyptian military which will not give up its privileges by permitting the Muslim Brotherhood to reign, regardless of the elections results there. And in any event it is not in Egypt’s interest to abrogate the Camp Davis peace accord it had signed with Israel in 1979, and certainly it is not in the interest of any leadership there to instigate Israel. Syria is a different story though, with an unknown outcome after the fall of Assad.        
        “Your analysis is based on expertise, and most of us here are not experts,” my cousin said.”
“Do you read reports about settlers’ behavior in the territories, and some of the things that are going on in the checkpoints, in your name?” I asked her?    
        “I do not want to read anything that upsets me,” she replied. “Life here can be stressful enough.”             
          Therein lies the complacency I detected, I thought. It begins with fear.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Coffee by the Sea Shore

           As a day of rest the Sabbath is a family day in Israel for the religious and the secular alike. For the latter segment of the population, in summertime, Saturday is a day when people take trips, spend the day in country clubs or on the beach. These activities are not different from what people do in some other parts of the world. But not too many big cities are located on the sea shore like Tel Aviv is. Here, the beach’s sand and the city’s old ports are dotted with cafes and restaurants that are busy with diners from morning till the small hours of the night. Many of these patrons are couples, others are groups of friends. Loneliness does not appear to exist there.
          Until he left for New York last Thursday, my husband and I were one of those couples who enjoyed eating breakfast in the open air in those restaurants on our way back to our hotel from the daily walks we took by the sea shore.
           I always stay behind after my husband leaves, relishing my days by myself in Tel Aviv, seeing childhood friends and more of my family, and enjoying the theatre in my native tongue which he doesn’t speak. Alone, I end my daily morning walks by the sea shore drinking an ice coffee in one of those restaurants facing the Mediterranean Sea. Unlike a regular weekday, it is hard to find an empty table on Saturday in any of them.
           This past Saturday I was lucky to find a bar-seat facing the water. On my right a young couple was giggling while having breakfast, on my left a young man was reading a book while drinking freshly squeezed orange juice. He could have been lonely, but not bored. Alone, I was enjoying the sweetness and the chill of my iced coffee, breathing the scent of summer and delighting in the clear turquoise water in front of me. Suddenly I felt a pang. Not because I was alone or lonely, but because the moment brought back to my days of widowhood, when I spent my Saturdays alone on the beach. Sometimes I stopped for a bite in a restaurant on my way home late in the afternoon, other times I ate at home the food I had cooked for me the previous day.
        I could have spent those Saturdays with family and friends. But I preferred going to the beach by myself, enjoying my privacy and my sense of independence. I enjoyed even more the sweet telephone calls I received on those Sabbath afternoons from my famous married lover, who wanted to find how my beach days were, or whether I had eaten. Sometimes he would whisper on the telephone, instructing me to call his home, and he would pretend he had an emergency and come over to see me. Those were the things one did for forbidden love, which I escaped when I left my country more than four decades ago.
        Yesterday afternoon I visited my fallen husband’s grave in a military cemetery near Tel Aviv. There was no one around; only I and the hundreds, and hundreds of graves. Alone in the cemetery, there too I cherished my solitude. This time, however, the quiet was roaring.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

From the Golan Heights

              The simple act of sitting with my American husband in a magnificent spot on the Golan Heights, captured by Israel forty-five years ago in the 1967 Six Day War, in a battle in which my first husband was fatally injured, stirs deep emotions in me. It blends my past and present into a complex mix, with which my blog readers are familiar.
             Whenever I used to travel in and around the Golan Heights, particularly at night, looking at the flickering lights reflecting from the Israeli settlements on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, I was captured by its beauty, often moved to tears. That was even before Israel seized the impressive mountains, from which the Syrians habitually shelled those settlements bellow. I experienced the same emotions whenever I heard the song about the Golan Hills, written by the poet Rachel Bluwstein, who lived in Kibbutz Kineret, also on shores of the Galilee Sea.            
          For me, ever since the Six Day War and continuing until today, these breathtaking views as well as the song have assumed an added meaning beside the sight of the mountains and the words of the song, which coincidentally is being broadcast on the radio as I proofread this blog post.
Though Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, whether or not it should return this strategic land to Syria for a secured peace agreement with that northern Arab neighbor has been part of the Israeli national dialogue since 1967.
As one who has embraced the “land for peace” formula for the purpose of safeguarding Israel both as a Jewish and a democratic State, I believe Israel should relinquish most of the land it captured. A peace treaty that would result should end all Arab territorial and historical claims against Israel.The current situation in the Arab world may pose both opportunity and risk as far a peace making is concerned. With regard to Syria and its present state, the likelihood of a peace treaty is far in the future, for Israel cannot sign an agreement with an unstable and insecure partner.
        I agree that it is in Israel’s interest to negotiate peace with Syria once its post Assad government is stabilized (like many others, I believe it’s only a matter of time till Assad’s government falls). I assume, too, that no Syrian government will accept less than what the Egyptians accepted when they signed their peace agreement with Israel in 1979, that is, getting back all the land they had lost in the 1967 war. But sitting where I am, breathing the clean air, smelling the floral fragrances emanating from the fields that surround me and looking at what Israel has built in lieu if the desolation that had existed here when the area was in the hands on the Syrians, I vacillate.

