Thursday, December 29, 2016

"Life is a Series of Hellos and Goodbyes": Some Thoughts at the End of 2016

A note to those who have kindly read my blog this year:  if you were expecting some political commentary, I'm saving that for the new year.  Today, my thoughts are with those we lost in 2016, some far too young, some unexpectedly, some after a long and successful life. I am told that while this year's number of celebrity deaths seems unusually large, it's really not, and other years have had more.  But it feels like almost every day, someone famous or beloved left us.  As a former disc jockey, I was especially sorry that we lost David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Prince, Paul Kantner, Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, Maurice White, Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, and George Michael.  As a former journalist, I will miss Morley Safer, John McLaughlin, and Gwen Ifill. This was also the year we lost Gene Wilder, Fyvush Finkel, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Muhammad Ali, Gordie Howe, Shimon Peres, and Elie Wisel. There were so many others... political figures, celebrities, authors, movie and TV directors ... I could fill a page with all of the names.  My point is that there are no guarantees in life, and you never know how long you have before your number gets called.       

Maybe that's why I've been thinking about my maternal grandmother the past few days.  She certainly wasn't famous, but she was definitely beloved.  Her name was Dora, and I never met her-- she died many years before I was born, as did my paternal grandmother.  But according to family lore, Grandma Dora was a truly saintly human being, compassionate and patient even in the face of major problems-- it's no exaggeration that she dealt with some difficult times, including living through the Great Depression and enduring ongoing and severe illnesses.  I am told she handled even the most challenging situations with dignity and grace.  I wish I had met her; and every year, just before Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), I visit her grave and pay my respects.  I often wonder how different my life might have been if my grandmothers were a part of it:  I hear so many stories about grandmothers as nurturing and supportive figures in their grandchildren's lives, but I have no experience of that, so I can't say if it's true or not.  Anyway, when I recently had my two-year anniversary check up (I had surgery for uterine cancer in mid-December 2014) and I got the good news that there has been no recurrence, I thought of my Grandma Dora, who died too young of the very same cancer that I had-- in my case, I was treated successfully for it, while in her case, no successful treatments had been developed yet.

I wonder what my grandmother would think about the world we live in today.  Hers was a simpler  time (no internet, no social media, not even television), a time when authority was respected and good manners were considered essential.  People joined volunteer organizations, kids played outside, and most people knew their neighbors.  Of course, it was not an idyllic era-- America was still segregated, anti-Jewish and anti-black sentiments were publicly expressed, and millions were struggling through the Depression years and then getting ready to go off to war.  But compared to our often-chaotic, contentious, intense, and rude culture, I somehow think my grandmother would prefer her own, even with its problems.  Of course, none of us have a time machine and we can't go back to some idealized era.  And if we did go back, we might be disappointed, since our memory years later may not be an accurate reflection of how things were when we lived them.  Still, if I could bring back something from the past, it might be courtesy or politeness.

But that said, 2016 was a strange year, and for many of us, a sad one.  Some of us lost colleagues or friends or relatives.  And if I may make one political comment, a lot of us are feeling a deep sense of sadness about the recent election.  My right-wing friends may be rejoicing, but not everyone shares their view.  Conservatives were outraged when Michelle Obama, during an interview with Oprah Winfrey, said she understood what it felt like to have no hope, but I totally understood what she meant.  For her, and for me, and for many of my friends from the progressive side, seeing Hillary lose the election was bitterly disappointing, and it filled us with a sense of not just hopelessness, but also fear over what this new president might to do erase the gains women and minorities had made during this past eight years.  Having lived to see a black president, many of us were eager to have a woman president; and now, that dream is once again on hold for who knows how long.  So yes, for many of us, 2016 was a sad year.  But more thoughts about politics will surely follow in 2017.

