Monday, November 15, 2021

A Place Where We Can Belong

As some of you know, I used to be a chaplain. I was teaching media courses at Emerson College in Boston at the time, and my job was to be a support person for the Jewish students. There was a Catholic chaplain, and a Protestant chaplain, and a Muslim chaplain, and I think there was a Hindu chaplain too. The regular Jewish chaplain needed a semester off due to illness, and since I had a counseling background (and since I was Jewish), I got asked to fill in. 

Our offices were near each other, and we all had a cordial relationship. In fact, there was nothing particularly remarkable about that semester...except for the fact that everyone who came to see me wasn't Jewish. No, it's not that they wanted to convert. In fact, most of the students who reached out didn't seem to care which denomination of chaplain was available-- they just needed someone to talk to, someone who had a spiritual background.  Fortunately, I've taught world religions, and I do understand the basic tenets of most faiths. I hope that I was able to comfort or encourage the students who came to see me. After all, it's the same God, even if each of our traditions recommends different pathways or uses different scriptures.

What brought this to mind is a rather unpleasant trend I've been noticing among some folks on the far right, both in Europe and in the US. There has been a troubling resurgence of anti-Jewish sentiments in Hungary, in Poland, in Lithuania, and elsewhere.  And we even saw examples of it here in 2017, in Charlottesville VA, when Neo-Nazis marched with their torches, chanting "Jews will not replace us"-- reflecting a false belief called "Replacement Theory" that teaches how Jews are allegedly bringing in millions of non-white immigrants, with the goal of changing the culture and destroying all that white Christians built. (Various permutations of this theory have been around for generations, but thanks to social media, bigots have a much easier time spreading it and finding like-minded individuals who will embrace hatred of Jews, or immigrants, or anyone considered "the other.")  

Last week, a conservative provocateur on social media tweeted that it was time for Jews to "assimilate," to prove they were like everyone else by embracing Christian holidays and ceasing to observe Jewish ones. Needless to say, a lot of us were not amused-- I mean, I'm as American as anyone else, thank you very much. I was born here, as were my parents; my father fought for this country, as did most of my male relatives. And if I celebrate Jewish holidays, I'm still an American.  In fact, one reason why my ancestors came here was because we are guaranteed freedom of religion. I don't need to "prove" that I love America by taking on someone else's religion. I am free to be an American, no matter what religious tradition I follow. Or so I was taught.

But then, several days ago, Michael Flynn, an ally and advisor to the former president, spoke at a rally staged by Christian conservatives in Texas, and he stated, to applause from his audience, that "If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God and one religion under God, right?"  Umm, no. Wrong. The Founding Fathers didn't ask for one official religion, and even if it's an applause line at certain events, asserting that America needs to establish Christianity and diminish all other faiths is not in the Constitution.

It's also not a belief I want to see again. I wasn't fond of that kind of bigotry when I was growing up in the 1950s, and it isn't a belief that has aged well. And yet, today, there are websites and videos that promote it, and evidently there are some people who think it's a great idea. I'm not one of them. I hope you're not either. America has long benefited from different beliefs and different perspectives. Agreed, finding common ground isn't always easy when it comes to certain theological issues; but just like when I was a chaplain, sometimes the goal should be giving people encouragement and helping them to find their own path. 

There's no right way to do that. But telling some of us we don't belong here, or that our beliefs are inferior (or unwanted), is not a helpful message.  In such a contentious world, having allies is very important: so, even if you're not Jewish, when you hear folks making bigoted remarks, or see them posting those kinds of claims on social media, I hope you'll let them know that you don't accept what they're saying. Maybe you and I don't agree on politics, or religion, or which sports team is the best. But surely we can agree on this: there should be no place for intolerance and religious prejudice in America. Not now. Not ever.     

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Where Politics Doesn't Belong

When I tell my students I'm 74, they're often surprised-- fortunately, I'm still reasonably young-looking, but that's not what surprises them. Many of them don't know (or talk to) a lot of people who grew up in the 1950s.  And for obvious reasons, their picture of that time in our history is somewhat different from mine. Theirs was shaped by the news stories they learned about in history class, along with the iconic figures they studied. Mine was shaped by being there and seeing a lot of it unfold in real time-- although I admit I didn't always understand the importance of it all, because I was not quite in my teens.  