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Blog from Israel

        Last week I was too busy to write a blog entry because I was too overwhelmed with the end of the spring semester. I had to give grades to nearly one hundred students and write a few letters of recommendations before leaving for Israel, the place I still call home.
     “How could you have left all this?” my American-born daughter asked me six years ago, as the two of us were walking with her toddler daughter on Tel Aviv’s waterfront esplanade. She did not allude to only the sweet scent of the Mediterranean summer, emanating from the vapor of the powder blue transparent sea, and the golden scorching sand under that bluest of skies. Neither was she alluding to only the energy rising from the beach-goers, protected by rows of orderly placed persimmon orange, hunter green, or ultramarine blue umbrellas, depending on the section in which the bathers sat; the beach-front cafés, the hip shops, and restaurants.
      Nor was she referring just to the neighborhood and home where I grew up, our visit there being the highlight of that trip for my daughter. She mostly meant the friendships and the deep love and warmth that are revealed to me by family and friends whenever I visit my place of birth, regardless of how often I do so.
     “Life can take you to places you had not planned to be, and force upon you decisions you never thought you would have to make,” I answered her.
      This time I arrived in my beloved Tel Aviv yesterday, both excited and emotional to meet the family and friends and visit the place I missed. There are already family gatherings planned for my husband and me, as well as concerts, operas, and plays to see.
It’s a fantastic feeling returning home, as I am sure many who emigrated from their birth places sense when they visit their home towns, regardless of how assimilated they have become in the places where they chose to live or how deeply they love their adopted countries.
      For me, the anticipation when I visit Israel is always mixed with a heaviness I describe as a rock that is sitting in the center of my chest, solid and gray and defined. The rock is my past filled with tragedy: losing a husband to a brutal death, and growing up with a mentally ill mother.   I only understood the extant of her illness after reflecting on my childhood with the depth of a writer.
Next week, following the holiday of Shavuot, which is so connected with the tragic death of my husband, I’ll visit his grave in the military cemetery that is located outside of Tel Aviv proper. My husband of forty years, whom I married five years after my first husband fell in war, may join me. Regardless, my past and present will intertwine as they always do, making me the person I have become.
      My conversations about Prime Minster Netanyahu, whom Time Magazine featured on its cover, labeling him the king of Israel because of the wide coalition he managed to build, and the prospect of him making peace with his Palestinian neighbors, will wait for my next blog entry. Right now I have to prepare to go to my grandniece's Bat Mitzvah party.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012