For now, whether it was a happy year for you, or a sad one, or a little of both, 2016 is about to come to a close.  In February, I will be 70-- which is amazing to think about, given that my grandmother died at age 44.  And if I have any advice, it would be to live each day with a sense of purpose; even if you temporarily feel hopeless or discouraged, those feelings don't have to last.  So, do a mitzvah (a good deed, a positive action) whenever you can; and don't waste the opportunities you have been given.  After all, there's no guarantee of tomorrow.  But we can still make a difference, even in some small way, with the time we have today.  Happy 2017: may the new year bring you many reasons to be grateful, and many occasions to celebrate.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The War on Hanukkah and the War on Respect

I wanted to say a few words about the War on Hanukkah, and yes that really is a thing.  Yesterday, I went to Dana-Farber, a Boston-area hospital with expertise in the treatment of cancer, for my bi-annual check-up (as many of you know, I had cancer surgery in mid-December 2014; and I am pleased and grateful that my doctor says there has been no recurrence).  It was there that I saw my first Hanukkah decorations of the season:  a beautiful silver menorah at the reception desk on the 10th floor.  And while I was gratified to see an acknowledgement that Hanukkah exists, I was also frustrated that I have seen NO Hanukkah decorations in any of the many department stores where I've shopped recently.  Nothing.  Lots of Christmas decorations, lots of Christmas music (which seems to start earlier and earlier each year), but no recognition that other people have holidays at this time of year too.

Believe me, I understand that Hanukkah didn't used to be such a big deal as it is now.  Historically, it hasn't been a major holiday for Jews the way Passover and Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) are. In fact, Hanukkah isn't even mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.  But we do know it had become sufficiently popular that the Jews of Jesus' time, including him, observed it (the New Testament gospel of John mentions this).  And especially after the Holocaust, as Jews sought to reaffirm their identity in countries like the US that were overwhelmingly Christian, Hanukkah began to take on new significance.  Jewish parents, my own included, had long struggled with the popularity and prevalence of Christmas-- it seemed to be everywhere, and Jewish kids felt totally ignored.

Of course, we could join the majority and celebrate the Christian holiday, but many Jewish families saw that as both inappropriate and ironic-- after all, the Hanukkah story is about NOT imitating the majority. It's about the Maccabees, a courageous group of Jews living in ancient Greece (circa 167 BCE) who refused to assimilate, refused to worship the Greek gods, and refused to give up their beliefs even in the face of a majority who demanded that they do so.  And whether or not the story is historically accurate in every detail, its emphasis on Jewish pride, and on kindling the menorah to symbolically bring the light of hope and faith into a world of darkness and intolerance resonated then as it does even today.  Perhaps because it normally comes in December, and perhaps because it includes the custom of giving gifts to children (small gifts, for eight days), Hanukkah has acquired a reputation as the "Jewish Christmas," even though its theology is not in any way related to what Christians believe.  [For an excellent historical explanation of the rise in importance that Hanukkah plays in American society, this 2000 article from American Heritage magazine will fill you in:   
http://www.americanheritage.com/content/merry-chanukah?page=show]

But for reasons I've never understood, American businesses generally tend to ignore the existence of Hanukkah.  Perhaps it's because Hanukkah comes at a different time each year, and it's too difficult for merchants to keep track of it.  Or perhaps it's too much bother to get a menorah or find some Hanukkah decorations.  We all know that Christmas paraphernalia is easy to find and it's everywhere; Hanukkah stuff is evidently too difficult to locate, except in certain Jewish neighborhoods.  But that's not the issue.  For me, the issue is whether our culture respects all faiths, or whether those in the majority believe only theirs are worthy of display.  Frankly, I'd rather that merchants would take note of Passover, a much more central holiday in Jewish life, or make some time to note the Jewish New Year.  I also wish our culture acknowledged the major holidays of other minority faiths-- whether it's Buddha's Birthday or Ramadan or Diwali or others.  We all live here, and we should all be made to feel welcome.  Yes, I know that some of my conservative friends believe America is a "Christian nation" (it's not, and our Founding Fathers, all of whom were various kinds of Christians, never said it should be).  But the truth is we are a nation with freedom of worship, and a nation that should not impose just one tradition on everybody.   