It's no myth to say the fifties were a very conservative and traditional era, where conformity was valued; it was a time when young people used rock music as one of their few forms of rebellion.  Fortunately for me, I had parents who encouraged me to read, and who discussed current issues with me; it made me feel very grown up to do that.  In fact, I still remember watching the evening news and then talking about it, especially with my mother.

But here's what we didn't talk about: politics. Now, I know what you are thinking: "But Donna, if you watched the news, the president (Dwight D. Eisenhower) was a Republican. And the governor of Massachusetts was a Democrat (Foster Furcolo)." That's true-- but I had no idea that one was good and the other was bad. In my house, we focused on what these people did, not what party they were from. I got the impression that my family tended to vote for Democrats, but on the other hand, sometimes, they liked Republicans. And I was a kid, and that was fine with me.

I had no idea what political party our family doctor came from-- I just knew he seemed like a very friendly and trustworthy guy and my parents liked him.  At the synagogue we attended, I had no clue who the rabbi voted for; he mainly spoke about the scriptures and about living an ethical life.  Frankly, it never occurred to me that I should know his political views.  Nor did I know the political views of our dentist or the pharmacist or the Kosher butcher or the milkman (they still delivered milk to your home back then).  Some of them were outgoing, some of them seemed totally focused on business; some seemed to like kids, and others regarded kids as a nuisance. But none of these folks talked about politics with the customers. Ever.

And as for my teachers-- most seemed very traditional and very serious.  They didn't like rock music, and they expected us to conform to whatever the norms were back then. Some were nice, some were strict, but I couldn't tell you who their favorite candidates were. Similarly, my mother would go to PTA and meet with various teachers, but nobody screamed at anyone. Disagreements were handled, but everyone was expected to be polite.  I'm not claiming it was an ideal universe where everyone loved everyone else-- my mother belonged to several volunteer organizations, and I'm sure there was plenty of pettiness and gossiping, as there is in every generation. But again, nobody shouted at the board members, nobody issued threats, nobody stormed out and promised to return with a gun.    

Today, I heard about a Southwest Airlines pilot who made an anti-Joe Biden remark over the loudspeaker. For months, in various states, I've been reading about school board meetings where people have been showing up to express their outrage at one thing or another, shouting at board members and calling them vulgar names.  I've seen videos of high school sporting events where parents are cursing out the referees, or cursing out the coaches. And this has been going on for a while. Some people want to blame the Democrats. Others want to blame the Republicans. Or Facebook. Or Twitter.  Or the pandemic. Fill in your favorite villain. 

But as for me, I blame a shift in the culture. And one problem is the need for some boundaries-- there ought to be spaces where politics doesn't belong, where everything isn't about what tribe you're in and which candidate you support. I absolutely do not miss the conformity or the casual bigotry I saw in the 50s. But I do miss being able to interact with people as people-- not as folks with the right views or folks who supported the right party. I'm tired of the anger, the rudeness, the divisiveness, the blame. And I'm really tired of the pundits who claim it's all the fault of [fill in the blank]. 

No, it's on each of us-- to say enough is enough and stop treating even the slightest disagreement like it's going to lead to World War 3. It's on each of us to model courtesy and show kids they can disagree without hating the "other side." But above all, it's on each of us to stop weaponizing our political differences. I want to be able to go into a store or take a plane ride or attend a ballgame without hearing vulgar political chants.  So yes, by all means, vote for the candidates you believe in, vote for the causes that animate you. But don't go on social media and mock the folks who didn't support "your side."  Let's stop making everything about politics. It's not doing anyone any good... and it's doing our country a lot of harm. 




Friday, October 15, 2021

The People who Inspire Us

The other day, I got some folks on social media upset with me when I said that I never understood the popularity of Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, who are basically famous for being famous.  A number of fans of Kim K leaped to her defense-- even though I wasn't really attacking her. They told me she has done great work in prison reform, to cite one example. As I understand it, that's a fairly recent cause for her; but no matter how long she has done it, I'm certainly glad she is using her wealth and fame to do some good in the world.  However, that wasn't my point.  I was just musing about how some celebrities (both male and female) have no particular accomplishments other than being well-known, and yet they are adored by millions of folks -- and I can't understand why.  