    I’m reading and enjoying Phyllis Schieber’s The Manicurist. One of the novel’s characters, Ursula, reminds me of my mother. Like Ursula, my mother was mentally ill, and suffered major depressive episodes, dipping into psychosis at times, if not outright bi-polarity. Both Ursula and my mother were stunningly beautiful and neither was institutionalized because their husbands prevented that from happening. In my mother’s case, my father refused to have my mother separated from my sister and me, since she only suffered from her “nerve disease” (as her condition was called in the 1950s in Israel) in winter time.  In the summer, my mother thrived. In these happier times, she became a mother who cared for her daughters and was always over-protective of me.
    Ursula’s daughter, Tessa, could not come to terms with her haunting memories of her mother’s illness—at least not in the parts of the book I have completed. I, however, was able to make peace with most of my own recurring memories. Unlike Ursula, my mother did not abandon me. Still, there are names my mother called me and harsh things she told me that have been harder to process and have had a lasting effect on my own mental disposition.
     When I was a child, and then a teenager and a grownup, my mother repeatedly told me that she would have committed suicide were it not for my sister and me. I do not know if she chose life because we were rays of hope in her existence, or because she felt responsible for us as the mother of two young girls. One way or the other, I was glad she stayed alive, although I admit it is sometimes hard to think that she might have lived in misery for our sake.
     I have powerful childhood memories of her illness. The most distressing is an episode that happened in the winter of 1950, when I was six. It was an experience I fully describe in my memoir War Widow. I was standing alone on the balcony of my aunt’s apartment, watching through a glass door as my mother started to undress; her bare breast and back completely revealed. Her sisters yelled at her to do stop, their husbands being present, too. But appearing as if she was in a trance, her big green eyes like that of a stranger, she did not stop. My father, himself looking distraught, tried to stop her, grabbing her hands. But she fought him off. It was then that, sobbing, he began hitting her naked back with both his hands, trying to get her out of her spell. She quickly came back to her senses.
       I remember my terror and the sense of sorrow I felt for my father, coupled with a keen sense of understanding that I should stay on the terrace. I knew enough not to cry or be heard, and I understood that no one inside that room could pay attention to me, no matter how frightened I was. I knew I had to protect myself using an imagined shield I’d created long ago to help me cope.
      But did I think it was my fault that my mother suddenly turned into that unrecognizable wild woman and my temperate father morphed into a seemingly violent man? Did I feel helpless because there was nothing I could do to help my parents? The answers to these questions I do not have. What I am certain of is the compassion I feel for my mother and her memory.
    When she was in good health, I felt secure with her and loved. When she was well, she was the mother who put me first, who fought to place me in a better grammar school and who went to school to defend me when necessary. She made me the most beautiful Purim costumes (Purim is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the rescue of the Jewish people in ancient Persia). Many of her costumes won first prizes in school. She was the mother who took me to buy my first bra, even though at fourteen I did not need one yet. She thought it was still important because she said she wanted me to have pretty breasts when I grew into a woman. She was the mother who took me to the dermatologist to prevent acne and to the gynecologist when my menstruation was unsteady. She was the mother who made sure that my sister and I wore the finest clothes and that we ate the best foods that our family could afford. And, in her good moods, she made me laugh with her humorous stories about her shtetl’s colorful characters, such as Motke the ganef (thief), Tzipe the pleplerke (babbler), Moishe the Kailiker (handicapped) Yankel the hoiker (hunchback), and Leib the rizikant (gambler).
    These memories, good and bad, stay with me on Mother’s Day and always.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

On Death and the Memoir

     On Tuesday evening, I attended an inspiring Fordham University celebration “The Art of the memoir,” marking the recent publication of four memoirs and a collection of personal essays written by five faculty members of the university’s English Department. The writers, including Mary Bly (Eloisa James), Richard Giannone, Eve Keller, Kim Dana Kupperman, and Elizabeth Stone, discussed the genre and read from their work. Topics included love, loss, the AIDS crisis, the Holocaust, and the experiences of an American temporarily living in Paris. During the Q&A period, Susan Greenfield, another faculty member in the university’s English Department, noticed a common death theme in all five works and asked whether death is a prerequisite for memoir writing.
     The moderator, Susan Kamil of Random House and Dial Press imprints, replied that the requirement to write a memoir is not necessarily death but a strong urge to tell a compelling story the writer must share with others. I agreed wholeheartedly. But when Professor Greenfield asked her question, it hit me that my own memoir War Widow is filled with deaths: my own widowhood and the deaths of my infant brother whom I had never seen, the deaths of my premature newborn, my brother-in-law, my sister, my parents, friends who were taken by war or disease, a former lover, the death of relatives who perished in the Holocaust and the deaths of others who lived long and productive lives.
     But my memoir is not about death; it is about strength and courage, hope, determination, resilience, endurance and triumph.
     Yet, I must admit that I think of death when I realize how quickly time is passing as I get older. But it is not the fear of death or my afterlife that preoccupies me, for I do not know if human consciousness exists after we physically leave earth.
     But what if there is an afterlife? Séance practitioners say that we can connect there with the same people with whom we knew on earth. If so, will my mother be finally happy? Will she be pleased that I defended her when my aunts spoke ill of her, or will she blame me for not doing so forcefully enough? Will my father be able to show his affection for me openly instead of waiting for me to be asleep, unaware of his kiss on the cheek? Will my sister and I be as close in heaven as we were on earth?
     And Yigal, my husband who died in war, I can’t help but wonder:  Will I finally confront him about the lack of trust I had for him because of that French woman on the beach and the other women? Will I tell him how I got even that one silly time? And what about his best friend, Aaron, who raped me when Yigal was no longer on earth? Will I tell Yigal that I resented him for having such friends? Will I tell Aaron that though I had never forgiven him, I learned to make peace with that dreadful event?
     And Danko, my powerful, charismatic married lover who was the reason I left my familiar life behind: Will I ask him why he shunned me after I had my abortion? Did I dishonor him when I aborted his child without his knowledge? Will I have closure with him there?
     But why wonder about death and the afterlife when I can rejoice at the richness of the life I have created for myself here on earth?
     Perhaps like many of us I wonder whether the afterlife, if it exists, is the place we’ll be accountable for our lives and how we lived them. That’s what a memoir is, too. It’s not just telling a story, but it’s also taking responsibility for it. It’s also the place the memoirist shapes a story and frames it the way she or he wants it framed. 