And yet, we do.  When I ask about Hanukkah decorations in stores, the reaction tends to be anywhere from annoyance to indifference.  But I am not asking anyone to share my beliefs.  I am simply asking for an acknowledgement that I have holidays too.  I don't want to take away yours.  But I also don't want to see mine marginalized.  In the age of Donald Trump, marginalizing "the other" seems to be in season:  the president-elect has just announced his desire to appoint as Ambassador to Israel someone who is so ultra-conservative that he has accused liberal Jews (those of us who believe in a two-state solution and who support both the security of Israel and the human rights of the Palestinians) of being similar to Jews who collaborated with the Nazis.  And I also notice that these days, my annual request for a recognition of Hanukkah (and other Jewish holidays) is often met online with scorn, and even some Antisemitic comments.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that at this time of year, while we do agree that the Christmas trees and holiday lights are pretty, many of us also feel sorry for our Christian friends and neighbors-- your holiday has turned into a giant testimony to the power of consumerism, where Jesus is absent, and love is measured by how many dollars you spend.  My dearest friend for 40 years was a nun.  She said that as a Christian, the biggest gift of all should be the gift of salvation through Jesus.  Yet all she heard was people lamenting how much shopping they had to do.  Obviously, as  Jew, I did not share her theology; but I totally shared her dismay that Jesus had become an afterthought in a society where spending money and buying expensive presents was the dominant activity of the season.  And as for me, I will light my menorah and pray for a society where the light of love and tolerance conquers the darkness of anger and prejudice.  And whatever you celebrate, whether it's Christmas, Hanukkah or Festivus (let the airing of grievances begin!), I wish you health, happiness, and joy in this season of celebration. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Have We Stopped Welcoming the Stranger?

Back in 1649, long before there was a United States, and long before our Founding Fathers created the Bill of Rights, a merchant from Holland arrived in colonial Boston, bringing supplies to Edward Gibbons, the leader of Boston's militia.  The merchant's name was Solomon Franco, and he was Jewish.  There was no Jewish community in Boston at that time; and in fact, the dominant Puritans who founded the city were not eager to accept anyone who dissented from their version of Christianity-- even some Puritans, including Roger Williams, were accused of having the wrong beliefs, and invited to leave Massachusetts.  Needless to say, Solomon Franco did not receive a warm welcome, plus he was involved in a pay dispute with Edward Gibbons.  In the end, Franco was not only denied the money he was owed, but he was told to leave Boston.

Fast forward to 1908.  My maternal grandfather arrived in the USA, one of a large number of European immigrants, many of whom were escaping dire poverty, or religious persecution (or both). My grandfather was leaving a country where Jews had little future-- forbidden to enter many professions, subjected to constant threats of persecution and even violence; he believed America was a land of opportunity, and while he didn't know a lot about the US Constitution, he had heard that people of all religions were welcome.  Over the years, he made a life for himself, married, had kids, and while he never got rich, he also never encountered the kind of brutality and discrimination he had endured in the Old Country.

What got me thinking about all of this was a newspaper article in the Boston Globe about how a mosque in neighboring Providence RI had received a threatening (and anonymous) letter, saying that Muslims were not welcome in America and that Donald Trump was going to rid the country of them.  It turned out a number of mosques in other cities had received similar letters, as well as phone messages warning them they'd better leave now.  Although I am not a Muslim, when I read the story, it made me sad.  I don't for one minute think that Donald Trump personally ordered his followers to contact mosques and make threats; and yet some of his most ardent supporters clearly got the idea that it was time to let Muslims know they don't belong here.

