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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Chritmas

I wish the merriest Christmas to my Christian friends, students, followers, and every other member of the Christian denominations that celebrates Christmas today.

It’s two-thirty in the morning and I can’t sleep.  Later today my husband and I will pay tribute to Christmas together with other Londoners and tourists like us, when we take part in a special holiday meal in the charming English hotel we are staying at. It will be elegant and peaceful, fitting the spirit of this holiday. But right now my mind is not at peace. It’s unsettled. It’s racing from one topic to another. A mish-mash of thoughts, though they may be related.  

I nearly fell asleep after thirty-six hours of jet lag. But something woke me up. I am anxious and distressed, and I don’t know why. I panic. I jump out of bed careful not to wake up my husband.

“It’s so easy to lose one’s mind,” I tell myself with concern. “It ran in your family. Your mother suffered from severe depressions, and possibly schizophrenia.”

“Don’t be silly,” I try to calm myself. “It’s just too hot in the room.” I played with the thermostat.  I went back to bed. “It’s the blanket. It’s too heavy.”
I push it off but I’m still unsettled.

“Perhaps it’s the lack of sleep. It may play tricks on your mind,” I try to convince myself, but I am used to jet lag. I don’t recall that it made me feel so disconcerted before.

I think about young men and women who gave up their lives for an idea they believed in, after seeing earlier today yet again the musical Les Miserables. Young man and women around the world still do. Sometimes they fight for inherent rights, like Victor Hugo’s young revolutionaries; other time they are motivated by hatred.

My mind turns to various genocides, a subject I teach regularly at Queens College in a senior seminar that just ended. The most unique among these many genocides is the Holocaust that killed millions of my people.

“You are not supposed to think about these events today, a day of peace and fraternity. Even enemy soldiers who faced each other on the battlefield in WWI stopped fighting on Christmas day (only to resume the killing as soon as the holiday was over).

“May be it’s your writer mind,” I still try to calm myself. "Start writing. You owe you followers a blog.”

My mind takes me now to the lovely walk my husband and I took yesterday afternoon in the elegant Grosvenor area where many embassies are located. The perfect harmony of architecture and color did not represent the reality of the conflicts in many of the countries whose embassies we passed. I tried to guess the identity of the flags that are not obviously familiar to most people. As a pupil in grammar school I could identify every flag of every country; my geography notebooks covered with my hand painted flags of the countries of the world, then covered in turn with cellophane paper. They were my pride and joy until the day my mother threw them out when I was older.

“That’s Hungary’s”, I said to my husband. But it was Bulgaria’s flag. “What difference does it make?” I thought, “they both hate us.” I was thinking of the recent rise of anti-Semitism in both countries.

At night my mind finally took me back to New York, to the musical Spiderman, to which my husband and I took our six years old grandson this past Sunday.

“Is this show your Christmas present?” an elderly man seated next to him asked my grandchild.

Jacob looked at him and without hesitation said: “we don’t celebrate Christmas.”
“Me neither,” said the man. So what did you get for Hanukkah?”
Jacob smiled but didn’t bother to answer.

I was proud of my grandson for his identity, which he didn’t hesitate to announce.  In other countries he might have learned not to pronounce it so openly.

I was proud and yet concerned.

“Perhaps I should suggest to his parents to remind him to say, “We celebrate Hanukkah,” as they have taught him, instead of the negative form of “we don’t celebrate Christmas,” lest he aggravates someone.

I have been in the United States since the autumn of 1969. I am an American citizen. I have given my service back to the community where I live. I have fed the homeless in churches on Christmas days. I have gone to listen to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve on different occasions. The words struck me as almost identical to what Jews say in their places of worship during their high holidays.

But am I fully integrated in a society I love and admire if I am worried about my young grand child announcing to a stranger that he doesn’t celebrate Christmas? If the answer is 'no', it is not because of luck of respect to my surroundings. On the contrary. Rather, it is because of my People’s history of being hated and rejected, blood-libeled and slaughtered, and my concern that this hatred has not vanished, and that it may never will. I am worried for the future of my grandchildren and their children, and that of children of other ethnicities, tribes and religious groups who fight each other. Examples are ample.

It’s 4:30 AM. Perhaps I can go to sleep now.

Merry Christmas and a peaceful new year to us all.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

On Joan Rivers and Auschwitz

At 80, Joan Rivers is an inspiration to a lot of women, as well as men: she is energetic far beyond her age.  She is active writing, performing on stage, screen and on television. According to her website she also lectures, designs jewelry and creates cosmetics. Many people younger than her do not accomplish a fraction of what she does. And, she can be hilarious even if you do not like her coarse humor and vulgarity.

 On Friday, October 11, my husband and I saw her performing in Westbury Music Hall in Long Island. We actually went to hear one of our favorite singers and record producers Steve Tyrell, whom we follow when he appears in New York. That night he opened the Joan Rivers act.

As was evident from the applause Joan received when she appeared on stage, most of the audience came to see her, not necessarily the elegant Steve Tyrell.

Indeed, the crowd loved and adored her. They admired her outrageous outfit, and her jokes. No one could dispute that she was peppy and animated, enthusiastic and lively, and funny. She made fun of herself and her relationship with her beloved daughter, of every ethnic group, including her own, and she didn’t apologize for any of that. If you didn’t like it, you were too “stupid.” Everyone laughed, even me, for I am a tough audience when it comes to standup comedians.

She was gracious to some members of the audience, especially a gay couple that got engaged on stage, which was of course, part of her “shtick,” though, apparently the man whose hand was asked in marriage by his partner was surprised.

Watching Joan, I admired her energy and her wit, and allowed myself to enjoy a fellow Jew, and female, though, as you might have guessed, I do not appreciate her crudeness. Despite it all I thought that at eighty she was indeed inspirational.

