Thursday, December 7, 2023

There Seems to Be a War on Hanukkah

I was thinking about Hanukkah a lot this week, and that's not something I usually do. Don't get me wrong: it's a perfectly nice holiday, and I enjoy it-- although attempts to turn it into the "Jewish Christmas" aren't very helpful. But it's actually a minor holiday in Judaism, and I think about Passover or Jewish New Year much more. Lately, however, Hanukkah is in the news, and not in a good way: I'm saddened to hear that some cities where they used to have a public lighting of the menorah are canceling those events, and others are hiring extra police to protect the celebrants. Hanukkah didn't used to be controversial. It's a small but happy holiday-- about miracles, about gratitude to God, and about religious freedom. But now, a lot of Jews are afraid to publicly observe it... and that's sad too. 

Truth be told, the culture at this time of year is seldom Hanukkah-oriented. Everywhere we go, all we can see are Christmas decorations, Christmas ornaments, and Christmas displays. Okay fine, Christmas is a major holiday in an overwhelmingly Christian country, and Hanukkah comes at a different time each year. But even when the dates align, most merchants and most civic spaces tend to treat Hanukkah like it doesn't exist. In a few cities with large Jewish populations, there might be a public menorah lighting, but for the most part, Jews observe Hanukkah at home, lighting their menorah near a window, a symbol of shining the light of hope into a world darkened by prejudice. 

But this year, prejudice seems to be winning. The Israel-Hamas war has brought out angry protesters who chant slogans that are not just pro-Palestinian but often anti-Jewish. I don't understand how screaming at the Jewish owner of a falafel restaurant in Philadelphia is going to get the war to stop. I don't understand how vilifying random Jews-- as if we are all somehow to blame for what the Israeli government is doing-- is an effective strategy for bringing about a more peaceful world. And I absolutely don't understand how shutting down Hanukkah observances (or any other Jewish holiday celebrations) will bring us any closer to mutual respect and understanding.

And we need mutual respect now more than ever. I read statements from my friends on the right that the Jews need to be converted and that America is really a Christian nation (no we don't, and no it isn't). I read statements from my friends on the left that Jews are responsible for Palestinian suffering (I am not responsible for what the government of Israel does; I don't live there. I support a two-state solution and I always have. And as an American, I totally reject Islamophobia. But I also wonder why there is so little anger at the many, many Muslim-majority nations, especially those run by autocrats, where they seem fine about having lots of noisy anti-Israel demonstrations, but do very little to actually welcome Palestinian refugees, and even less to make life better for them).      

As for me, I want to live in a world where it's safe for me to wear my Jewish star without someone berating me about what they think my politics are. I want to live in a world where people of all faiths, and no faiths, can respect each other's views and then go grab some lunch together. I want to live in a world where the haters don't win-- no matter how noisy they are. Now more than ever, we don't need a war on Hanukkah. We need to eat some potato pancakes and some jelly donuts together. And it might be nice if everyone put up a menorah, a symbol of taking a stand for tolerance and respect over hate and bigotry. Even teddy bears agree: the world could use more kindness and the world could use more friendship, especially among people with different views. So, as Hanukkah begins, I'm hoping you will join me in bringing a little more light into a world that needs it. Happy Hanukkah!     

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Oh the Places You'll Go (or How I Ended Up Back in Cleveland)

I had known for a while that Geddy Lee was writing another book, and unlike the last one, this was more of an autobiography than a tribute to his love of playing the bass. And when he finished it and embarked upon a book tour, I was looking forward to seeing him-- we hadn't seen each other since the last book tour, back in 2019. 

Geddy came to the Orpheum Theater in Boston on Saturday night the 18th of November. Prior to the event, I had a wonderful time hanging out with a large group of Rush fans, many of whom were part of RushCon, which I attended on a few occasions and really enjoyed. I gave a talk (I hope it was interesting), and then I got the message from Geddy's manager that if I went to the venue early (as in, "now"), he'd have some time for us to chat. Needless to say, I went over immediately, and had a chance to hang with him for a few minutes. We hugged, and we talked about family, his book, and our 49-year friendship, something both of us are grateful for.