But the truth is, they do.  So do Jews, and Buddhists, and Hindus, and Sikhs, and Christians (and non-believers too).  America was designed to be a melting pot, a country that welcomed immigrants from many places.  We may not always see eye to eye, we may not always share the same views or celebrate the same holidays.  But at its best, America is a country where we can all have the opportunity to create a better life, the way my grandfather (and many other people's immigrant relatives) did.  And yes, I understand that some immigrants come here and for whatever reason, they  don't make the adjustment, or they break our laws, or they get into trouble.  But studies repeatedly show these folks are the exceptions.  Contrary to myth, contrary to political rhetoric, the vast majority of immigrants, including Muslims, are happy to be here.  They come to seek the same new life that immigrants from other religions have also sought. They learn English, they find work, they send their kids to school, and they appreciate the freedoms guaranteed to them in the First Amendment. 

Both the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the Greek Scriptures (New Testament) are very clear about the commandment to welcome the stranger-- in fact, some verses command us not just to welcome, but to love the stranger.  And yet, I know all too many people who have no love whatsoever for those who look or believe or act differently.  I know all too many people who claim to be religious but have no problem ignoring those verses about love and kindness.  The people sending the hate mail and making the angry phone calls to mosques may be proud of themselves; they may think they're doing God's work, or they may think they're being patriotic.  But they're wrong.

Perhaps they should consider an interesting exchange of letters that occurred between Moses Seixas and George Washington back in 1790:  Seixas was the leader of the synagogue in Newport RI, and he wrote a letter to President Washington, praising America for having "a Government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance."  In his response, George Washington not only agreed, but he reassured Seixas that the small Jewish community of that city should never be afraid; nor should anyone of any religious background, because the government will protect its citizens, and guarantee them freedom of worship.  This should be as true today as it was in 1790; and it is something all of us, and especially our political leaders, should never forget. Whether the stranger is a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, or something else, he or she deserves a chance to live in peace, and no-one should make them feel afraid.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Our Own Kind of Walls: Some Thoughts About the Election

Yesterday, I was on Twitter having what I thought was a courteous conversation with a conservative from a red state. We were exchanging our perspectives about Hillary Clinton, and while we didn't agree on much, it was nice to hear how people from other parts of the country feel.  But based on what I was reading from her, she believed some widely-disseminated conservative talking points that were not factual; so I tried my best to both refute those talking points and still respect her opinion.

I guess I didn't do a good job of either, because when I went on Twitter today to resume our discussion, I found she had blocked me.  I admit to being disappointed, but not surprised. I've found over the past few months that when it comes to politics, many people on Twitter prefer to only speak to those who agree with them.  I'm sure I'm guilty of this too, although I do try to be polite with anyone I talk to on social media.  But I've repeatedly found that especially when I'm talking to Trump supporters, as soon as I disagree-- even politely-- it quickly leads to my being called insulting names.  (I am not for a minute suggesting that Hillary or Bernie supporters didn't also seem insulting or condescending sometimes; I know it's difficult to speak about emotional issues without one side or the other feeling offended.  And that has happened a lot over the past few months.)

I will leave it to the pundits to discuss why Hillary lost and Trump won.  Meanwhile, reactions to Mr. Trump's election are as polarized as the country is.  Here in the blue states, many of us remain stunned that voters wanted someone with Donald Trump's many flaws and failings to be the president:  as we see it, his wrong-doings over the years (his bigotry, his crudeness, his unwillingness to tell the truth about how little he actually gave to charity, his refusal to pay taxes or release his tax returns, his bullying tactics, etc. etc.) have far exceeded anything Hillary was ever accused of.

But in the world of conservatives-- those who will talk to me, and those who won't, Hillary (no matter what she says or does) is diabolical and dishonest; while Trump (no matter what he says or does) is regarded with awe and admiration.  Millions of red-state voters see Hillary as untrustworthy, while seeing Trump as their champion:  she represents the status quo, while he represents change-- tough talk, positive action, and a new kind of politics that will get things done.  In the blue states, we believe he is a con artist and an egotist, who promises magic to desperate people. In the red states, they believe he is someone they can count on, someone who hears them, who understands them, who will make their lives better.