I am sure that the folks who took me to task for insulting her (or seeming to insult her) are sincere when they say they find her inspirational. But I must admit I don't share their views. I generally don't find most celebrities to be inspirational. Entertaining? Yes. Nice people, in some cases? Yes. But inspirational? Not usually.  I spent four decades in media, as most of you know, and I met my share of famous people-- movie  and TV stars, radio deejays, athletes, and many well-known musicians. I've got lots of great memories and lots of great stories. But very few of the folks that I met were a source of inspiration for me-- even if I was impressed with their achievements.

There were a few exceptions, of course. The three members of Rush are an inspiration to many of us-- these guys worked their way up from nothing, spending long days and nights on the road perfecting their craft, and when they did become famous, they remained the same down-to-earth, kind people as when I first met them. They were charitable before, and they remained charitable-- but they rarely let anyone know. I also found Dolly Parton inspirational for the same reason-- she too worked her way up from nothing, and even after she became a household name, she never really changed who she was.  When I met her, she was remarkably humble; she never acted like someone who takes herself too seriously. 

But for the most part, while there have been a number of celebrities I liked and admired, I've generally found my inspiration from people most of you have never met-- and probably have never heard of.  Last week, I gave a talk for the Antique Wireless Association, about the women of early amateur (and commercial) radio. If you didn't see it, it's here:  Most of these women never became famous. Most never became rich. But their contributions to broadcasting were often groundbreaking. I never forget that I am standing on their shoulders: if they had not had the courage to pursue what was a mostly all-male profession, the industry might never have opened its doors to me years later. 

I find what my grandparents did very inspirational-- imagine the challenges of coming to a new country, where you don't speak the language; escaping prejudice in the old country and trying to create a better future for your children in a land where you don't know anyone and you aren't always welcomed. What my immigrant ancestors did never made them rich or famous or popular. But thanks to their courage, and the determination of my own parents, I'm able to tell this story.

Most of all, I find inspiration in people who have spent their lives trying to make the world a better place: the teachers, the social workers, the folks who advocate for human rights, the first responders... these are people who don't believe it's all about them, who are determined to do their part because it's the right thing to do... even when it seems nobody notices.

SO, that's all I meant. Yes, I applaud the great athletes and the famous performers. But every day, quietly, the good deeds of people who receive far too little appreciation keep our world going. And without any insult intended to your favorite athlete, movie star, or YouTube celebrity, I wonder why as a culture, we often praise the already-famous and ignore the folks who are really doing what matters. So, to all the folks who are making a difference, my thanks and my gratitude. Perhaps you'll never become famous-- but then again, maybe you don't want to be.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Message on the Shirt

Several days ago, I saw an article about country singer Jason Aldean, his wife, and their two kids (ages two and three).  I admit I'm not a fan of country music, but I always like to see what celebrities are up to, given that I teach courses in popular culture. So, imagine my surprise to see the Aldean family proudly modeling a line of anti-Joe Biden shirts, a line that includes a shirt that reads F*** Joe Biden (with the word spelled out). 

Before some of my conservative friends get upset with me ("You wouldn't complain if it were a pro-Biden shirt!" or "You wouldn't complain if it were a F*** Trump shirt!"), let me repeat what I said on social media as soon as I read the article:  Actually, I would complain. And here's why:  the Aldeans have two kids, who are two and three years old. They did not ask to be models. They did not ask to be representatives for their parents' political views. In fact, I'd be surprised if they knew much about Joe Biden, other than the (obviously) hateful things they've been taught. 

I am absolutely fine with Jason Aldean disliking Joe Biden. I am absolutely fine with him expressing his views on politics, or any other topic he wants to discuss. Ditto for his wife. But they are adults. They (theoretically) know why they believe as they do. I may not agree with their beliefs, but I respect their right to have them.

However, as parents, they should be setting an example, and using their kids to sell political merchandise isn't the kind of example that's good for those kids. What they are being taught at a young age is to hate a guy who never did anything to them, a guy who doesn't even know them. They are being apprenticed into a worldview where one side is good and the other side is evil, where a shirt that expresses strong views against the current president is considered an adorable thing for a little kid to wear.          

But it's not. Call me old-fashioned, but I don't think little kids should be involved in the political battles of their parents. I think little kids should be... little kids. They should be playing with their toys, learning the ABCs, helping to walk the family dog... and learning how to be kind. Evidently Jason Aldean and his wife believe they are teaching their kids a valuable lesson, but I think they're teaching them the wrong one. 