For some strange reason, Boston's big album rocker (WBCN) never really played Rush very often: I was told the program director didn't like the band, and it wasn't till years later when the guys got played at a different station-- classic rocker WZLX. But a lack of local airplay never stopped thousands of fans from turning out at Rush concerts, nor did it diminish the size of the crowd at the Orpheum. Even now, eight years after the band broke up, the fans love Rush, and they absolutely love Geddy.     

I sat in the audience, enjoying the show. Eric McCormack, of "Will & Grace" fame, was the moderator, and he and Geddy had an interesting conversation.  But prior to that, the audience was treated to a slide show that included rare photos from Geddy's life and career (I was surprised that there was a photo of me, and when the fans saw it, they cheered; they also cheered the first time Neil's photo came up); it was accompanied by organist Josh Kantor. Josh is incredibly talented, and fun to listen to: he does the music at Fenway Park, and he added some local touches, like "Sweet Caroline"-- a sing-along version of which has become a staple at Red Sox games.      

Geddy seemed relaxed and comfortable, as he told stories about how he got his name (both his Hebrew name and his English one); his complicated relationship with John Rutsey; his first impression of Neil, and how Neil's audition for the band went; and why he thought his dad was an incredibly cool guy (and how his death-- when Geddy was only twelve-- affected him). He told of how he learned his dad had been a musician in the old country-- he wished he had known that growing up, as it was something he and his dad never got a chance to discuss.  

Along the way, in addition to answering McCormack's questions, Geddy read several excerpts from his book, and he also talked about missing Neil, and how much the friendship of his band-mates meant to him. He said they seldom if ever argued, and they could always make each other laugh. He mentioned bands that were really good to them (like Kiss) and bands that weren't (like Aerosmith). And he mentioned the staying power of "Working Man," which they performed during just about every tour.  Geddy's talk provided some details  about his life that many of us knew, as well as some we'd never heard before. I thought that perhaps writing the book was cathartic for him-- a retrospective on a successful career, but also a way to process losing his dad so unexpectedly, losing his mom to dementia, and ultimately, losing Neil to cancer. 

The talk had some sad and emotional moments, but it was also very entertaining, especially when Geddy told stories about life on the road. More recently, he told about how much he had enjoyed collaborating with Alex during the Taylor Hawkins tribute. He said it was great to play together again; but while he had no desire to re-create Rush (he has long said if there's no Neil, there's no Rush), he was eager to get back into music on some level. He had rediscovered a couple of songs that he wrote in the late 1990s, and he wanted to write some more, and possibly collaborate with Alex at some future point.

But as I was watching Geddy do his book talk, nobody in the audience knew I had a secret. When I was backstage with him before the show, his manager (Meg) suddenly asked me if I'd be willing to come to Cleveland the next night, assuming they could work out the logistics, to lead the fan Q & A. It was almost a spur of the moment thing; evidently Meg and Geddy got the idea, and once I said okay, it was a matter of making it happen-- except I was asked to not say a word, almost like I would be the "Mystery Guest."

I hadn't been back to Cleveland in a while, but it has such an important place in Rush history, and I was excited to be a part of Geddy's show. And that's how I ended up in a limo, being taken to the airport, and on to Cleveland, in time for the pre-show sound-check at the State Theatre. Geddy was very happy that I was there, and we had fun doing some ad-libs and testing our microphone levels. I did a practice run on some of the fan questions, and then they ushered me back to the Green Room (which isn't green, but I guess many years ago, the guests actually waited in a room of that color). At some point, while the first part of the show, moderated by music journalist Rob Tannenbaum, was going on, I was able to watch it from a chair to the side of the stage, behind the curtain (nobody in the audience could see me, but I had a wonderful view of Geddy and Rob in conversation.  Geddy read different material from what he read in Boston, and told a few different stories, but once again, he seemed relaxed and conversational-- as if he'd been doing this all his life. 