A long time ago, in 2004, a young and idealistic Barack Obama (then a senator from Illinois) gave a now-famous convention speech in which he said there are not two Americas-- there are not red states and blue states; there are just the United States.  I used to believe he was right, but now I am not so sure.  As Mr. Obama saw first-hand, during the entire eight years of his presidency, Republicans obstructed whatever policy goals he put forward, even those that were previously championed by Republicans.  As we in the blue states see it, President Obama tried his best to reach out to the other side, but they only wanted to deny him even the smallest of victories; and as a result, he was unable to move the country forward the way he wanted to.  In the red states, Republicans are praised for obstructing him-- red state voters believed Republicans in congress should be commended for stopping this president's outrageous policies and saving the country from disaster.  And ironically, the same voters who claimed they wanted change and that's why they voted for Donald Trump also returned nearly all of their senators and representatives to congress.  If the so-called swamp is going to be drained, it will be the same veteran politicians participating in the attempt, including some who have served in congress for many years and know how to protect their own jobs.

Forgive me for being skeptical, but I don't think there will be the kind of change Mr. Trump promised. He has already surrounded himself with lobbyists and veteran political figures, and the policies they want are the same conservative policies past Republican presidents tried to implement-- some to please the pro-business community (big tax cuts for the wealthy), and some to please the Religious Right (defunding Planned Parenthood, trying to overturn Roe v. Wade or stopping gay marriage).  Meanwhile, one thing won't change at any time soon:  red state and blue state voters will continue to talk past each other, talk about each other, and think badly of each other.  Truth be told, Mr. Trump doesn't need to build a wall.  With so much anger, frustration, and discord on both sides, I fear we've walled ourselves off from each other already. And the election of Mr. Trump will only make the distance between us even worse.




Saturday, October 15, 2016

Why Women (Including Me) Don't Always Come Forward

I wasn't going to spend an entire blog post on my personal life-- I mean, who would be interested in that?  I'm not a celebrity (I'm mainly well-known by Rush fans, and a few folks in broadcasting), and besides, I've never used blogging as a way to settle scores or get back and those I believe to have wronged me.

But over the past week, as I watched the ongoing debate about whether Donald Trump did in fact sexually assault women, and as I listened to him, and his supporters, claiming that he was the victim of an orchestrated smear campaign, some memories I hadn't thought about in a while came back-- memories I generally do not discuss, but which now seem worth talking about, even though it's been a long time since they happened.

And that's part of the story. You see, I totally understand why some women don't come forward immediately after they've been sexually assaulted, or fondled, or harassed.  I understand because I lived it.  I saw what happened when I did come forward, and I saw what happened when I kept silent.  In both cases, it was a no-win situation for me, and I am certain other women know what I am saying.

It was in the early 1970s when I first encountered sexual harassment.  I never expected to-- I am well aware that I'm not what the culture would consider "beautiful" nor was I built like the stereotypical Playboy Bunny.  But as I found out, being assaulted is not about how one looks or how one dresses-- it's about powerful men who believe they can do whatever they want, without repercussions.  I was a first year teacher at what would today be called a middle-school, and one afternoon, after classes, I was in the supply closet looking for something for my classroom (I don't recall what), when the principal came in.  I greeted him courteously (he was my boss, after all), but then, I heard the door of the closet close. I still remember the sound of the lock, and I also recall being puzzled... and then feeling afraid.  The principal moved closer to me. He told me something along the lines of he found me attractive, and then he grabbed me and rubbed his body against mine.  I remember that I froze. I did not move. I did not respond. Inside, I was terrified, but I showed him no emotion.  Nothing. And I told him to open the door and let me go.  He did, but he told me not to say anything; he said no-one would believe me anyway.