In the world today, we have enough hate, enough divisiveness, enough pointless social media arguments, enough angry talk shows, and more than enough myths about how "our side" is the best, and everyone on "the other side" is the worst. Why do kids need to learn this? Why can't they learn respect and tolerance? Why can't they remain innocent, just for a little while? Too often, society forces kids to grow up too fast. Parents shouldn't be accelerating that process. And the way I see it, that's exactly what the Aldeans are doing. And I wish they wouldn't do it.        

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Let it Be

As I am writing this, it's nearly time for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. For Jews all over the world, it's a day of self-reflection, fasting, prayer, and communal worship; we ask for God's forgiveness, and we pledge to do better in the year ahead.  Because of the pandemic, many synagogues are still limiting attendance, and many are also offering online services. Last year, my husband and I virtually attended services at the Aventura Turnberry Synagogue in North Miami and the Central Synagogue in New York City. Agreed, it wasn't the same as being there in person, but the services were beautifully done and we was grateful to watch them.  

There is one other thing I do every year on Yom Kippur: I not only refrain from eating; I also turn off all my devices for that 24-hour period. No computer. No email. No checking my phone for messages. No engaging in discussions (or debates) on social media. I put it all aside for that period of time. 

You may have heard of a "media fast," and in times like these, I think it's a useful exercise.  As we have all become increasingly more attached (addicted?) to our devices, many of us can't imagine going without them for a few minutes, let alone an entire day. I know people, including students of mine, who check their email constantly. I know people who are perpetually looking at their phones-- even at lunch with friends. (Maybe I'm just a curmudgeon, but I can't imagine what is so urgent that one has to constantly keep an eye on that phone... I mean, if you are a doctor who is on-call, I totally get it; but if you're eating lunch with friends, why not focus on the people you're sitting with?)

So, I'm about to turn off all my devices. It's an interesting experience, going old-school.  I find it makes me more aware of what's around me. Sometimes, I go for a walk and watch the birds; sometimes I spend time reading (I have a number of books about religion and spirituality, and it's nice to read them without any other distractions). I chat with my husband.  And sometimes, I just sit and think. Given the many electronic stimuli we're all accustomed to, doing this may sound boring, but I can assure you it's not.

Research shows that while our devices are convenient, they have also changed us-- sometimes for good, but sometimes not. And while the Day of Atonement is my good excuse to turn everything off, it seems to me that we could all use a day when we go outside, appreciate the natural world around us, and stop worrying about the emails and instant messages we might be missing. 

And so, despite the busy and pressure-filled lives so many of us lead, I invite you to engage in your own media fast. You may find yourself noticing things you previously took for granted. You may at first feel annoyed, but you may also find that it's nice to not have to worry about returning messages or arguing about something on Twitter. Sometimes, it's nice to just step back. Sometimes, it's nice to just enjoy the peace and quiet. Sometimes, it's nice to just let it be.       


Tuesday, August 31, 2021

A Garden to Nurture and Protect

For the past few months, I've been part of a webcast called the Rush Deep Dive (you can find the episodes on YouTube). Each of the participants analyzes a song from a Rush album-- usually a deep track that isn't as well known, but we think it should be. This past week, we did a Fans' Choice episode, where the audience told us some songs they wanted us to discuss. That's how I had the opportunity to delve into one of my favorite Rush songs ever, "The Garden."  If you aren't familiar with it, there's a beautiful live version here: Rush "The Garden" Live in Dallas. And you can see the episode where I discussed "The Garden" here: 

The timing for discussing this song was perfect: it's the month of Elul on the Jewish calendar, and during that month, it's customary to visit the graves of our deceased loved ones, to remember them, and to promise to do good deeds in their memory. So, a couple of days ago, I visited my late parents, and some of my relatives. (It's also a custom to leave a small stone on top of the grave marker, so that others will know you've been there.) But I also visited some very old graves that looked like nobody had been there in years. Perhaps there was no-one left to visit, or perhaps the relatives had moved far away. So, I stopped by a few of them; and as I stood there, I wondered about who they were during their life.