After the intermission, Geddy did another reading from his book, and then... he announced that the person reading the fan questions would be me, and I came out on stage. Geddy and I hugged, and I waved at the fans, many of whom were on their feet applauding and cheering us both. It was almost magical, and yes, I know that's a cliché, but that's how it felt-- like some kind of magic was happening. I had tears in my eyes, and I don't think I was the only one. After all, Cleveland was where it all began, and now, 49 years later, we were all re-united, brought together to celebrate Geddy and to celebrate how much Rush meant to our lives. 

I showed Geddy my old (1975) pass for the Agora Ballroom, and asked him what he remembered of playing there while I was at WMMS. And before we got into the questions, I thanked the fans for being loyal to this band, and I also thanked Geddy. He could easily have forgotten about me years ago, but Geddy (and Rush) always took friendship seriously; the guys in Rush were always loyal to those who had been good to them.  And then, we got into the Q & A. Just like in Boston, when Washington Post arts reporter Geoff Edgers led the questions segment, I read the name of the questioner, we'd put a spotlight on him or her (there were lots of women there, by the way, and I once again remarked that yes there ARE female Rush fans-- which got a cheer from some of them) and then, I'd read their question and Geddy would respond. I was pleased that he and I had a good rapport: to be honest, I hadn't been on stage in quite a while, and I was just hoping I'd do a good job for him and make the fans happy too.   

Evidently I did, because at the end, as I walked off stage, Meg and all the others who had been watching us, said it had turned out perfectly, and it was right that I was there to be a part of it. It was a full-circle event, in a way: I was back in Cleveland, doing what I used to do when I was still on the air, back with people I cared about, back with Geddy, talking about Rush in the city where I first introduced "Working Man." It was as it should be. And before I even got back to my hotel, fans were posting photos and comments to my social media pages. It had been a night I would never forget. I felt privileged to have experienced it.      

So, how do I put into words how much being there meant to me? During the Boston event, at one point, Eric McCormack began singing some lyrics from a Rush song I dearly love, "Madrigal." It seems a fitting tribute to Geddy, to the fans who have remained loyal to Rush, and to the power of friendship, even during difficult times. To everyone who saw me at either of the shows and said hello, or reached out to me on social media, thank you for making me a part of the extended Rush family. "When all around is madness, And there's no safe port in view, I long to turn my path homeward, To stop a while with you." And in a way, that's how it felt: like coming home, like being among friends, like stopping a while to celebrate our shared appreciation for Rush, and our gratitude for Geddy Lee.


Tuesday, October 31, 2023

When Ignorance and Prejudice and Fear Walk Hand in Hand

Back in the 1990s, I was teaching a media analysis course at Emerson College, and one night, after class, a student from Saudi Arabia had a question he needed to ask me. He was a very good student, and I was expecting a question about one of the readings. But what he really wanted to know about was the secret. I wasn't sure what he was referring to, so I asked him to elaborate. "The secret," he said. "We all know that the Jews run the media. How do they do it? What is their secret?"

He was serious. He had been taught all his life that "the Jews" were a powerful, often-sinister force in the world. And he was told, "the Jews" exercised their influence in secret-- they controlled the banks, the world economy, and of course, the media. Since I was perhaps the first Jew he'd ever really met in person, I guess he thought I'd teach him the magic words or the mystical handshake or whatever it was that allowed us to be so diabolical yet so influential. 

But, alas, I wasn't able to be much help. Truth be told, the Jews really don't control the media. There may have been a time circa 1911 when there was only one movie studio and it was owned by Jews, but historically, media outlets were always owned by a wide variety of folks-- and in the US, the majority of those owners have tended to be White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Were there some Jews who owned newspapers or magazines or radio stations? Yes, of course. Did some Jews own TV stations or movie studios? Absolutely. And were some Jews presidents of networks? Sure. But did Jews control entire industries? Nope, not true-- no matter what my student was told. 