He was right.  I told my parents (who did believe me, but could do little to help); and then I decided to go to the school committee to ask for a transfer. They held a hearing and during that very humiliating proceeding, I was the one put on trial-- I was asked what I had been wearing, and I was asked why I wanted to try to ruin the reputation of such a fine man and such a well-respected principal.  In the end, it was my union (where the guy in charge also didn't seem to believe me, but he at least defended my right to a transfer) that facilitated my going to another school.  I was advised never to mention it again, and I didn't.  I ended up teaching at a high school where I was treated well, but when I had the chance to leave the Boston Public Schools and go into radio full-time, I did.

Some things never change, however.  My radio journey led me to Cleveland in late 1973, and several years later, to New York.  It was in New York, when I was between jobs, that I heard of an opening at a record company; I had just worked for one, and while radio was my first choice, working in records was fine with me. The executive doing the interview told me he lived on a house-boat, and that's where the interview would  be conducted.  I wasn't particularly shocked by that-- I've been interviewed in hotels, at restaurants, and even once during a hockey game.  Also, as a woman in a predominantly male industry, I didn't want to seem overly suspicious or give the impression that I expected special treatment.

The conversation went well, and I thought I was making a good impression, or at least I hoped I was (I needed the job!).  I don't recall everything that happened during the evening, but I do recall him suddenly moving closer to me and saying something about wanting to know if we were "compatible."  I tried to make a joke, to defuse the situation, but he grabbed my hand and I think you can guess where he placed it. I tried to pull away, and he became more insistent. I do not remember how I was able to persuade him to let me go, but suffice it to say he got angry, made some rude remark, called me a word that rhymes with "witch," and let me leave.  I didn't get the job, nor did I ever see him again, although I read about him in the music industry trade publications now and then. I am sure that, if questioned, he would have said I came on to him-- which I did not-- or he would have denied anything unusual had occurred.  And for him, probably this was nothing unusual. For me, even four decades later, I can still recall what he did.

I told my boyfriend at the time, but I decided to say nothing to anyone else.  The radio business and the music industry were very much a "good old boys" club back then, and if I had spoken out, even if anyone did believe me, I never would have been hired by anyone ever again.  Ultimately, I was able to find another job back in radio, go on and have a successful career, and even spend nearly thirty years as a consultant.  On two occasions during my consulting career, I encountered behavior similar to that record company executive-- clients who, after a nice dinner, expected that they could put their hands on me or who saw nothing wrong with trying to grope me (one even thought it was amusing).  Both men were very famous in the broadcasting industry.  And once again, I felt it best to keep silent, since a woman who complains is seen as a whiner, and the men in the industry tend to circle the wagons and defend each other. I knew that speaking out would blackball me from the industry I loved. So I chose to just keep it to myself.  It was a terrible choice to have to make, but women in mostly-male professions make such decisions often. And yes, it still goes on even today.

Please don't get me wrong.  Most of the men I met during my long career in broadcasting were wonderful. Most treated me as a fellow professional, which is all I ever asked them to do. But my point is that on a few very traumatic occasions, I was the victim of men who believed it was perfectly fine for them to put their hands on me, and that if I objected, I was the one at fault.  I don't know if the accusations against Donald Trump (or for that matter, Bill Clinton) are all true, but based on my experiences, I know first-hand that for many powerful men, they believe they have the right to treat a woman any way they want.  And sad to say, society still has a tendency to cast suspicion on the woman, rather than saying in no uncertain terms that there is NO excuse for touching a woman without her consent.

I totally understand why Trump's accusers said nothing; I too said nothing when it happened to me... and besides, on the one time when I did speak up, I was vilified and subjected to shame and humiliation.  As a second-wave feminist, I am pleased at how far society has come on many issues affecting women.  But when it comes to matters of sexual harassment and inappropriate touching, we still seem stuck in the dark ages, back in an era when women were supposed to just grin and bear it, and accept whatever the man wanted to do; he was the man and we were supposed to cheerfully submit-- or suffer the consequences.  I know first-hand about those consequences.  I also know this story isn't partisan-- powerful men (whether they are Republicans or Democrats,  or even men who claim to be religious) can all be part of the problem.  And rather than blaming their accusers, I can only hope these men will decide to become part of the solution.  But in a culture that still defends boorish behavior, I don't know if they ever will.  