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

On the Holocaust and a Kosher Cafeteria

     By chance my senior seminar on global ethnic conflict ended our class discussion on Alan Rosenblum’s book Is the Holocaust Unique? a day before Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day, which was commemorated world wide last Wednesday (April 18). Concluding the debate on that book we moved along with our syllabus to discuss Peter Univ’s book on the 1994 Rwanda genocide Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda.

     I usually schedule one or two seminar meetings to discuss an assigned book. But Rosenblum’s reader, which compares the Holocaust to other genocides and mass killings of ethnic or racial groups, generally provokes an arousing debate, and this time was not different. It took nearly three sessions, and it could have been potentially longer. I usually begin the discussion on the book by asking my students whether we need to know that the Holocaust was unique. If so, why do we need to know that?

     I have been teaching this seminar for sometime. Usually my students agree that each genocide we study was unique, and that each was distinctive to the ethnic group that had endured it.  Still, the Holocaust was different on a number of levels, including its magnitude, the creation of a sophisticated killing technology, the level of participation of ordinary Germans, or the fact that the Jews had been completely assimilated into the German society and having made no threatening nationalistic claims against the Germans.

     The nature of the debates in this multiethnic, multicultural seminar often depends on the makeup and chemistry of the students, making each semester different from one another even though the subject matter is the same. But this semester I heard statements from some of my students I had rarely heard in my classroom.

     It began with the question some students posed, why the Holocaust is commemorated while other genocides are not. I reminded them that the Armenian, Greek, and Rwandan genocides have been commemorated as well.

     Why then is the Holocaust talked about more than any other genocide, a student wanted to know. “Because the Jews control America!” another student exclaimed. “What do you base this statement on?” I asked. “The Jewish Lobby,” the student replied.

     I responded that while no one can dispute the strength of the pro-Israeli or Jewish lobby in Washington, it was still a myth to believe that the Jews control American politics. I then offered students extra credits to write an extra research paper, comparing the influence of the Jewish Lobby to that of the Cuban Lobby, the Big Pharma Lobby, the Big Oil Lobby, the Financial Lobby, the National Rifle Association, or the mining and defense industries lobbies.

     “What are you talking about,” another student lashed at me with visible anger. “You even have a kosher cafeteria here in Queens College. Why don’t we have a vegetarian cafeteria?” “It’s a business decision,” a Jewish student answered excitedly before I had a chance to answer. “We have a Sushi place and a Chinese place, and you can get vegetarian food in every cafeteria,” yet another responded to the remark that seemed to have anti-Semitic undertones.

     At the end of our debate over the Holocaust I fulfilled my promise to share with my students my experience when I had visiting the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps in the summer of 2010, an experience I wrote about in my essay “A Knock at the Door in the Darkness of Night,” published in Lilith (Volume 35 No. 3, Fall 2010) and extracted from my memoir War Widow.

     “Nothing I have studied, read, seen, not Yad Vashem, not even my previous visit to Terezienstadt, prepared me for Birkenau and Auschwitz-for their enormity and for the efficiency with which the Nazis ran their death-oiled industry.

     What shocked me was that not even the minutest detail was left to chance: not the place where the trains would first stop, where victims would initially be "selected," where they first undressed, where they were first disinfected and shaved, their hair used by the Nazis to manufacture fabric; not where they were disinfected for the second time, where their clothing was first fumigated, where their clothing was fumigated for the second time, where their clothing and belongings were collected, sorted and stored, where they would die by Zyclon B poisoning gas, where their corpses would be burned.  It took merely twenty-five minutes from the time the human cargo arrived to Birkenau, selected to die and turned into ash.”