But myths like that one refuse to die. As recently as last week, someone suggested to me that the US government feels obligated to support Israel because of "how powerful the Jews are in the world." (However you feel about Israel, somehow I don't think that's the reason.) And there are other enduring myths about "the Jews" (always "the Jews"-- as if we're a monolithic group that thinks alike, and acts alike). The whole time I was growing up, I heard lots of jokes about "cheap Jews." According to the popular culture, "the Jews" were greedy and their god was money. Examples were everywhere: Judas in the New Testament, the poetry of T.S. Eliot, the character of Shylock the Jew in The Merchant of Venice... (Interestingly, Shakespeare probably never met an actual Jew in his life-- they had all been forcibly expelled from England in 1290, after more than a century of brutal antisemitic persecution. But he certainly met the stereotype: he created Shylock, the moneylender, a man who loved money more than he loved his own daughter.)

It doesn't take much to reawaken some of the old stereotypes, and social media hasn't helped-- some platforms (thanks, Elon) have willingly embraced the haters, and allowed them to spread old hatreds to a new generation, sometimes with deadly consequences. And some extremist politicians (on both sides) have been happy to blame society's problems on "the Jews." Meanwhile, it doesn't take a war in the middle-east for some folks to lash out at "the Jews." In fact, it's a tactic used by autocratic leaders all over the world for centuries.   

During a recent Senate hearing on worldwide threats, FBI Director Chris Wray said that while Jewish Americans are about 2.4% of the American public, they account for something like 60% of all religious-based hate crimes. That's not a number that makes me feel very encouraged. I grew up at a time when antisemitism was on the wane, compared to how it was during the Nazi era; but it was still a part of the culture, and I worried that it might come back. Agreed, things are nowhere nearly as bad as they used to be. But it doesn't take much for bigotry to recur... if we allow it... and if we remain silent when, as the late Neil Peart put it, "ignorance and prejudice and fear walk hand in hand." 

Sunday, October 15, 2023

That Day When I Lost My Job

I have to admit I'm someone who doesn't like surprises.  I'd much rather know what's going on, and I usually do. But last Wednesday blind-sided me. That was when I got the email that the provost wanted to see me for a quick Zoom meeting; it concerned my future at the university. About two dozen others of us got similar messages. It was not something I was expecting-- I mean, only a couple of weeks earlier, the university was celebrating those of us with work anniversaries: mine was 15 years. 

So, needless to say, I was not expecting to be told my services were no longer required. I sincerely thought I had done a good job: I taught some very well-received courses in media studies, ran the school newspaper, tutored, mentored, advised, belonged to various university committees, and I'd like to believe I made a positive impact, both on my students and on my colleagues. 

But maybe I didn't. Maybe what I have to offer wasn't what was needed or wanted. I would have thought that in the world today, a person who specializes in media analysis, someone who can teach a wide range of media-related courses (along with other courses too), would be useful. But evidently not.  

I still don't know how I feel about all of this. I'm getting a lot of emails from former (and current) students who think the university made the wrong decision. And I can't forget that there were 30 of us, all of whom were names in our fields in some way, all of whom worked hard for our students, all of whom went above and beyond... and yet, we're all gone. Just like that. Turn the page. 

I know it's not personal (at least, I hope it's not). Business decision. I ran a business and at times, I had to let people go too. But to be honest, I never thought I'd be the one to lose my job. I sincerely believed I was making a difference. And now, I don't know what the next thing is. I'm 76. Still young and cute, widely quoted and published, but 76. Will anyone want to hire me? Only time will tell.

It's times like this when I'm glad I have a blog, because there's something cathartic in writing this. As I said, I don't like surprises, and this was certainly not what I expected to be blogging about. Sometimes, life is fair (and predictable) and sometimes it isn't. As a cancer survivor, I'm still grateful to be alive. But I do hope there's still someplace where I can contribute. And not knowing what the next thing is, and not knowing what I can do about any of it... that too is not what I expected...