Then she mad a joke about Auschwitz. To say that it was tasteless is an understatement. As a Jew, whose grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives perished in the Holocaust, I was utterly insulted by her. As every Jew in the audience should have been. I was even more insulted when I looked around me and saw the crowd laughing. There are subjects no one should joke about. Taboos. The Holocaust and other genocides are among them.

Shame of you Joan.

      Perhaps she never visited Auschwitz and its neighboring death camp, Birkenau. Or perhaps she did, but it might not have affected her the way it affected me. As I have written before, and don’t mind repeating, 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 the most 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 25 minutes from the time the human cargo arrived at Birkenau for those "selected" to become ash. Many of those who survived that selection were sent to the hell of Auschwitz. And Auschwitz and Birkenau were only two camps where Jews were slaughtered while the world kept silent.

Shame on you, Joan Rivers.


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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

On Islan Nettles

It’s summer and writing doesn’t come easy.  First there was my trip to Israel in June, the beach in July, and a cruise on the Danube this month, visiting Serbia, where one can still see the remnants of NATO’s bombing in the 1999 Kosovo war, Croatia, Hungary and Austria.

From The Austrian Alps I meant to write about my meeting by chance with Sonja, a lovely teacher who I came across in the tiny town of Vordernberg, where we ate pizza in a small Turkish restaurant, and where Sonja talked to me about multi-culturalism in her beloved country.  But I procrastinated, then turned too busy to write anything as I was completely consumed with reviewing the Hebrew translation on my memoir, which I hope I can publish in Israel soon enough.

I could write about the carnage in Syria and the options the US and its allies have in punishing President Assad for his systematic murder of men, women and children, possibly with chemical weapons. But I decided to leave this subject for my Middle East class, which I will begin teaching this coming Thursday.

Then I saw the news today about the vigil in Harlem, New York, for Islan Nettles, the twenty-one year old transgender woman who died Thursday after being removed from her life support five days after she had been brutally attacked by a man who got furious after he realized that his female friend was actually born a male.

The attack on Islan was the latest in a series of disturbing hate crimes against members of the LGBT community in the city, which increased dramatically this year.

It is perhaps ironic that Islan’s vigil is taking place on the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech on freedom and equality, and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Ironic but not terribly surprising, given the progress the gay community has made in the US and in other countries with respect to same sex marriage, progress that must threaten those reactionaries who irrationally fear homosexuality and same sex marriage.

Like what I think is a response to the embracing of same sex marriage, history witnessed the surge of illiberal reactions to the progress minority groups had made in different parts of the world. It happened in Europe with the surge of anti Semitism after the emancipation of Jews in France and Germany in the eighteenth century, and England in the nineteenth century, when European Christians felt threatened by the granting of equal rights to Jews, like racists reacted to the emancipation of slaves in nineteenth century America, and even to the Civil Rights Movement of the twentieth century, culminating in the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Let the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement and the senseless death of Islan Nettles be a reminder of what we as a civilization deserve: freedom to grow in our own skin, gender, religion, nationality and sexual orientation.


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Thursday, July 18, 2013

News About Women

Last week I was captivated by news about women, some encouraging other disturbing.

On Friday, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl activist who had been shot in October by Taliban gunmen and miraculously survived, celebrated her sixteenth birthday at the UN.  Secretary General Ban Ki-moon designated July 12 as Malala Day; a day intended to represent the goal of education for all children. In an inspiring speech that was immediately scorned by many Pakistanis, Malala declared her day to be “the day of every woman, every boy and every girl who have raised their voice for their rights.” 

Viewing her speech on television I hoped that I was watching a future world leader, who would continuously encourage young women and men to speak out and demand their rights and liberties in spite of the danger they’d face doing so in the countries they live.

The other good news of the week appeared in Nicholas Kristoff’s New York Times’ Op-Ed column on Sunday, where he informed his readers about the Danja Fistula Center, which opened last year, with the help of the Worldwide Fistula Fund. The center was built to help young girls in Africa who suffer from the physically and socially debilitating condition known as obstetric fistula, resulting from injury during childbirth. Some of these girls who suffer from the disease were married off at 12 or 13 years of age, giving birth when their young bodies were not prepared for pregnancy. Fortunately for these girls, there is now a hospital in Danja, Niger, that cures them.

The bad news came from Cairo, where women demonstrators, who took to the streets before and after the ouster of Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed Morsi on July 3rd, have been sexually assaulted, some of them raped. Reportedly, close to 200 women have been attacked in those demontrations. Yet the military, the police, and the transitional government there have remained silent.

Some of these women were violated twice. After they had been assaulted the first time, when following men who appeared to be their rescuers, instead of leading the women to safety as the men insinuated, the men guided them to isolated areas, then sexually assaulted them.

The commonality between Malala’s attack – one among many attacks of Pakistani female activists, the practice in Africa and other Global South countries of marrying off young girls and the sexual assaults of Egyptian women, is the acceptance of such practices in societies that are male-dominated politically, culturally and religiously.

The Danja Fistula Center was built by physicians and ordinary people who care about the plight of others. It was a small but encouraging step in a patriarchal society, the likes of which exist in a world where conflict and war, abuse of power and inequalities - among other calamities - form an inescapable reality.

Malal’s words were heard worldwide. Will her brave voice continue to confront that reality? Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment-Assault is an organization that intervened in the assaults on women in Tahrir Square, Cairo. Will their actions get the attention of those in power? Could they direct the world’s attention on women in India and elsewhere, where they suffer the same misfortune?

Hopefully, with these expressions we are witnessing the courage that allows women to challenge disparities that unfortunately still exist today.


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