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Power of Forgiveness... in Politics and in Daily Life

It's nearly the end of the Ten Days of Repentance, a time in the Jewish religion that begins with the New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and ends with the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).  During those ten days, we are asked to seek forgiveness from those we wronged in the past year.  We are supposed to apologize for what we said or did that might have hurt others, and to take responsibility for it.  Even if the other person doesn't accept our apology, we still are commanded to make the effort, since if we want God to forgive us on Yom Kippur, we have to first forgive others. (That's why you don't wish people a "Happy" Yom Kippur-- it's a time for serious reflection, a time to ask God to give us another year, and a chance to make things right.)

Of course, forgiving others is often easier said than done.  I had a very contentious relationship with my father (of blessed memory), and I admit it took me many years to get to a place where I could forgive some of the harsh words he said to me.  I've also had a difficult time forgiving some of the men I worked with during my years in radio, men who thought it was perfectly acceptable for them to sexually harass or make crude remarks to their female employees-- just because they could.  Trust me, such things are not funny, they're not something women enjoy, and those of us who have gone through such experiences don't forget them easily.  But during the Ten Days of Repentance, there's an opportunity to let all the anger go, and to forgive the people who wronged us.  Forgetting, however, is another matter entirely.

We live in a culture where blaming and shaming are staples of social media conversation, and where snark and insult can be heard even in presidential debates.  (I dread to think what some folks have said about me; in some cases I know, but in others, it's probably better that I don't.)  And yet, during the Ten Days of Repentance, we are asked to put aside the tendency to focus on other people's faults and concentrate on our own.  We're not supposed to hide behind the so-called non-apology apology, the one where the candidate says something outrageous and then follows up with "I apologize if anyone was offended." (In other words, whatever the person said, crude or demeaning though it may have been, it's YOUR fault if you were offended, not theirs for saying it.)  Rather, we are asked to make a sincere effort to acknowledge our faults, to tell the truth about them, and to avoid making excuses.  It's not about whether anyone was offended; it's about whether you should have said it in the first place.

Imagine if our politicians could for ten days put aside their tendency to make themselves look good by making their opponents look bad.  Imagine if our colleagues at work could for ten days put aside the tendency to gossip or say nasty things behind the backs of people they dislike.  Wouldn't it be nice to spend a few days treating each other with courtesy and respect, even if we may disagree with each other's views?  Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't obsess over every perceived slight, or dwell on every fault others have (while making excuses for their own)?  Wouldn't it be refreshing if people who claim to live by the Good Book actually followed its teachings, especially about showing kindness to others, and forgiving those who don't  live up to our standards?  Yes, I know, it's not very likely that any of this will happen in my lifetime.  But it's still something worth aspiring to.

And on the Day of Atonement, Jewish people world-wide will fast and pray that God will forgive us for disappointing Him or falling short of what He asked us to do in the past year.  But whether you are Jewish or not, it's worth taking what my friends in AA and Al-Anon call a "fearless moral inventory":  over the past year, have we been too self-righteous, too certain that only we are right and everyone else is wrong?  Have we been too ready to criticize and too slow to forgive?  Have we brought out the best in those around us or have we been so focused on winning that we were willing to tear others down as long as we came out on top?