Saturday, September 30, 2023

Do We Still Need Dress Codes?

When I was growing up in the 1950s and early 60s, dress codes were a part of everyone's life. It was a much more formal culture: even in public school, boys were expected to wear jackets and ties, and girls were expected to wear skirts and blouses. That applied to teachers too. In the office, there was no such thing as "business casual," and as for "casual Fridays," those were unheard of. Businessmen wore suits and their secretaries wore dresses. (Pantsuits for businesswomen were also a no-no.) If you went to religious services, you dressed up. If you went to a dance, you dressed up. If you went out to a restaurant... well, you get the idea. In fact, there were so many rules about what you were supposed to wear and when, and you deviated from them at your peril.

But over the past few decades, we've become a much less formal culture. Gradually, dress codes began to be relaxed-- even in the office. Agreed, most executives still tend to dress in a "professional" manner, but these days, more colors are permitted for men, pantsuits are okay for women, and just about every business has at least one "casual" day. And while most schools still expect a certain standard for the students, by the time kids are in college, they are wearing all sorts of different styles, and very few involve suits or dresses.   

I was talking to my students several weeks ago about whether dress codes are necessary in our far more casual culture. Of course, there are still times when it's best to utilize traditional styles: for example, I would never go to a job interview wearing jeans. Nor would I go to synagogue looking like I had just come from taking a walk on the beach. In fact, I was always taught that maintaining a professional image is important; it's part of being taken seriously.

But I found myself feeling ambivalent when congress (temporarily) relaxed its dress code a couple of weeks ago. It all started when Pennsylvania senator John Fetterman, who is recovering from a stroke and from depression, asked for permission to wear his customary shorts and a hoodie to work. A part of me wanted to accommodate him-- he has been through a lot, he's making an inspiring recovery, and if that's what will help him to feel better, who am I to say no?  But when he got the okay to dress casually on the floor of the senate, quite a few members of congress were uncomfortable, and they said so.

Okay fine, some of it was political posturing-- a few of his political opponents expressed a little bit too much outrage, given that some of them are not exactly examples of dressing for success: I've seen poorly-fitted jackets (or no jacket at all), shirts that didn't quite button, colors that didn't match-- if I were the fashion police, I could flag lots of folks for violations. Further, some of the folks demanding professionalism in congress were some of the biggest offenders when it comes to using bad language or being rude. In other words, wearing nice clothes doesn't make you a nice person.

But in the end, tradition ruled, and the dress code was reinstated. Still, I found the debate puzzling, because many folks seemed to equate clothing with behavior. I can name numerous members of congress who don't act in a professional manner-- yet they insist a dress code is needed to assure that there's decorum. And that's what I was discussing with my students: In some circumstances, I can see the benefit of looking professional and dressing in a way that's respectful. But I'm not convinced that going back to 1950s rules will produce more courteous behavior. So, perhaps you can contribute to the discussion: should businesses (including congress) tell their employees how to dress, and if so, what rules still make sense in 2023? I'm not in favor of shorts and a hoodie in the office, but I'm also not a fan of everyone having to dress up every day. So, where should we go from here? I'd welcome your opinions.

Friday, September 15, 2023

My New Year's Wish and An Apology

I don't usually blog about religion, but this seems like an appropriate time: as I write this, Jews all over the world are about to celebrate the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), which is also the beginning of the Ten Days of Repentance. As many of you know, New Year for us is not about partying (although there is a festive meal). It's about gratitude--it's a gift to be alive to greet another year. And it's also about reevaluation--looking back on what we did (or didn't do) in the past year and thinking seriously about what we need to do to improve ourselves. 

During the Ten Days of Repentance, it's about humility--humbling yourself and apologizing to those you may have wronged, as well as apologizing to God. The ten days culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, perhaps the most serious day in Judaism, a day of fasting and prayer. Some of us not only fast from food--we fast from social media, TV, radio, anything that's a potential distraction from sincerely contemplating our spirituality and humbly asking God to forgive the mistakes we've made.