It made me think about who gets remembered, and who does not. And it made me think about the lyrics from "The Garden." The metaphor of life as a garden has been used in literature many times, and I've always liked it.  In Neil Peart's lyrics, he writes about how "The future disappears into memory, With only a moment between, Forever dwells in that moment, Hope is what remains to be seen."  Despite how difficult things can be sometimes, we want so much to be hopeful. And during our life, whether it seems that way or not, we all have many opportunities to make our garden beautiful, to make it a gift we can leave to others. 

Neil writes, "The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect..." And isn't that what matters most? Material goods come and go. Our possessions come and go. But if we are loved and respected, if we have a life that is worthy of love and respect, that is a life well-lived. And it is up to us to "nurture and protect" our garden, so that the next generation will look at it and be glad they experienced it. And they will nurture and protect their own garden, making their own life a place where love and respect can grow.

I am sure those people I visited, those people I never knew, tried to live that kind of life, tried to leave the people they loved with something valuable, something worth remembering.  I know for a fact that my parents lived that kind of life. Neil lived that kind of life too.  And that is why it is so important to remember those who contributed to us. That is why it is so important to make the time to appreciate what they gave us, what they left for us.

The other day, someone said to me that my legacy would be that I discovered Rush. It's certainly something to be thankful for, and I'm glad I played some small part in their success. But to be honest, I'm not sure I want that as my legacy. When I die, assuming anyone does remember me years from now, I hope they will say I tried to be an ethical person. I hope they will say I tried to be compassionate. And I hope they will say I did my part to make this world a better place.  That is what my parents taught me to do. That is what Neil invited us all to do: "the way you live, the gifts that you give... In the fullness of time, a garden to nurture and protect." 

Sunday, August 15, 2021

When the Walls Are Closing In

I've had a difficult time sleeping the past several nights, and maybe you'll think I'm being foolish. But what is happening in Afghanistan is really bothering me. I'm actually surprised at how intensely it's affecting me.  I follow world news fairly closely, and at times something will happen that truly saddens me, or even makes me angry.  But it rarely keeps me up at night like the resurgence of the Taliban has done. 

I've been worrying about what will happen to Afghanistan's women and girls, especially in Kabul.  I can only imagine how scared they are right now.  I know it's not the same thing, but I keep thinking about the 1930s in Nazi Germany, how my ancestors must have felt knowing that Hitler was on the march, aware that the nice, modern lives they had been leading were about to end... how frightened they must have been, how helpless, nowhere to run, and few if any ways to escape.  

I'm not being overly dramatic. The Taliban are well-known for their casual brutality. Their version of religion does not include music or art or movies, and it does not allow for women to have an education or a career. Of course, there is nothing in their scriptures that forbids education for women. There is nothing that forbids many of the things they insist must be banned. But it doesn't matter. This isn't logical. It's about power. And it's about using an extreme interpretation of religion to subjugate women and girls once again.

I guess that's what bothers me the most--that these men think they have the right to do it.  While I've never encountered extremists like them, I've certainly seen powerful men who believed they could do whatever they wanted-- men who thought it was perfectly okay to hit their wife or girlfriend, men who thought it was fine if they harassed or even sexually assaulted a woman, men who believed their daughters didn't need an education. And in many instances, I've seen men who knew better or saw their male friends behaving badly, and they said nothing. 

In Kabul, where women and girls have enjoyed the benefit of having choices and making decisions, they are about to return to lives that are very restricted, where the men call the tune and the women are expected to be obedient... or face the consequences. I wonder why so many men seem to be okay with this. In a way, it reminds me of when I was growing up in the 1950s, a time when women had few options and no matter what we wanted to do, we were told that "girls can't do that." There were few male allies back then. Few men spoke up on our behalf.  I wish they had. 

Maybe that's why this is so upsetting: agreed, I'm not in the same situation, but believe me, I understand feeling trapped. Fortunately, I managed to get through it and my life was never in danger.  But the fear and the depression I felt were very real.  I can only imagine how the women and girls in Kabul are feeling right now, and I wish there were something I could do. I wish there were something the world could do. No, not another military intervention-- I'm among the many who believe we stayed in Afghanistan far too long. But it would be nice to see some of the men--the husbands, the fathers, especially men in neighboring countries--stand up and defend these women and girls, before they lose their futures, before they lose their hope, before they lose their lives...