So, as the Ten Days of Repentance draw to a close, I can only hope those who know me or those who have read my words this past year will forgive me for anything rude or discourteous I may have said.  And whether you are Jewish or not, I wish you and yours a year of peace, health, compassion, and kindness.  In a time where anger and resentment seem so prevalent, each of us can and should do our part to create a more courteous world, and now is as good a time as any to begin. Happy New Year and may you be inscribed in the Book of Life.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Running for Office and Surviving the Gender Wars

The other day, I read a wonderful article in the Washington Post, about how female debaters are often held to different standards from male debaters.  The article is here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/09/23/how-could-sexism-hurt-clinton-in-the-debates-these-female-high-school-debaters-know/?hpid=hp_no-name_opinion-card-f%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.1cf6b04d1616.

Written by Anna Waters, a junior at Northwestern University, it describes in great detail how female debaters, even at the high school and college level, find their performance judged more on their physical appearance and their personality than their male opponents are.  Since "power" and "authority" in our culture have long been gendered male, a woman who tries to sound powerful or authoritative is often harshly criticized, whereas a man who exhibits those qualities is praised.  You've heard the memes-- he's assertive; she's aggressive.  He's determined; she's stubborn.  He's decisive; she's bossy.  And let's not forget ambition-- a man is complimented for being ambitious, whereas a woman who displays ambition is compared to Lady Macbeth.

So, can a woman be "presidential"? After Hillary Clinton participated in a recent event called the "Commander in Chief Forum," Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus commented that she seemed angry and didn't smile enough.  One wonders why any candidate would be expected to be cheerful when discussing matters of war and peace, but evidently Mr. Priebus believes a woman candidate needs to first and foremost make sure she doesn't lose her feminine charm and likeability.

But sad to say, his attitude is still too common-- there have been a number of studies in the business world that have found significant gender disparities:  for example, when male managers speak in a way that sounds angry or critical, there's a tendency to either accept it or to rationalize it ("That's just how he is; but he's a really good boss once you get to know him"); but when a woman manager speaks that way, there is a far more negative response, and in some cases, it fuels the perception that she is not an effective manager because she doesn't have good people-skills.  This can even lead to a pay gap:  women who sound harsh are paid less than men who sound exactly the same way. http://time.com/money/3986479/angry-women-lose-15k-perceived-worth/

Don't get me wrong.  Compared to how things were when I was growing up, a time when companies could come right out and say "we don't hire women," and when even the most qualified women were denied equal access to the best-paying jobs, we have made amazing progress.  But as I have noted in other blog posts, some things have not changed much at all, including public reaction to strong female politicians.  This is not partisan, by the way. Both Republican and Democratic women have been asked questions male politicians would never be asked, including questions about who takes care of their children and what their husband thinks of their political career.  And as for First Ladies, woe to the woman who had a career before entering the White House:  she is still expected to give it up and spend her time hosting lavish parties (at which time she will be criticized for being ostentatious) or promoting a charitable cause (and if she uses late-night talk shows or social media to promote it, she will be accused of trying to be too much of a celebrity).  We still seem to expect First Ladies to "know their place," even if they had high-powered and successful professional lives before.

I don't know whether Hillary Clinton will be able to win a debate with a master showman and entertainer like Donald Trump.  I'd like to believe she can, because she knows a lot about policy and has very detailed plans.  But based on previous coverage of her, I expect critics to find her "shrill" and to criticize her "lack of warmth."  I've never met her so I have no idea whether she is or is not a warm person, but I do know that ever since women entered politics after they got the vote, female candidates have had to walk a fine line between sounding certain but not dogmatic; being prepared but not sounding like a school-teacher giving a lecture; and being forceful without seeming angry.  I hope Hillary can keep her balance, but it won't be easy.  It would be nice to say that we've moved beyond gendered assumptions about female candidates, but unfortunately, evidence suggests we haven't.  So, it will be interesting to see what Hillary's strategy is for winning the debates-- knowing before she goes in that historically, the rules have favored a male style of debating.  My hope is that that these upcoming debates won't be about "manliness" versus "warmth."  In 2016, we shouldn't still be judging based on 1950s assumptions-- and yet, I fear that we will.