Agreed, not everyone is religious, and not everyone fasts or prays or even believes in a deity. But I look at this period of time as an opportunity to learn, to grow, to work on becoming a better person. And that's something anyone can do, no matter how much or how little they align with a religion.

My New Year's wish for you is that you are able to live in good health-- as a cancer survivor, I know for a fact that if you don't have your health, you don't have anything. So, to me, health comes first. I also wish you a year of kindness--may you be kind to others, and may others be kind to you. A lack of kindness can corrode a person's spirit-- we all need the ability to be compassionate, and we're a lot better off when we act with compassion, rather than with pettiness or vindictiveness. And finally, my New Year's wish for you is a year of peace-- of course, there will be arguments, of course there will be disagreements, because we're human. But we don't have to create a world where that's ALL there is. In other words, we can create a world where when we disagree, it doesn't turn into endless rage or fury. We can create a world where we can agree to disagree and still be friends. I'd much rather live in that kind of world, wouldn't you?

And that gets me to my apology: I am by nature an impatient person, and if in the past year I was rude or discourteous with any of you, I hope you will forgive me. There are many things I wish I hadn't said, and while I cannot un-say them, I can promise to be more mindful and try my best to be more understanding. I don't always live up to the ideals and the goals I've set for myself, but I promise to keep trying, now and in the year ahead. 

To all who celebrate, I wish you a happy and health and peaceful New Year, and no matter what our beliefs or traditions (or our politics), may this be a good year for us, and for the world; and may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.      

Thursday, August 31, 2023

A Birthday and Two Anniversaries

This past week has been more eventful than usual: for one thing, it was Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson's 70th birthday. For another, it was the 39th anniversary of when I met Jeff, the adult with autism for whom I've served as an advocate and a mentor since we met in 1984. And it was also the 15th anniversary of my being hired as a professor at Lesley University in Cambridge MA.

Each event was special in its own way-- both Alex and I marveled at the fact that we've remained in touch for nearly 50 years. Jeff, who doesn't always understand abstract concepts like the passage of time, absolutely understands that I've been there for him for quite a long while; and when I told him it was our 39th anniversary, he seemed pleased (and he wanted to know if we'd go out for an anniversary lunch, or perhaps cake and ice cream... or both). And as for being at Lesley for 15 years, that's kind of amazing too. 

As many of you know, I'm a working class kid, and I grew up in an era when nobody expected girls to accomplish much beyond finding a husband. (Don't get me wrong-- there is nothing wrong with finding a husband if that's your main goal. I'm glad I eventually married, but I also wanted a career, and back then, girls were told we couldn't have both. How times have changed...) So, I followed my dream, even when folks said I was wasting my time, and I ended up having a long career in broadcasting. I met some famous people, I helped some underappreciated people become better known, and I tried to be entertaining on the radio.

And when the industry changed and a lot of us were downsized, I reinvented myself, as many of you know. I went back to school at age 55, got my PhD at age 64, and became a full-time professor of media studies. Not bad for someone who was told she'd never succeed. I'm the first woman in my family to get a Masters degree, and the first to get a PhD, in fact.  Lesley hired me in 2008-- I had been working part-time at Emerson College in Boston, but they never offered me a full-time gig, and when Lesley did, I took it. And now, I've been there 15 years, and I'm getting ready for the Fall semester.

I feel very fortunate, especially since in December, I'll (hopefully) celebrate another anniversary-- I'll be nine years cancer free. Meanwhile, I'm grateful that Alex and I are still in communication, grateful that Jeff continues to do well, and grateful that at 76, I'm still able to bring home a paycheck. And in a world that can sometimes be chaotic, it's nice to know that some things haven't changed: there are still milestones to achieve, and opportunities to make a difference, and anniversaries to celebrate with people I love.